Ball State took two fourth-quarter leads against Western Michigan.
The Cardinals grabbed a 24-21 advantage with 11:03 left in the game. They took another, 31-28, with 3:24 left in the game. Each time their defense took the field with a chance to hold off the Broncos as they had in the third quarter. Each time their defense left the field after giving up the lead to the Broncos.
And when that second lead dissipated, when Western Michigan took a 35-31 lead with 1:05 left after its fifth touchdown drive of the night Tuesday in this mid-week, Mid-American Conference matchup, Ball State proved unable to take it back one last time and lost.
“We got to figure out what we need to do to get that mindset, the swagger, the physicality, the focus, whatever it is that we have in the second half there, we got to figure out how to get that in the first half there when we start the game instead of digging ourselves in a whole,” Ball State head coach Mike Neu said. “Obviously proud of, obviously, the momentum that was created with the second-half kickoff return for a touchdown. The defense did a nice job holding serve there, doing their part, and obviously we took the lead. Then, once we took the lead, it was just a back-and-forth game.”
Western Michigan Broncos defensive end Kailien Guillory (98)attempts to tackle Ball State quarterback Drew Plitt (9) on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019 at Waldo Stadium in Kalamazoo, Mich. (Photo: Alyssa Keown | The Battle Creek Enquirer)
Ball State is 4-5 overall and 3-2 now against the MAC this season with its second-straight defeat in conference play despite coming back from two scores down at halftime in part because of a kick-return touchdown by senior receiver Malik Dunner. BSU dropped to third place in the MAC’s West Division behind WMU (6-4, 4-2) and Central Michigan (6-4, 4-2). It’s searching for answers on defense after allowing at least 34 points in back-to-back games for the first time since its losses against Florida Atlantic and North Carolina State to end its non-conference slate.
The Cardinals had won their first three conference games of the 2019 season in large part because of the effort on defense. Whether their playmakers were forcing turnovers or simply stymieing opponents, especially in the second half, the overall play of that unit helped propel Ball State into the conversation as the possible representative of the West Division in the MAC championship game in Detroit.
Now BSU’s defense, which saw its streak of 13-straight games with a turnover forced end, has allowed an opponent to rush for more than 300 yards for the second-straight game and gain at least 447 yards of total offense in those contests, too.
It’s a point of concern for Neu, who has three more chances this season to reach five wins for the first time as the Cardinals’ head coach, that Ball State is struggling to stop the run.
“When you play games in the MAC late in the season, you’re going to play some cold-weather games and obviously you’re going to have to be able to stop the run because the weather may dictate that that’s what ends up happening with the respective offenses,” Neu said. “And so, yeah, that’s obviously something we’ve got to get back and we’ve got to get that fixed because that’s not what the expectation is.”
Western Michigan Broncos quarterback Jon Wassink (16) scores a touchdown on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019 at Waldo Stadium in Kalamazoo, Mich. (Photo: Alyssa Keown | The Battle Creek Enquirer)
Western Michigan running back LeVante Bellamy led the Broncos with 157 yards rushing on 31 attempts, a 5.1 yards per carry average, and three scores. His quarterback, Jon Wassink, added 131 yards and a score on six carries with runs of 60 and 46 in the first half. And Broncos receiver Keith Mixon Jr. added a 47-yard touchdown run of his own on a reverse.
All that and more allowed WMU to finish with 382 yards rushing as a team on 52 attempts for a 7.3 yards per carry average. They’re stats that outmatch a stellar performance by BSU’s own offense, one that finished with 261 yards rushing on 43 attempts as a team for a 6.1 yards per carry average in addition to three scores.
Junior running back Caleb Huntley, now with more than 2,000 yards rushing in his career, tallied 120 yards on 18 carries and a touchdown and graduate running back Walter Fletcher had 72 yards on 13 carries and a score. Redshirt junior quarterback Drew Plitt, who threw for 148 yards, added the other touchdown run.
“It wasn’t really necessarily as much what (the Broncos) were doing, it was more miscues on our end,” said BSU junior safety Bryce Cosby, referencing the Cardinals’ defense. “Not to take any credit from them, they made plays that were there for them. Obviously, (Bellamy) is one of the better backs in the conference. He made some plays with his feet and was able to string some long runs with his speed. The quarterback, obviously, had two big runs.”
Ball State Cardinals cornerback Antonio Phillips (21) tackles Western Michigan Broncos wide receiver Brandon Hinds (24)on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019 at Waldo Stadium in Kalamazoo, Mich. (Photo: Alyssa Keown | The Battle Creek Enquirer)
Western Michigan finished the game 10-of-16 on third downs and 2-of-3 on fourth downs compared to 4-of-11 and 1-of-3 marks for Ball State in those categories, respectively. The Broncos finished with three penalties for 22 yards while the Cardinals had 10 for 74.
Western Michigan did not have a play on the drive it used to take the lead for the final time that did not advance the Broncos at least a yard, whether that was on a run or pass or because of a penalty. Ball State’s offensive line, stellar throughout much of the game, was unable to provide Plitt with a clean pocket on the Cardinals’ last offensive drive and that resulted in three quarterback hurries and 1-of-4 passing for five yards by the time the drive ended due a failed fourth-down attempt on the fourth play.
BSU put itself in position to beat WMU. The Broncos just executed better in the first half and when it counted most late.
“100 percent confident in the guys in the locker room,” said Cosby, who’d add BSU needs to be more proactive than reactive on the field so it avoids lackluster starts. “No doubt in my mind that we’ll be able to get on track.”
Jordan Guskey covers Ball State and East Central Indiana high schools at the Star Press. Contact him at (765) 213-5813, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @JordanGuskey.
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