It was a beautiful day for football in Happy Valley, as the Ball State Cardinals traveled to Penn State looking to knock off the Nittany Lions in the first ever meeting between the two programs.
Ball State entered this game on an eight-game winning streak, having not lost since their season opening heartbreaker to Miami last year. On the back of that eight-game win streak, which was one of the longest active FBS streaks in the country coming into the game, the Cardinals walked onto the field with confidence that they could shock the world and leave Beaver Stadium with a victory.
Unfortunately for the Cardinals, this one played out like many MAC vs Big Ten matchups have in the past. While Mike Neu’s squad had some solid moments, the talent of the Nittany Lions proved to be to much as Penn State pulled away for a 44-13 victory.
Penn State was in control of this one from the opening kickoff, and the Cardinals never seriously challenged the Nittany Lions. Ball State received the ball first, and promptly went three and out due to three incompletions by Drew Plitt. After receiving the punt, Penn State subsequently went 78 yards in 13 plays, and Noah Cain’s 22 yard TD scamper made it 7-0 Nittany Lions with 10:01 still to go in the first quarter.
After a second consecutive three and out for the Cardinals offense, Penn State again marched right down the field, going 76 yards in only eight plays. Penn State QB Sean Clifford capped the drive with a one yard TD run on a QB sneak, and it was 14-0 Nittany Lions with 5:53 to go in the first quarter. Penn State asserted their dominance early in this game; at this point, after the Nittany Lions second scoring drive to open the game, they led the yardage battle 154-8.
At this point, it felt like the Ball State offense needed to respond, or else this one was going to get ugly. The Cardinals offense responded with perhaps their best drive of the day: Plitt scrambled 11 yards on third-and-seven to pick up the third first down of the drive, and the Cardinals subsequently made their first trip inside the Nittany Lions red zone. Ball State’s drive ultimately stalled at the Penn State 6, but Jake Chanove’s 24-yard field goal was on target, and the Cardinals had their first points of the day. 14-3 Nittany Lions, 14:25 to go in the first half.
The Cardinals defense proceeded to get their first stop of the day on the next drive. After crossing midfield and approaching the Ball State red zone, the Penn State drive stalled out as the Cardinals defense forced three straight incompletions. Jordan Stout hit a 45 yard field goal to make the score 17-3, but it seemed as if the Cardinals were starting to find their footing.
The two teams traded punts on the next three possessions, and it appeared that perhaps the Cardinals were ready to sneak back into this game. Jahan Dotson had other ideas, as the shifty Penn State wideout took a screen pass 25 yards for a TD with 2:50 to go in the first half, and suddenly James Franklin’s squad was up 24-3.
The Cardinals offense put together another very nice drive to end the half, highlighted by Plitt’s excellent throw to Jayshon Jackson on the sideline to get the Cardinals down to Penn State’s four yard line. Unfortunately for Ball State, this trip to the end zone ended in the same way as the first one, as they were unable to find the end zone and settled for a 23 yard Jake Chanove field goal to make it 24-6 at the break.
The second half had a promising start for the Cardinals. Jordan Stout missed a 45 yard field goal on Penn State’s first drive of the third quarter. After Ball State was forced to punt, the Cardinals defense held the Nittany Lions to a three and out to get the ball back. After allowing two long scoring drives in the first quarter, the Cardinals defense had actually acquitted itself quite well at this point.
Unfortunately, the next Ball State drive led to the backbreaker for the Cardinals. Starting from their own 20-yard line, Plitt rolled to his right on the first play of the drive and threw an interception to Nittany Lions LB Jesse Luketa, who promptly returned it 16 yards for a TD. 31-6 Nittany Lions.
Two more field goals from Jordan Stout stretched the Penn State lead to 37-6 in the fourth quarter. Ball State got the ball with 9:59 remaining, and to their credit, they showed some fight even with the game out of reach. Aided by two different fifteen-yard penalties on the drive, the Cardinals finally found the end zone on Carson Steele’s six yard TD run with 6:54 in the game.
Penn State added one final score after emptying their bench, as backup QB Ta’Quan Robinson found WR Theo Johnson for a 23 yard TD with 2:10 to go. 44-13 would prove to be your final tally.
There were thoughts that this could be a “trap game” for the Nittany Lions as they prepare to face Auburn next week. Penn State put those thoughts to rest early in this contest dominated the game in every statistical category. The Nittany Lions won the yardage battle 493-295, and rushed the ball 48 times for 240 yards. Ball State, on the other had, was limited to 69 rushing yards on 26 carries (good for just 2.7 yards per carry).
The Cardinals offense has some things to figure out. Getting bottled up by a top fifteen team on the road is nothing to be ashamed of. But when paired last week’s uninspiring performance against Western Illinois, it’s not a stretch to say this unit is not performing up to expectations right now.
Defensively, there were some signs of life in this game. After the Nittany Lions quick start, the Cardinals defense settled in and stymied Penn State on a number of instances. Tavion Woodard and Christian Albright both found their way into the Penn State backfield and sacked QB Sean Clifford, and the Ball State secondary did not seem to be outmatched against Penn State’s speed on the outside. I left this game feeling much more encouraged about the Cardinals defense than the offense.
Of course, the Cardinals would have liked to keep this game a bit closer. However, there are some positives to be taken away from this one, and Ball State will still be one of the favorites to win the MAC.
Mike Neu’s squad has their first opportunity to start a new winning streak this coming Saturday, when they travel out west to take on the Wyoming Cowboys. (Coincidentally, Wyoming will be coming off a 50-43 victory over Ball State’s MAC mate NIU.) Kickoff in Laramie is set for 4:00 EST.