When midweek MACtion commences, expect chaos of the highest order.
The 2021 midweek slate kicked off at InfoCision Stadium, featuring a matchup between the reigning MAC champion Ball State Cardinals and an Akron Zips program in desperate search of a signature win. Despite the varying résumés between the conference opponents, the ending result proved that football is indeed a game of inches.
Akron stormed back from a 28-10 deficit and was primed to pull off the upset in front of its home crowd. Trailing by six with under 100 ticks remaining in the life of the clock, the Zips snapped the ball on 3rd and 6 in prime scoring position from the Ball State 11. With a gaping hole in the pass protection, quarterback Zach Gibson pursued the opening to collect a first down, but the mission was the end zone. Gibson lunged forward for the plane but was sandwiched between Ball State defenders at the 3-yard line.
The quarterback tucked the ball but Cardinals strong safety Brett Anderson laid a devastating hit which caused the pigskin to fly free. After a brief scramble in the end zone, Ball State’s All-MAC free safety Bryce Cosby scooped up the remains. Several running plays later, the Cardinals sealed a 31-25 victory and breathed a sigh of relief after standing yards away from a calamity of a defeat.
OH. MY. GOODNESS.— CBS Sports Network (@CBSSportsNet) November 3, 2021
Zach Gibson nearly scored the game-tying touchdown before he FUMBLED IT. Ball State has possession. pic.twitter.com/6b6T64Mmjo
The Cardinals offense came out firing and pieced together an advantage as large as 18 points prior to Akron’s rabid comeback. Ball State established its early dominance utilizing its star receiver Justin Hall in a multitude of ways. Hall scored his first touchdown of the night on a 25-yard jet sweep — his fourth rushing score of the season. For his second trip to the end zone, he caught a screen pass and broke through a crowd of three Akron defenders to power his way for another six points.
Hall cracked the history books on this Tuesday as well. Corralling a team-high eight receptions, Hall moved into the FBS top 10 all-time in the category. Coincidentally, all four players he passed on the list stemmed from the MAC — Josh Davis (Marshall), Eric Page (Toledo), Jordan White (Western Michigan), and Antonio Brown (Central Michigan).
Ball State also inflicted severe damage with its rushing attack. Freshman power runner Carson Steele attained his career-high in his midweek debut, totaling 154 yards and finishing with a highlight hurdle in the victory. Steele was also the recipient of a Drew Plitt passing touchdown, signaling his first end zone reception as a Cardinal.
Plitt threw three touchdown passes and the final one was in the direction of Yo’Heinz Tyler, who caught his fifth in his last five outings. Tyler’s score opened Ball State’s advantage to 28-10 with 6:41 remaining in the third quarter, but the tide in the final frame turned in favor of the home team.
Akron quarterback Zach Gibson has been the conference’s most improved player from 2020 to 2021. The architect of the Zips’ offensive explosion against Bowling Green, Gibson strung together another stellar performance Tuesday night despite the losing effort. The third-year freshman connected on 24 of his 31 passing attempts and eclipsed the 300-yard mark for the first time in his career. He completed two fourth quarter touchdown passes including a 57-yard strike to Michael Mathison (complete with a 2-point conversion) to inch the Zips within one score with 9:57 remaining.
Mathison was spectacular against the Ball State secondary by compiling 154 yards in a standout performance. Akron’s offense also received notable contributions from other skill position players such as running back Jonzell Norrils, who posted 88 yards and a touchdown while breaking for a pair of 20+ yard runs.
Until Ball State forced the pivotal fumble on the goal line to clinch the victory, both teams took care of the ball without committing a turnover. The efficient offenses reigned supreme, and the Cardinals and Zips combined for 883 yards of offense.
With the victory, the Cardinals secure their first win over Akron since 2014. Ball State (5-4, 3-2 MAC) remains afloat in a crowded MAC West race. The reigning champions’ next game will essentially be an elimination game on the pathway to Detroit as Ball State remains on the road to pay a trip to division frontrunner Northern Illinois.
Meanwhile, Akron (2-7, 1-4 MAC) is eliminated from bowl season for the fourth consecutive year. The Zips sat three yards shy of their most impressive of the Tom Arth era, but attaining such a victory will have to wait another week.