Down 41-24 with under two minutes left in the third quarter, it was fair to say that Central Michigan was behind the eight ball.
The Chippewas’ defense had struggled all day with Ball State’s offense and its offense had only began to come alive in the third quarter.
But the Chips kept fighting. A quick touchdown drive, capped by a run by Jonathan Ward, his fourth of the day, cut the Ball State lead back to 10.
Then the defense forced a stop. Suddenly, Central Michigan found themselves in the end zone again after a pair of controversial penalties against Red Potts and Jacob White. Now it was 41-38 Ball State with 13 minutes left.
Fast forward eight minutes, same score and Ball State is driving inside the CMU 20. The Central defense stiffens, hitting Caleb Huntley and Walter Fletcher on first and second down and breaking up a Drew Plitt pass to Riley Miller to force a 4th and 9. Another field goal. 44-38 Ball State.
Now with the ball back and a chance to win the game, the offense went to work. Quarterback Quinten Dormandy found Ward along the sideline for an 18 yard gain on a crucial 3rd and 7. Two more big plays later and CMU was knocking on the door. It would be Tommy Lazzaro to push it in from 2 yards out and the PAT was good. 45-44 CMU. They’d done it.
Central’s defense, showing more life than the Ball State offense in recent possessions shut the door in just four plays where the Cardinals failed to move the ball past the line of scrimmage. Then after one kneel, the Central bench celebrated, signing the fight song and chanting with their traveling families and fans sitting behind them in the East sideline of Scheumann Stadium.
While the comeback marked jubilation for Central Michigan, for Ball State, the loss is a devastating third-in-a-row. The Cardinals have gone from first place and undefeated in the MAC West to the edge of falling out of bowl eligibility.
Huntley didn’t mince words when he spoke post game about how this loss stung him and his teammates.
“The mood in the locker room was the seniors were down, really everybody was down,” Huntley said. “We just have to keep going forward. We lost this game today but we still have a chance to reach one of our goals in making a bowl game.
“Today was devastating. I thought we had the game wraps and the second half they came back on us and it’s just indescribable. It hurts.”
The path to Ball State making a bowl game now relies on the Cardinals winning two in a row against Kent State and Miami to close the regular season.
However, during a seven minute stretch in the second quarter, the Cardinals forced turnovers on three straight possessions, all of which they turned into points. Jacob White’s first career interception started the 17-0 Ball State run. By midway through the second quarter, it was 20-3 Ball State. Late magic by their offense in the form of a 42-second drive gave them a 27-11 lead at the break.
The running attack was highly productive in helping Ball State jump ahead early. Its experienced offensive line cleared lanes for Huntley and Fletcher to run through as the two backs each finished with over 100 yards of rushing and long runs over 30 yards.
Bottom line, tonight was special for Central Michigan who suffered heartbreak one year ago at home to Ball State in a 24-23 defeat.
It also cements Central Michigan firmly in the race for the MAC West Division. A Central win over Eastern and a Western Michigan loss to Northern Illinois would send the Chippewas to Detroit.