The Ball State Cardinals football team will certainly find things it hopes to clean up from Saturday’s performance against Tennessee Tech.
But at the end of the day, the Cardinals (2-1) posted another home victory. Riley Neal threw three first-half touchdown passes, the Ball State defense refused to break, and the Cardinals led from start to finish in a 28-13 Family Weekend victory at Scheumann Stadium.
“In a lot of ways, getting a win like this while not playing our best football is something that we can turn into a positive,” Ball State head coach Mike Neu said. “I think tomorrow when we get to our tape, we watch it and our guys will see for themselves the mistakes that were made which will lead right into a great Tuesday practice.
“You don’t get style points,” Neu continued. “It’s a win or a loss. It’s a win for us and we will take it, but we have to give Tennessee Tech credit for coming a long way and playing hard.”
Ball State sophomore Malik Dunner made a momentum-changing play for the second straight week to keep the Cardinals comfortably in front. After a Tennessee Tech field goal cut the lead to 21-13 with 2:57 to play in the third quarter, Dunner took a handoff and broke through for a 66-yard touchdown run. It proved to be the final scoring play of the day.
While the Cardinals’ offense struggled to score points in the second half, the defense stood strong. Ball State limited Tennessee Tech (0-3) to only six total points in three red zone trips after intermission.
“Ball State is one of the most disciplined defenses I’ve seen in a long time,” Tennessee Tech head coach Marcus Satterfield said. “We didn’t execute well at all, and a lot of that can be attributed to the disruption from the Ball State defense.”
The Cardinals came up with a turnover at a key moment late in the first half when safety Lamar Anderson jarred the ball away from an intended receiver and linebacker David Rueth snagged it before it hit the turf for an interception.
It was a 14-7 game at the point, but it would be 21-7 just one minute later when Neal scrambled out of the pocket and found James Gilbert for a 17-yard touchdown. It was the 24th career touchdown for the junior running back but his first receiving score.
The touchdown pass was the third of the day for Neal, who hit redshirt freshman tight end Nolan Givan and true freshman receiver Justin Hall to stake the Cardinals’ to a 14-0 lead early in the first half.
Hall led the Cardinals in receiving for the second straight week with seven catches for 82 yards, while Neal finished 23-of-31 passing for 238 yards.
The Cardinals overcame three turnovers (two interceptions and a fumble), but they also picked off two passes of their own on interceptions from Rueth and Josh Miller. Ball State racked up 10 tackles for loss, including two sacks courtesy of the nation’s sack leader, Anthony Winbush.
“I am very proud of our defense and the way they finished the game for us,” Neu said. “There were some momentum-changing turnovers that our defense created that really kind of covered the offense’s back … Our defense just kept fighting the fight.”
All three Ball State backs broke off longs runs, including Dunner’s 66-yarder, a 48-yarder for Gilbert and a 37-yarder for Caleb Huntley.
“It’s good to get win number two here at home,” Neu said. “After a tough season-opening loss, to win two in a row is great. Great win and a great crowd here today.”
Ball State will hit the road next week to wrap up non-conference play Saturday with a 7 p.m. ET kickoff at Western Kentucky. The Cardinals do not return home until Oct. 21 with their Homecoming contest against Central Michigan.