For the second time in seven days, it came down to the game’s final minute for Ball State Football (1-1 MAC).
Tied at 31, the Cardinals had nothing to lose heading into their final drive of the second half. They just had to find the scoresheet once more to avoid a repeat of their season-opening loss to Miami (Ohio) Nov. 4.
Capping off a drive of 11 plays — including a critical 19-yard pass from redshirt senior quarterback Drew Plitt to graduate student wide receiver Antwan Davis — senior running back Caleb Huntley did just that with six seconds remaining in the game. Finishing with a career-high 204 rushing yards, a 1-yard rushing touchdown was Huntley’s cherry on the cake Wednesday, leading the Cardinals to a 38-31 victory over Eastern Michigan (0-2 MAC).
“[Eastern Michigan] is always in it in the fourth quarter,” head coach Mike Neu said. “Obviously, we put ourselves a little bit behind the 8-ball early in the game with some turnovers and penalties, but these kids fight. Our guys fight — they battle. Sometimes it’s not pretty, but each guy has an opportunity.”
Huntley finished Wednesday’s game with three rushing touchdowns. Dating back to 2019, he has 12 over his last six games.
“Caleb Huntley’s a dog,” Neu said. “He is just a truly competitive young man, and the most humble man you’ll meet. It’s such a great feeling when we put the ball in his hands….he had so many huge runs throughout the night.”
Since August, the Cardinals’ mantra has been “Detroit or Bust." Huntley — whose 3-year-old son recently underwent surgery — said Wednesday’s win helped Ball State inch closer to its ultimate prize and provided an opportunity to emotionally express himself on the field.
“I try to take all the pain inside and just let it out in the field,” Huntley said. “I try to push my teammates to do the best that they can. I know we’ll make it to Detroit because everyone has the determination within them.”
Wednesday’s win meant a great amount of significance to Huntley and the Cardinals, but it wasn’t all a breeze from the get-go. Eastern Michigan took a 21-7 lead with just over seven minutes remaining in the second quarter. Two of its scores came via rushing touchdowns from junior quarterback Preston Hutchinson.
Hutchinson’s first-half efforts got to the point where Ball State play-by-play announcer Joel Godett compared him to Baltimore Ravens’ quarterback Lamar Jackson, who is known for his rushing abilities.
While a 7-yard rush from Huntley marked the lone time the Cardinals found the end zone in Wednesday's first half, field goals from redshirt freshman kicker Jack Knight (44 yards) and freshman kicker Jacob Lewis (51 yards) narrowed the Eagles’ lead to eight.
Because of its lack of practices this past spring, the battle for the starting kicker position was a focal point this past offseason for Ball State. However, as Knight and Lewis have progressed, Neu said he was pleased with their efforts Wednesday. Knight also kicked a 34-yard field goal with five minutes remaining in the game.
Entering the third quarter down 21-13, the Cardinals had a chip on their shoulder. However, the beginning of Wednesday’s second half wasn’t ideal for Ball State.
The Cardinals’ first drive saw Eagles’ senior defensive lineman Turan Rush sack Plitt for his first of two in the game. With nine minutes remaining in the third, a 52-yard field goal from Eagles’ junior kicker Chad Ryland extended Eastern Michigan’s lead to eleven.
“It’s a battle,” Neu said. “The game ebbs and flows, and the one thing we try to make crystal clear to each other is ‘We’ve got your back.’ No matter how the recipe and how the formula unfolds on any given night, the MAC is a beautiful conference, and there are going to be battles.”
That battle Neu described slowly shifted in the Cardinals' favor late in the third quarter, thanks to Huntley. The senior running back scored his second of his three touchdowns with 4:31 remaining in the third quarter — a 13-yard rush.
While inconsistencies from Plitt kept Ball State off the scoresheet through the remainder of the third and into the fourth, a 33-yard pass to junior wide receiver Yo’Heinz Tyler at 10:02 in the fourth marked a turning point for Ball State’s offense, giving the Cardinals a 28-24 lead.
Knight’s field goal gave Ball State a seven-point lead with five minutes remaining in the half, and this looked like a game-clincher for the Cardinals. But the Eagles showed they weren’t done yet, tying the game off a Hutchinson rushing touchdown less than a minute afterward.
Despite the score, however, Tyler said he never lost confidence nor momentum. He knew he could rely on Huntley and his offense to secure its first win in nearly a year.
“We [went] through adversity in the first half, but at halftime, [head] coach Mike Neu gave us some words to stay focused,” Tyler said. “We went out there and executed.”
Finishing second in rushing yards for the Cardinals Wednesday was senior wide receiver Justin Hall, whose 70 also marked a career-high. He finished with 241 all-purpose yards.
Redshirt junior inside linebacker Brandon Martin led Ball State defensively with 15 tackles.
“Anytime you have the opportunity to sing your fight song is special,” Neu said. “To sing it together after week’s worth of work, and to see it capped off with a win is a great feeling.”
Ball State returns to action in the battle for the Bronze Stalk Trophy, Wednesday, Nov. 18, against Northern Illinois (0-2 MAC). Kickoff is 7 p.m.