By: Alec Runyan
Ball State Sports Link
Ball State (1-0) opened the 2021-2022 season with a 31-21 victory over the Western Illinois Leatherbacks (0-1) at a lively Scheumann Stadium Thursday night.
On what was a perfect night to start a very anticipated season, the Cardinals were able to bounce back from a slow first half and control the game down the stretch thanks to an experienced group led by head coach Mike Neu.
“The great thing is – mature team. Nobody panicked ever on the sideline, it was in complete control,” head coach Mike Neu explained. “The guys did a great job in that way but yeah, wasn’t our best half of football but we regrouped at halftime and came back out and played better in the second half, but certainly a lot of things that we need to work on and clean up.”
Ball State has now won eight games in a row dating back to last year’s historic season. That is tied for the second longest win streak amongst FBS teams putting them amongst elite company (Oklahoma 8, Alabama 14).
Although the Cardinals got off to a slow start, the connection between sixth-year quarterback Drew Plitt and his favorite target, wide receiver Justin Hall took no time to get going.
With just over six minutes played in the game, Plitt found Hall for a 49 yard touchdown to give Ball State the early lead. Hall was able to use his speed on the outside and just simply outrun his man down the right sideline before high stepping out of a shoestring tackle and into the end zone.
After that however, Ball State’s offense got stagnant and wasn’t able to move the ball much for the remainder of the half. Western Illinois was able to put pressure on the Cardinals up front and slow down the high tempo offense during the remainder of the half.
Western Illinois, led by quarterback Connor Sampson, did a good job taking advantage of the opportunities given to them while also keeping the ball out of Ball State’s possession.
Following one of Drew Plitt’s famous pooch punts landing inside the five, Sampson led the Leathernecks on a 13 play, 96 yard drive down the field to tie the game 7-7 just inside two minutes to go in the first half.
Coming out of the break it was clear coach Neu wanted to establish the run game. Led by running back Will Jones the Cardinals handed the ball off 9 times on a ten play drive that ended in a 21 yard touchdown for Jones.
Jones was a handful for the Leathernecks all night rushing for 93 yards on 18 carriers and a touchdown, averaging over five yards a carry on what was a career night for the redshirt senior.
“At halftime obviously we talked in there and decided go to a little bit heavier set,” Neu explained. “We wanted to make sure we established the line of scrimmage and showed our physicality and it was great to grind out a drive to open up the second half. I think that really set the tone and was important for us.”
Thanks to a big push from the guys up front, Ball State’s offense was able to find its rhythm in the second half to the tune of 172 rushing yards compared to just 44 rushing yards in the first.
The run game opened up the rest of the Cardinals offense for Plitt to find guys down the field like Justin Hall, Yo’Heinz Tyler, and Cincinnati transfer Jayshon Jackson.
It was Hall however who was able to break free for his second touchdown on the night during the third quarter to answer Western Illinois’ one play 75 yard touchdown drive to put the Cardinals back on top 21-14.
Hall started right where he left off last season, making big play after big play and finishing the night with eight catches for 137 yards and a touchdown.
As a true freshman from high school football powerhouse Center Grove, Carson Steele came up big for Ball State in key moments as well. Starting with a much needed fourth down conversion on his first collegiate carry. The former Mr. Football winner for the state of Indiana broke free on two separate runs going for over 30 yards each and showing off his ability to shed tackles and beat guys on the outside at the same time.
“He’s a great kid, he’s a super hard worker. He’s one of those guys that I knew once he got his opportunity I knew he was going to run hard,” Neu said explaining Steele’s performance. “It was good to see him break a couple and see the guys up front on the offensive lineman to give some holes to run through.”
Steele finished his Cardinal debut with 79 yards on just seven carries and one touchdown.
The Ball State defense wasn’t at its best tonight giving up 367 passing yards and allowing wide receiver Dennis Houston to go for 12 receptions and 237 yards but they made the stops they needed to get the job done.
Western Illinois showed last spring how explosive their offense can be when Sampson is playing his best, averaging roughly 295 yards a game through the air. Arguably the only mistake the quarterback made all night was when he overthrew his target in the third quarter and Ball State cornerback Nic Jones came up with the interception that led to a Justin Hall touchdown minutes later.
Redshirt sophomore Tavion Woodard was also very active during his time on the field. The defensive lineman came up with two sacks on back to back plays following a Ball State turnover in their own territory that forced Western Illinois to punt the ball back just before the half.
Ball State showed a lot of composure tonight in the second half, coming in as a big favorite and being able to take Western Illinois’ best and still finding a way to pull off a comfortable win to start the year.
Next up for the Cardinals is Big Ten opponent Penn State as Ball State travels to Happy Valley on Saturday, September 11 at 3:30 p.m.