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How did Ball State pull off the 28-16 upset over unbeaten Army?

Light at the end of the tunnel approaches as the Cardinals end their 3-game skid against a worthy opponent.

NCAA Football: Army at Ball State Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back, Ball State.

The Cardinals entered the season with a MAC championship and Arizona Bowl trophy in hand, riding a 7-game win streak which only trailed Alabama, Oklahoma, and Texas A&M at the time. Preseason AP Poll votes piled up as nearly the entire team decided to run it back with the hopes of returning to Detroit for a conference championship and returning to the poll for a coveted ranking.

Unfortunately, the first four games all ended in ugly fashion for the reigning MAC champs. Ball State crept past an FCS team in Western Illinois in the opening week before proceeding to drop each of its next three games all by double-digits. No light seemed to be at the end of the tunnel, especially as Ball State’s final non-conference opponent was slated to be an undefeated Army team with a +90 point differential. Perhaps that was the challenge the program needed to get back on track. And after completing the 28-16 upset, the Cardinals got their swagger back.

Here’s how Ball State’s signature victory unfolded:

Justin Hall did Justin Hall things

When the ball is in Justin Hall’s hands, good things will happen. The Cardinals have the luxury of lining up college football’s active receptions and receiving yards leader when on offense... and special teams.

Ball State didn’t even need to send the offense on the field in order to gain its first lead. Hall handled the opening kickoff, picked up a head of steam, avoided one attempted takedown at the legs, and flew to the house for a 99-yard score — his first career special teams touchdown. Also, Hall’s touchdown handed Army its first deficit of the season which proved to be instrumental in assembling the victory.

When on offense, Hall shined as quarterback Drew Plitt’s favorite target. Ball State’s two most lopsided losses of the year against Penn State and Wyoming unsurprisingly transpired when Hall had his lowest reception outputs, but the Cardinals have since emphasized getting the star involved. Hall caught seven passes for 78 yards against Army, and he tied West Virginia legend Tavon Austin for 30th in all-time FBS receptions in the process.

NCAA Football: Army at Ball State
Justin Hall, college football’s active receptions leader, is 12 catches away from hitting the milestone of 300. That would tie him for 17th in the history books.
Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

In previous weeks, it looked like there was an effort to get Hall involved more in the running game, but the jet sweep specialist essentially took Week 5 off with one carry for three yards. That might have to do with Army’s run defense ranking third in the country, allowing just 52 yards per contest. WKU proved earlier this season that the Black Knights’ defense is most vulnerable against a pass heavy offense, and thus, Ball State attacked through the air.

Significant strides were made in the passing game

It wasn’t just Hall. Plitt performed better. Hall’s supporting receivers Jayshon Jackson and Yo’Heinz Tyler performed better. And most notably, the offensive line provided its sturdiest protection of the season. For the first time in three weeks, fewer than four sacks were yielded by the Cardinals and Plitt only absorbed two sacks against one of the most relentless front sevens in the FBS.

The improved pass protection allowed Plitt to have his best day of the 2021 season. For the first time, he surpassed the 200-yard threshold, finishing with 233 yards on a 60.7 percent completion rate. His average of 8.3 yards per attempt significantly outperformed the other averages he displayed in his previous four outings. Plitt remained free of interceptions and not only did he get Hall involved — he spread the wealth to keep Army’s defense honest.

Ball State’s receivers dealt with plenty of man coverage, and Plitt was able to expose this. On the first offensive play from scrimmage, the senior quarterback flung a deep ball down the right sideline for Jayshon Jackson, and the Cincinnati transfer burned his coverage en route to a 44-yard touchdown, his first as a Cardinal. Jackson’s 58 yards on the afternoon were his second highest of the season, and his involvement to complement Hall worked well for Ball State.

But arguably the most important contributor on offense was the one the Cardinals waited all season for, Yo’Heinz Tyler. In the 2020 MAC title season, Tyler doubled the receiving touchdown output of anybody else on the team by securing eight receptions in the end zone. His 91 yards in the MAC Championship Game and 103 yards in the Arizona Bowl helped lift Ball State to arguably its two most important victories ever.

Tyler entered the Army game with nine receptions and 54 yards across his first four games. He left Scheumann Stadium on Saturday with five receptions, a team-high 85 yards, and a touchdown to put his team up double-digits. Tyler had his way against his cornerback assignments all night, and his ability to shed off man coverage made him an optimal threat for Plitt.

When the stars align with Plitt, Tyler, Hall, and the offensive line, it’s easy to remember what this offense looked like during Ball State’s historic 2020 run.

Army got out of its comfort zone and aired it out

Last week, Army easily put away Miami (OH) in a 23-10 final that wasn’t as close as the scoreboard indicated. The Black Knights rushed 63 times for 384 yards, and registered three touchdowns to improve to 4-0. They didn’t finish with a single completion or passing yard.

Army was out of its element from the opening kickoff though, being forced to play catch-up for the first time in 2021. For once, the second half clock was not on the Black Knights’ side so wasting precious time was not the ideal situation for Jeff Monken’s squad for once. Instead, Army mixed up its playbook and passed for a season-high 15 times. Although the Black Knights managed to complete two 20-yard passes in the fourth quarter, every dropback felt like a win for the Cardinals.

Army finished an inefficient 5/15 for 66 yards and the team tossed a pair of interceptions to Ball State in the second half. Both turnovers were crucial because they occurred when the Cardinals led 21-14 in the second half, but the second one proved to be the deciding factor. Operating with a short field, Ball State cashed in Army’s botched pass for a touchdown pass from Plitt to Tyler with eight minutes remaining. The Black Knights would never come within one score again.

Ball State capitalized on the imperative — never play Army from behind, and the Cardinals’ early offensive (and special teams) successes forced the Black Knights to adopt a new second half strategy. As a result, Ball State suddenly has life again after defending its home turf and racking up its first FBS win of the 2021 season.