Who wants it more?
That was the question on the line heading into Ball State Football’s (4-1 MAC) game Saturday against Central Michigan (3-2 MAC), with both teams vying for a potential Mid-American Conference West Division title.
Ball State entered the penultimate game of its 2020 regular season in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, with all four of its games decided by a touchdown or less. Five of the past six meetings between the Cardinals and Chippewas had been decided by three or fewer points, too.
Neither of those were the case Saturday.
An all-around performance and second-half momentum gave Ball State a 45-20 victory over Central Michigan, giving the Cardinals their first season over .500 and first four-game winning streak since 2013.
“I’m a firm believer that there’s no shortcuts to become successful,” head coach Mike Neu said. “I know there were some tough days in the first few years, and I’m certainly proud of our guys for staying by each other’s side.”
The Cardinals entered their locker room up 24-7 at halftime — nearly resembling last week’s first half against Toledo. However, the half didn’t necessarily end in Ball State’s favor, failing to score on a fumble recovery off senior wide receiver Hassan Littles.
Things didn’t get much better for the Cardinals to begin the second half. Chippewas’ safety Willie Reid intercepted a pass from redshirt senior quarterback Drew Plitt, and Central Michigan junior quarterback Ty Brock followed that up with an 84-yard touchdown run, cutting the Cardinals’ lead to 10.
However, it was all Ball State from there on. The Cardinals found the end zone three times afterward — with two scores coming from Plitt to redshirt freshman wide receiver Jalen McGaughy — for his first two touchdowns at the collegiate level.
“I’m just so proud of [McGaughy’s] hard work paying off for him,” Neu said. “Obviously, a lot of credit goes to Justin [Hall], Yo’Heinz [Tyler] and Antwan [Davis], but he works so hard in practice. He wants to play. For him to step up the way he did today, my hat goes off to him.”
McGaughy finished Saturday’s game with a team-high 100 receiving yards. Plitt said he was crying tears of joy on the sidelines after his second score, which came early in the fourth quarter on a 34-yard pass.
“For [McGaughy], I think it was just a confidence booster,” Plitt said. “We knew he could do it and seeing him go out and make those plays was awesome.”
Plitt finished Saturday’s game passing 26 of 43 with 366 passing yards and four passing touchdowns. Ball State also found the end zone on a 12-yard run from Plitt in the second quarter, along with a 9-yard run from redshirt junior running back Will Jones in the third quarter prior to McGaughy’s two receiving touchdowns.
Saturday marked Jones’s first game since Nov. 11. He and redshirt sophomore running back Tye Evans filled the void Saturday left by senior running back Caleb Huntley, who was dressed, but missed his second consecutive game due to a rib injury.
Facing a team with a nationally-ranked rushing offense, Ball State’s defense held its own Saturday. The Cardinals’ pass rush forced four sacks on Brock, including a loss of 5 yards from graduate student linebacker Anthony Ekpe to end the third quarter and halt any Chippewa momentum.
“When we’re getting pressure on the quarterback, it makes your job way easier,” senior safety Bryce Cosby said. “It’s a great feeling.”
The Cardinals’ defense also forced two interceptions. Graduate student safety J.T. Wahee intercepted a pass from Brock to begin the fourth quarter, while senior safety Brett Anderson II recovered the ball late in the game as Ekpe pulled Brock down, giving the Cardinals some late energy.
Plitt said these types of plays were special to see from an offensive standpoint.
“Seeing guys make plays left and right — seeing the defense hold their own — it’s huge for us,” Plitt said. “It takes a little bit of the burden off from us if your defense is making stops and getting turnovers. I think it’s just confidence — if the whole team is playing well, the momentum’s kind of flowing.”
Ball State controls its own destiny in search of its first MAC West crown since 2008. The Cardinals welcome Western Michigan (4-1 MAC) to Scheumann Stadium next week for their regular season finale. A win, and they’re headed to Detroit for the MAC Championship Dec. 18.
Cosby — who described some of the growing pains he’s faced since joining the Cardinals in 2017 — said Saturday’s win gave he and his teammates a major boost of confidence, but their job is far from over.
“To go from where we were at that point to where we are now, we appreciate times like these,” Cosby said. “It’s a lot of hard work, sweat and tears that got us to this point, and we’re not done, but we’re definitely going to savor this one and be thankful.”
The Cardinals face the Broncos Saturday, Dec. 12 for a 12 p.m. kickoff.