BY MASON PLUMMER | Lead Writer | Ball State Sports Link
27-24. Ball State. 1:18 to go.
Mid-American Conference rival Toledo is driving and has all the momentum as this matchup comes to a close.
Toledo quarterback Carter Bradley drops back and before he knows it, he is drilled by Ball State outside linebacker Anthony Ekpe.
During the hit, Bradley lost the football as Ekpe’s strip sack crushed any hope the Rockets had of making it to Detroit for the MAC Championship.
Ball State had not defeated Toledo at the Glass Bowl since 2012, but Saturday’s game was different.
The Cardinals are a team this year that is resilient, persistent and simply refuses to lose.
Now sporting a 3-1 record and controlling its own destiny in the MAC West, Ball State finds itself in a position it could get used to.
“I’m just really proud of our guys,” Ball State head coach Mike Neu said. “I’m proud of their fight, proud of their effort, proud of their mentality on the sidelines. I’m really proud of the defense too for making a critical play after I put us in a bad situation.”
That play, of course, being Ekpe’s strip sack of the Toledo quarterback which iced the game for Ball State and bailed out a team that looked a bit lost in the fourth quarter.
Some of that ‘lost’ feeling could be attributed to star running back Caleb Huntley being ruled out just before kickoff. Ball State was again forced into a ‘next man up’ mentality with backup running back Tye Evans.
Evans was up to the challenge though, as he tore up a Toledo defense that is one of the best in the nation in yards allowed per game to running backs.
The redshirt sophomore out of nearby Macedonia (Ohio) ripped off 101 yards on 25 carries — both career highs — in replacement of Huntley Saturday and the Ball State offense did not skip a beat.
“When you lose a great player like Caleb Huntley, it can obviously cause some concern,” Neu said. “I’m so proud of our guys for their attitude and next man up mentality. Tye Evans and Justin Hall were both ready to go today and they did an excellent job today.”
Throughout the week leading up to Saturday’s contest with Toledo, it was clear that even in the best case scenario, Huntley would be very limited.
That led Neu to implementing stud receiver Justin Hall into the backfield to get him more carries and it worked like a charm.
Hall was a terror to defend all over the field for Toledo as he carried the ball eight times for 29 yards and also added a career-high 127 yards through the air on nine receptions.
Hall is the FBS active leader in career receptions (235) and consecutive games with a catch (40).
On the ESPN broadcast, color commentator Devin Gardner even likened the Ball State playmaker to one of the best players in the NFL, Tyreek Hill.
“That is a great comparison for Justin,” Ball State quarterback Drew Plitt said of the Hill-Hall likeness. “He is so dangerous with the ball in his hands. Anyway you can get him the ball, he makes it work. Sometimes I’ll carry out a fake and it looks like a broken play but he ends up getting eight or nine extra yards out of nowhere. Having him as a weapon is great.”
Plitt passed for 304 yards and two touchdowns and also ran for a score. Yo’Heinz Tyler caught two touchdown passes for the third time in his career.
Defensively, it was all about senior safety Bryce Cosby, Brandon Martin and the aforementioned Ekpe. Christian Albright had three tackles, including a sack, and he also forced a fumble.
Ekpe’s play capped the best defensive effort for Ball State this season. The Cardinals had 12 tackles for loss, four sacks and two takeaways while holding Toledo to just 42 yards rushing.
Martin led Ball State again with 12 tackles, as he was a force to be reckoned with at the inside linebacker position.
“This win meant a lot to me personally,” Martin said. “I have been on this team for a while and I know how hard everyone has worked for this. I know how important this is to our guys and to myself. We worked so hard for this.”
Cosby was a difference maker on the backend of the Ball State defense. He tallied four tackles, an interception, a fumble recovery, as well as two passes defended on the day.
With Saturday’s win over Toledo, Ball State moved to 3-1 with potentially still its two most difficult opponents left on the schedule. Central Michigan (3-1) and Western Michigan (4-0) await a Cardinals team that can control its own destiny by winning the final two games.
“We are in the winner’s bracket and we know how critical it is to be there during a shortened season,” Neu said. “All of these games matter and the MAC West is a great division, really competitive from top to bottom. All you can ask for is a chance to control your own destiny and we have that.”
Ball State travels to CMU Dec. 5, before closing the regular season Dec. 12 in Muncie against the Broncos.