For the second straight season, it all comes down to the final regular season game. Ball State football is still searching for a sixth win and bowl eligibility after falling to Ohio 32-18 Nov. 15.
Scheumann Stadium was cold, wet and ugly on Tuesday night as Ball State honored its outgoing seniors in the moments leading up to kickoff, the game started with rain that could not decide if it wanted to snow or not as the temperature hovered around 30 degrees.
After graduate student kicker Ben VonGunten chipped in a field goal to put Ball State on the board first, the Cardinal offense went stagnant with two fumbles and a punt. Ohio’s offense capitalized to go up 17-3 heading into the locker room.
“We got a couple of opportunities, we had drives going, and to have two fumbles like that, that's tough because those are scoring opportunities,” Neu said. “You know, they got the ball coming out in the second half… It's tough when you get behind on a team like that. It makes it tough to come back because of the style of play and the way that they utilize it.”
Highlighting the first half once again was sophomore running back Carson Steele with 101 rushing yards, but two fumbles hampered his performance before an injury sidelined him for the rest of the game. After an 18-yard rush late in the second quarter, Steele fumbled, his second of the game at that point, and stayed down after the play. He walked with his own weight to the locker room but did not return, head coach Mike Neu did not have an update on him after the game.
Ball State would have to play the second half without Steele who has scored all 12 of the Cardinals’ rushing touchdowns this season.
“Obviously [losing Steele] is not easy,” redshirt freshman Brady Hunt said. “He’s a key component of our offense but when your number gets called you have to be ready to step up. I think Tanner [Koziol] and I just went out there and made the available play, tried to make the most of what we had in front of us but in the end, it wasn’t enough.”
Heading into the second half, Ohio also lost a key player in redshirt junior quarterback Kurtis Rourke whose option runs proved tricky for the Cardinals. Redshirt sophomore CJ Harris slotted in and despite some shaky moments early, Harris combined well with redshirt freshman Sieh Bangura who had a career night with 148 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
In the second half, Ball State relied heavily on redshirt junior John Paddock and the passing game, specifically with tight ends Koziol and Hunt. The Cardinals ran for -4 yards in the second half while Paddock threw for 248 yards and two touchdowns in the game, one to Hunt and one to Koziol.
“[Those] guys are great targets and obviously they’re getting better,” Neu said. “At this time, those guys are being asked to do some things that they’ve never been asked to do before… [I] thought both of them did a great job at different times tonight, making some big plays.”
Despite pulling the game to one possession twice, looking to come back in a game for the fourth time this season, there were moments in the game where the ball just didn’t land for the Cardinals and it did for Ohio. CJ Harris was able to find graduate student wide receiver Same Wiglusz when the Bobcats needed a conversion late, but when Paddock looked for Jayshon Jackson on fourth-and-five to extend the game, Ball State couldn’t convert.
Sometimes that’s just the way it goes.
“It’s hard, because you see their guy on third-and-five, right on our sideline, happened to have a front row seat for it, [I] have to give them credit for going up and making a great play on a 50-50 ball and getting one foot down,” Neu said. “Then the next play was that big run where they got down into the red zone, so that’s the name of the game. When you have an opportunity to make a play like that you got to make it happen. [We] had some opportunities there on some 50-50 situations and we just haven’t been able to come down with it.”
Against Miami (Ohio) next Nov. 22 at 7 p.m., Ball State has the chance to secure bowl eligibility but cannot allow itself to fall inconsistent if there is to be a bowl game on the horizon.
“We’ve got to stay up, no choice,” Neu said. “We got an opportunity next Tuesday night at Miami, a rivalry game. We’ve got to regroup and come back tomorrow and attack the week. Focus all our effort and energy and go out, go out and get a win. Finish this thing off the right way.”