BY MASON PLUMMER | Lead Writer | Ball State Sports Link
On a cold night under the lights in Muncie, Ball State opened its home slate against Eastern Michigan with both teams looking for its first win of the season.
The Wednesday night matchup was the first game of the season for both the Cardinals and Eagles in the Mid-American Conference West Division, with Ball State coming out on top, 38-31.
This win was absolutely crucial for Ball State and keeps its chances of making it to the MAC Championship in play.
For Eastern Michigan, it is a crushing defeat and significantly hinders any chance of postseason play for the Eagles in this shortened six-game MAC season.
“I was really proud to see our hard work pay off after a loss last week,” Ball State head coach Mike Neu said. “That work started as soon as we got on the bus last Wednesday after the loss. Our goal was to get to 1-0 (in the West) against a great Eastern Michigan team and we did that.”
It was a high-scoring affair throughout for both sides that saw Justin Hall and Caleb Huntley shoulder the load for Ball State offensively.
Huntley confirmed yet again Wednesday night that he is the best running back in the MAC with a record-setting performance. The senior finished the night with a career-high 204 yards on 34 carries and added three touchdowns to lead his team to victory.
Huntley had a number of bruising runs, and by the end of the night, it looked like there wasn’t a player in white that wanted to even attempt to tackle Ball State’s No.2.
“It meant a lot to me,” Huntley said of his career-high performance on the ground. “No one knew but I have a son and he had surgery last week, so I’ve been going through a lot. I try to internalize all of my emotions and let it all out on the field.”
Huntley’s son, who is just three months old, is in his thoughts when he takes the field and especially now in a tough situation for Huntley and his family.
“He is always on my mind, that’s my little guy,” Huntley said of his son. “I’ve got to push through tough times and it will all work out, that’s my mindset.”
Next to Huntley, senior receiver Justin Hall was also very impressive, as always. Hall got it done in multiple facets of the game for the Cardinals.
Whether it was through the air, on the ground or on kickoff returns, Hall was all over the field and proved he is a nightmare matchup for the opposition. The Georgia native finished the night with 241 all purpose yards to cap an all around impressive showing from the Ball State offense.
Defensively, it was inside linebackers Brandon Martin and Jaylin Thomas that were the difference makers for Ball State.
Martin had a game-high 15 tackles while his partner Thomas added another 10.
It looked for a while as if Eastern Michigan quarterback Preston Hutchinson could cause some serious problems for Ball State, but the Cardinal linebackers put those worries to rest with a tremendous performance.
“It starts off with Coach Stockton and making the adjustments to what they wanted to do offensively,” Martin said. “They were doing a lot of gap scheme runs and pulling their guards, so we had to change our look and that helped us out a lot to slow them down.”
The first half saw neither squad struggle to drive the ball down the field, but turnovers hurt Ball State badly.
Ball State quarterback Drew Plitt threw an interception in the second quarter that ended a promising Cardinals drive and Plitt also fumbled a snap under center for another Ball State turnover.
At half, Eastern Michigan held a 21-13 lead, but it was clear Ball State was the better team. The Cardinals hurt themselves by giving the ball away in the first two quarters but fixed its issues at the break.
From the start of the second half, there was a different feeling to the Ball State team. Players and coaches alike knew their season and goal of making it to Detroit for the MAC Championship was likely over with a loss.
There was a clear turning point in the game and it came from a young player making a terrible mistake.
Kempton Shine, an Eastern Michigan freshman cornerback, was flagged for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that cost the Eagles 15 yards on what was third down for Ball State.
The Cardinals would have been forced to punt for the second straight drive of the second half and had no momentum, had it not been for Shine who got in a quarrel with Hall and punched him in the helmet, giving Ball State a fresh set of downs.
On the very next play, Huntley scored on a barreling 13-yard run which saw him carry Eastern Michigan defenders with him into the end zone. Neu elected to go for two on the following play and Ball State converted with a Plitt pass to Yo’Heinz Tyler to cut the lead to just three, 24-21.
It was nearly all Ball State from there, as the Cardinals rallied to score on its next two possessions, taking a 31-24 lead.
An 11-play, 72-yard drive may have the play of the game as the Cardinals converted a 3rd-and-19 pass play and then ran the ball to victory. Plitt found Antwan Davis for 19 yards on the pivotal play, before Huntley ran three straight times for 31 yards into the red zone.
Eastern responded with a touchdown of its own to tie the ballgame, setting the stage for the Ball State offense to win the game with just over four minutes left.
The drive was masterfully coordinated by the Cardinals as it managed to kill nearly the entire clock and punch in Huntley’s third touchdown of the night for the win, leaving just six seconds on the clock for the Eagles to muster a response.
Eastern Michigan made its attempt for a Music City Miracle on the ensuing kickoff but it wasn’t to be. The Ball State kick coverage team flew down the field and swiftly cut out any chance of an EMU return.
While it was not an immaculate performance, it was surely a game to build off of for Ball State as it got the win to move to 1-1.
The Cardinals will move forward next week to host the 0-2 Huskies of Northern Illinois at Scheumann Stadium.