After losing to Miami-Ohio 10 days ago after a defensive turnover on its final drive, Ball State (5-4, 3-2 MAC) defeated Akron (2-7, 1-4 MAC) 31-25 Nov. 2, but this time forced the turnover.
With one minute and 32 seconds left in the fourth quarter, the Zips were driving down the field, needing a touchdown to take the lead.
At the 11-yard line, Akron redshirt freshman quarterback Zach Gibson dropped back in the pocket to scour the field. He kept the ball to himself and rushed up the middle for a 11-yard gain, but fumbled as he was hit while reaching for the end zone.
The ball was recovered by fifth-year safety Bryce Cosby, and the game was over. After allowing 15 consecutive points in the second half, head coach Mike Neu was pleased with the mental fortitude the Cardinals defense showed on the final drive.
“I think it's just a credit to our football players, credit to our leaders on our football team with a Never Say Die attitude and just kept competing man,” Neu said. “When you do have the opportunity to make the play, just like what happened late in the game tonight, (I’m) just proud of those guys man, (they) bend but don't break.”
Redshirt fifth-year quarterback Drew Plitt threw for 185 yards and three touchdowns, including a five-yard touchdown pass to freshman running back Carson Steele on a wheel route.
“Just catch the ball, that was my one thing,” Steele said. “I knew that play, I've actually ran that play in high school as well, too. It’s a great play and coming around that corner, you might be open, you might not, but you got your back turned, so make sure you catch the ball and you drive in and tuck your legs.”
Steele notched career-highs in attempts (27) and rushing yards (160). He averaged 5.7 yards per attempt, and said he takes great pride in converting in short yardage situations.
“Always as a running back, you love to break those long runs and long touchdown runs,” Steele said. “But especially when it gets cold like this, people start to stiffen up a little bit and it gets real tough. (I) just keep driving my legs, that's one of my big things to keep trying to get as many yards as I can, keep getting first downs.”
Redshirt fifth-year wide receiver Justin Hall recorded 103 scrimmage yards for two touchdowns, while senior wide receiver Yo’Heinz Tyler capped off the Cardinals scoring with a nine-yard reception from Plitt in the third quarter. Ball State converted 9-of-15 third downs and committed zero turnovers.
“What I look at more than anything, obviously we did a good job in not turning the ball over,” Neu said. “It's been really big, that's a telling stat when you don't turn the ball over, (you) really increase your chances of winning. But looking at our efficiency on third down, looking at the red zone opportunities and red zone scores, those are things that are really important when you look at the stat sheet at the end of the game, before you ever dive into the tape and evaluate it.”
Cosby led the Cardinals in tackles with 11, including eight solo. The Zips rushed for 24 yards in the second half after totaling 103 rushing yards through the first three quarters. Cosby praised defensive coordinator Tyler Stockton for having Ball State prepared for situations in the red zone.
“It's a big emphasis for us, we know how important it is and they get down there, and we're going to do everything in our power to stop them from getting in the end zone,” Cosby said. “It's really just a mentality and attitude that you got to have about yourself. When you get in that area you don't want to let them in and so on. whatever's necessary to keep them out, we're going to try to do it as a defense.”
Akron was led by Gibson, who threw for 331 yards and two touchdowns. Freshman running back Jonzell Norrils gained 97 yards and a touchdown on 17 attempts, while sophomore wide receiver Michael Mathison paced the Zips in receiving with eight receptions for 154 yards and a touchdown.
Ball State returns to action Nov. 10 at Northern Illinois (6-2, 4-0 MAC). Kickoff is 7 or 8 p.m.