Momentum was high for Ball State Football (3-1 MAC) heading into the final 15 minutes of Saturday’s game against Toledo (2-2 MAC).
Playing a team that ranked Top 25 nationally in both offense and defense heading into Saturday, Ball State had a comfortable 27-9 lead against the Rockets early in the fourth quarter at the Glass Bowl.
With two minutes remaining in the game, though, the Cardinals led by just three points after two late Rocket touchdowns. Ball State failed to capitalize in its final drive of the game on a quick three-and-out, and the game was in Toledo’s hands with 80 seconds remaining on the clock. Senior cornerback Antonio Phillips exited the game late due to injury, too, not making the Cardinals' defense job any easier.
It looked as if the Rockets were on the verge of a comeback.
However, quickly into Toledo’s final drive, graduate student linebacker Anthony Ekpe sacked Rockets’ sophomore quarterback Carter Bradley, followed by a fumble recovery by senior safety Bryce Cosby. The Cardinals hung on and defeated the Rockets, 27-24, securing their first win at the Glass Bowl since 2012.
“It’s been since 2012," head coach Mike Neu said, "and to see the smiles, the jubilation, the excitement on our sidelines….to turn around and sing our fight song in front of our family and friends that were in attendance was all I could think about.”
Saturday’s win guaranteed Ball State a .500 or better finish for its first season since 2013 — a first for the Cardinals under Neu’s leadership.
“We’re still in the 'Winners’ Bracket,' and we control our own destiny,” Neu said. “All I was thinking about [were] these young men that have sacrificed so much and have stuck by each other’s side during some growing pains.”
Senior running back Caleb Huntley — who leads Ball State with 437 rushing yards and six touchdowns — did not play Saturday. However, the Cardinals’ offense stayed creative, as Ball State finished with 143 rushing yards on 49 attempts. Redshirt sophomore running back Tye Evans led Ball State’s run game with a career-high 101 rushing yards.
While Huntley did not play Saturday, his leadership remained active on Ball State’s sidelines. Redshirt senior quarterback Drew Plitt said this inherently kept the Cardinals’ momentum high, despite the Rockets’ late efforts.
“[Huntley] is a great leader, and we could feel his presence,” Plitt said. “He was a little banged up coming into [Saturday], but he was positive and did everything he could on the sidelines that he was capable of.”
Plitt began Saturday’s game passing 9-for-9, and it took him until early in the second quarter to record an incomplete pass. He finished the first quarter with a 2-yard rushing touchdown and an 11-yard touchdown pass to junior wide receiver Yo’ Heinz Tyler, giving Ball State a two-possession lead before redshirt freshman kicker Jack Knight extended the Cardinals’ lead to 17-0.
Ball State took a 17-3 lead into its locker room at halftime before Plitt connected with Tyler again on a 10-yard receiving touchdown in the third quarter. This gave the Cardinals a 20-point lead — their largest margin of the season.
Plitt finished Saturday’s game passing 26-for-35 with 304 passing yards. For Tyler, Saturday marked his third consecutive game with a touchdown. He now has four in his last three.
“In the third quarter, Drew [Plitt] quickly got us into tempo and made a huge throw to Yo’ Heinz [Tyler],” Neu said. “[Tyler] is such an unbelievable weapon to have.”
Senior wide receiver Justin Hall was also a vital piece for the Cardinals’ offense Saturday, finishing with a team-leading 127 receiving yards and nine receptions.
Redshirt junior linebacker Brandon Martin led the Cardinals' defense with 12 tackles. Cosby also recorded an interception off Rockets’ senior quarterback Eli Peters, which quickly ended a Toledo drive halfway through the third quarter.
“It’s a really good feeling to come out of the Glass Bowl with a win,” Martin said, “and it really means a lot. We work so hard, and it finally [showed] up.”
Riding a three-game win streak in its 2020, six-game slate, Neu said Saturday’s win gave Ball State a major boost of confidence with fewer than three weeks remaining until the Mid-American Conference Championship in Detroit Dec. 18 — which is looming over the Cardinals’ heads.
However, prior to Saturday’s game, the Cardinals watched a video on the late Kobe Bryant and his mentality after taking a 2-0 series lead with the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals.
“[Bryant] was like, ‘So what? The job’s not done,’” Neu said. “It’s on to the next one — we did our job today and got to 1-0 — now, we’ve got to stay in the 'Winners’ Bracket' and have a great week of preparation for Central Michigan.”
The Cardinals return to action Dec. 5 on the road against the Chippewas.