Season-Opening Loss Decided In Final Seconds

BY MASON PLUMMER | Lead Writer | Ball State Sports Link

OXFORD, Ohio – In Ball State’s first game of the Mid-American Conference football season, the Miami Redhawks (1-0) defeated Ball State (0-1) by a score of 38-31 Wednesday evening at Yager Stadium.

While 2020 has been a year full of unpredictability and craziness, there are some things that have stayed the same. They say you can always count on death and taxes, but I would add another — #MACtion games being absolutely wild.

On a beautiful, clear, Wednesday night in Oxford, Ball State’s six-game conference slate began as it took on Miami in a much anticipated first game of the MAC season. The matchup between the Redhawks and Cardinals has recently been fittingly named the Red Bird Rivalry, which has seen Miami win 19 of 32 matchups.

This latest edition of the Red Bird Rivalry was everything it was expected to be and then some. 

“We’ve worked a lot of scenarios like that in practice where it’s a tight game and you have to go down and deliver, and we didn’t (tonight),” head coach Mike Neu said. “That’s what’s difficult to swallow. We didn’t get it done. I told the team afterwards, we have to own it. We can’t let that determine the rest of our season.”

Ball State dominated the game through the first half, but did not nearly have the points to show for it as the Cardinals took a 14-10 lead into halftime.

The offense, led by quarterback Drew Plitt, drove down the field with ease but could not get into the endzone consistently. Plitt was 19-of-32 for 309 yards, one touchdown and an interception on the day. He played well, but was held back by offensive line play. 

The two times the Ball State offense did get into the endzone in the first half were because of the brilliance of star receiver Justin Hall. The senior scored on a 66-yard touchdown pass from Plitt and a bruising 11-yard run.

Hall had yet another 100 yard game in his Ball State career Wednesday, as he finished with four catches for career-high 124 yards. 

The 66-yarder was the longest reception of his career and longer than any pass play for the Cardinals last season. Hall, who has caught a pass in every game of his career, extended his FBS-leading receptions streak to 37 straight games. He leads all active FBS players with 212 career receptions.

Graduate wide receiver Antwan Davis set his Ball State career highs with six receptions and 110 receiving yards. He combined with Hall to give BSU two 100-yard receivers in a game for the first time since Nov. 8, 2016 versus Eastern Michigan (KeVonn Mabon and Cywettnie Brown).

The Cardinals struggled to convert on third down once it got into the redzone at times during the first two periods, setting the stage for freshman kicker Jack Knight to attempt the first two field goals of his collegiate career. Knight missed both, but his most important moment came later on in the game.

Star running back Caleb Huntley struggled to get going early Wednesday night, but found his groove in the second half. When the Ball State offense needed him most down the stretch, Huntley delivered with powerful runs and simply refusing to go down.

The senior back tallied 131 yards on 21 carries and two touchdowns, with most of his success coming when he bounced it outside. Huntley reached the 100-yard mark for the eighth time in the past nine games dating back to last season.

“Miami defensively has done a really good job the past several years; they have a lot of movement up front on the defensive line, so sometimes the yards are tough to come by,” Neu said. “I thought Caleb was very efficient. He’s a special player, a special runner. As the game goes on, he just keeps getting stronger.”

The Cardinal defense was rough at times throughout the game, particularly in the secondary. Senior safety and leader Bryce Cosby was lost in the first half due to a questionable targeting call that saw him miss the rest of the game.  

Junior outside linebacker Jordan Williams forced a clutch fumble when Miami was driving in Ball State territory and looked bound to score 6. The fumble was easily recovered by defensive lineman Emeka Jillani, who returned the loose ball 22 yards and gave the offense great field position. 

The second half saw Miami score 21 points unanswered, after Ball State started the second half with a score and a 21-10 lead. 

This led to a dramatic couple of minutes in the fourth quarter, which would have been unimaginable earlier when it looked like Ball State had a stranglehold on the game.

Miami held a 31-28 lead after a late touchdown with less than two minutes to go and Ball State had the ball, prepared to drive down the field and win the game. 

Plitt and the offense stalled out in Miami territory after a successful drive, setting the stage for Knight to redeem himself from his two missed kicks earlier in the game and tie the ballgame.

Knight’s 47-yard kick initially was tailing right but ended up splitting the uprights and the Cardinal sideline was in jubilation.

Miami and quarterback AJ Mayer had a minute to win the game. Ball State head coach Mike Neu surely didn’t intend to leave this much time for the Redhawk offense to drive and win the game, but the defense came up huge. 

The Redhawks were forced to punt, giving Ball State a chance to win the ballgame. Plitt’s goal was to get the ball into field goal range and let kicker Jack Knight win the ballgame and send Ball State back to Muncie with a massive win.

Then — disaster. 

Plitt dropped back, rolled right and looked to dump the ball off to his running back trailing out of the backfield. Miami linebacker Ryan McWood made a tremendous play on the pass and made the interception, returning the ball well inside the Cardinal 10 yard line. 

“There was a play to be made and I just missed it,” Plitt said. “That’s my fault. I saw where he was at and didn’t make a good throw. That’s what it comes down to.”

The interception set up Miami running back Zach Kahn, who punched it in from two yards out to defeat the Cardinals, 38-31. 

“We have to make sure we keep our chin up when we leave Oxford tonight, get on the bus and get back to work,” Neu said. “We have Eastern Michigan coming to Scheumann Stadium next Wednesday night. Every week’s going to be a dog fight. We have to learn from our mistakes and get back at it.”

Ball State falls to 0-1 and will take on Eastern Michigan next Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Scheumann Stadium. Sports Link GameDay LIVE airs at 6 p.m. on Twitter (@bsusportslink).