Last week, we saw some signs of life. This week, it was confirmed.
Ball State (3-3, 1-1 MAC) is back.
After an incredibly disappointing 1-3 start to the season, the defending MAC champions turned in their second straight impressive performance, flexing their muscles late in a 45-20 victory over divisional rival Western Michigan (4-2, 1-1 MAC.)
Ball State set the tone early in this one, with Drew Plitt connecting with WR Jalen McGaughey for a 75 yard TD strike on the first play from scrimmage on the sophomore’s second reception of the season.
After this initial strike, Western Michigan seemed to gain control of the game. The Broncos offense calmly responded with a 13 play, 75 yard drive of their own. The march down the field took nearly six minutes off the clock and was capped by a La’Darius Jefferson TD run from one yard out.
After the Broncos defense forced a quick punt on the Cardinals ensuing drive, Western Michigan took over possession at their own 22-yard line. The offense put together yet another impressive drive, going 78 yards in 10 plays and finding the end zone yet again, this time via a two yard TD run by QB Kaleb Eleby. Through two drives, the Broncos had 153 yards of offense, and the Ball State defense did not seem to have an answer for anything that Western Michigan was doing.
The Ball State offense was similarly stymied, gaining only 16 yards on their next drive before having to punt again. With 18 seconds left in the first quarter, the Broncos regained possession and seemed to be in complete control.
The Ball State defense had other ideas.
As the Broncos approached midfield, Kaleb Eleby was sacked and fumbled, and the Cardinals took over at the Broncos 37-yard line. It took the Cardinals only two plays to equalize, with Drew Plitt and WR Yo’Heinz Tyler connecting on consecutive plays. After a 16-yard gain on first down, Plitt promptly found Tyler for a 21-yard scoring strike to knot the score up at 14. Tyler finished the day with five receptions for 93 yards and two scores.
Ball State tried an onside kick on the ensuing kickoff, and initially it appeared they were successful. However, after review, the call was overturned, and the Broncos began their next drive on their own 44 yard line. The Broncos promptly marched down the field and found themselves with first and goal on the Cardinals seven yard line after a fourth down conversion run by La’Darius Jefferson. Unfortunately for the Broncos, they weren’t able to capitalize, and ended up settling for a 20-yard FG from K Nick Mihalich.
The Cardinals next drive stalled out similarly, as Ball State marched 50 yards in eight plays before failing to convert a third down at the Broncos 24-yard line. Jacob Lewis’ FG attempt was no good, and the Broncos maintained their 17-14 edge.
The Ball State defense was able to force a quick three-and-out, and the Cardinals offense took over possession at their own 49 yard line with 39 seconds to go in the first half. Drew Plitt found WR Jayshon Jackson for 20 yards on the first play of the drive, and were able to make their way inside the Broncos red zone. As the first half clock expired, Jake Chanove’s 31 yard FG sailed down the middle, and we had ourselves a 17-17 tie at the break.
Neither team able to gain much separation in the first half and traded punts to open up proceedings after returning from the locker room. On their second drive of the half, the Broncos offense put together another great drive, going 67 yards on 11 plays and finding themselves deep inside Cardinals territory. Unfortunately for the Broncos, they were yet again unable to capitalize. Kaleb Eleby was unable to find an open receiver on third and goal from the Cardinals four, and Western was forced to settle for another field goal. Nick Mihalich connected on his second kick of the day, and the Broncos had the lead yet again at 20-17.
It was at this point when the Cardinals separated themselves.
Ball State’s ensuing drive was a thing of beauty, going 75 yards in eight plays and finding the end zone via a 33 yard strike from Plitt to Justin Hall to give the Cardinals a 24-20 lead. Plitt was fantastic on the drive, completing four of five passes for 49 yards and the score. For good measure, he also added a 15-yard run on a third and five to extend the drive.
With the Cardinals offense having retaken the lead, the defense kept the pressure on the Broncos. It paid off.
As the Broncos approached midfield, Eleby overthrew Corey Crooms in the middle of the field and saw his pass intercepted for the first time of the season, courtesy of LB Clayton Coll. The Cardinals took over at the WMU 32 yard line.
Five plays later, the Ball State offense found the end zone again, with Plitt and Yo’Heinz Tyler hooking up for their second score of the day. This one was a 24-yard beauty, and suddenly the Cardinals found themselves up 31-20.
Things continued to unravel quickly for the Broncos, as Eleby was intercepted again on the next possession. This time, Eleby’s pass went off of WR Corey Crooms’ hands and was picked off by Jaylin Thomas. It was Thomas’ second interception in the past three weeks. After committing zero turnovers through the first five weeks, Eleby was suddenly intercepted on back to back possessions.
The Cardinals answered yet again, this time going 31 yards in eight plays and finding the end zone via a Justin Hall end around. The Cardinals were in complete control at this point, up 38-20 with 9:35 to go in the contest.
The Broncos next drive started off promising, crossing midfield and seeming poised to get back into the game. After failing to convert a third and 10, the Broncos opted to go for it on fourth down at the Cardinals 43-yard line. Eleby was sacked for the fourth time of the game, this time by Anthony Ekpe, and the Cardinals defense had yet another stop.
After a quick three and out, Western Michigan took over at their own 10-yard line. One first down and two sacks later, the Broncos faced a fourth and 14 at their own 17-yard line. With nothing to lose and down by 18, Western opted to go for it. The result was disastrous, as Eleby tried to scramble away from pressure and fumbled. Brett Anderson II recovered the fumble and made it a house call, returning it for six points and giving us our final tally of 45-20.
Despite the final margin, the box score was actually pretty even in this one. The yardage battle couldn’t have been more even, with the Broncos outgaining the Cardinals 376-375. The difference in this contest proved to be turnovers, with WMU giving the ball away four times. At one span in the second half, the Broncos turned the ball over three times in four possessions, and that stretch proved to be what defined the game.
Drew Plitt seemed to finally find his rhythm in this one after a slow start to the season, going 15-of-25 for 310 yards and four scores. Six different receivers caught a pass for the Cardinals, in what proved to be this unit’s best performance of the season.
On the other sideline, Kaleb Eleby had a rare off day. The normally efficient signal caller was 19-of-33 for 257 yards, with no touchdowns and two interceptions.
Neither team was able to establish the run, with the Cardinals managing only 65 yards on 27 carries. The Broncos did not fare much better, amassing 119 yards on 49 attempts.
This win immediately puts Ball State back in the Western division race. In fact, you could say that about every team in the division. Northern Illinois currently sits atop the division at 2-0, and every other team in the West finds themselves at 1-1. It will be an interesting six weeks to see who ends up on top.
The Cardinals play their second straight road game next Saturday, traveling to Ypsilanti to take on Eastern Michigan at 2:00. Western has another crucial home game, as fellow contender Kent State visits Kalamazoo. Kick is set for 3:30 at Waldo Stadium.