All hope seemed lost for the Miami RedHawks with 11:06 remaining in the fourth quarter.
Down 17-6 and desperately seeking points, Aveon Smith had just gone 1-of-5 on pass attempts to try and extend a drive which was ultimately fated to end in a third-straight punt. Frustration mounted on the sidelines as Dom Dzioban skied a punt for 35 yards, giving the Ball State Cardinals the ball in favorable position at their own 31-yard line.
But somewhere between that possession and the final snap of the game, the hosting RedHawks simply found the plays when they needed them most, bridging an 11-point gap to take home the Redbird Rivalry trophy and a trip to the Bahamas Bowl by a final score of 18-17.
It was a shaky start for both sides in different fashions. The RedHawks possessed first, crawling downfield on a 13-play, 40-yard drive which ultimately ended in a missed field goal attempt from 45 yards out. On the next possession, Ball State quarterback John Paddock made a clumsy mistake, getting a pass tipped at the line for it to be intercepted by Corey Suttle just five plays into the possession.
The Cardinals recovered quickly, forcing a three-and-out punt, then scoring on a 48-yard rushing touchdown by Carson Steele to open up the scoring account. Steele would deliver once again two possessions later, this time from 23 yards out to put Ball State up 14-0 with 8:09 remaining in the first half.
The Miami offense churned slowly back to life on the next possession, ending a 14-play, 64-yard drive lasting well over six minutes on a Graham Nicholson 30-yard kick to get their first score of the day, trailing 14-3 with 1:41 remaining in the half. Miami had gotten as far as the BSU three-yard line before a sack took them out of reasonable “go-for-it” range.
The end of the first half proved to set up an interesting scenario which would come into relevance later on, with Ball State calling timeout with 35 seconds to go before opting to go for it on fourth-and-one at the Miami 43-yard line. The Carson Steele run up the middle went for nothing, and Miami got the ball back with 30 seconds remaining.
Aveon Smith well underthrew his intended target on the first play from scrimmage after the turnover-on-downs, with Amechi Uzodinma flying up for the interception to essentially end the first 30 minutes of play.
Both teams came out sluggish in the third quarter, exchanging field goals to push the score to 17-6 on the first two possessions before combining for seven straight punts, the last of which occurred with 7:32 remaining in the fourth quarter.
The pivotal moment of the game came with about 6:30 remaining, with the ball in Miami’s possession on first-and-ten on the BSU 33-yard line. The RedHawks had been passing in tempo over the drive, gaining 47 yards over seven plays, including a crucial 16-yard pitch-and-catch to Jalen Walker on a fourth-and-10 attempt after three straight incompletions to set up the play. Smith dropped back once again, and aimed in the direction of Miles Marshall in front of the goal line. The pass fell incomplete, but it did manage to draw a penalty for defensive pass interference.
Aveon Smith would fool everyone on the very next play, dropping back to pass before turning upfield and scoring on an 18-yard touchdown run untouched to cut the lead down to 17-12. The two-point conversion failed, meaning the RedHawks would have to get a stop on the next Ball State drive, then score a touchdown to have a chance to win.
The Cardinals, up five, opted to run the clock down and force Miami to call their timeouts, handing the ball off to Carson Steele four times to peel off over three minutes of game clock. Miami used their first timeout with 3:31 remaining, and once again, BSU handed the ball off to try and convert third-and-two. Ryan McWood and Matt Salopek met Steele at the line, forcing a fourth-down decision.
Much like at the end of the first half, head coach Mike Neu went aggressive, going for it on fourth-and-one at the Ball State 47-yard line. Carson Steele took the handoff, dived over the line, and was met by Salopek and Brian Ugwu behind the pile, giving Miami the ball back with 3:05 remaining.
The Cardinals would pay for their sin six plays later, as on third-and-10 from the BSU 34-yard line, Aveon Smith threw perhaps his best pass of the night to find Miles Marshall on the right side of the endzone for a highlight-reel catch over the defensive back, putting the RedHawks up 18-17 with 1:42 remaining.
It was Miami’s first lead of the night.
Ball State would get the ball back for a last-gasp drive, but yet another unforced error by John Paddock resulted in a tip drill interception by Brian Ugwu (who had previously stopped Steele on the fourth-down attempt) to effectively seal the game.
It was not the most sterling of box scores for Aveon Smith, but he came up strong when necessary. Smith finished 18-of-46 for 217 yards, one touchdown and one interception, while also gaining 84 yards and a score on the ground to lead the running game.
Mac Hippenhammer led all players with six receptions for 70 yards, while Miles Marshall (three catches, 49 yards, one touchdown) and Jalen Walker (four catches, 47 yards) were the majority of the Miami passing offense.
Matt Salopek and Ryan McWood tied for the tackle chart with 14 apiece for Miami, while Michael Dowell had the team’s lone tackle-for-loss. Corey Suttle and Brian Ugwu bookended the game with an interception each.
For the Cardinals, two quarterbacks saw action. John Paddock was the primary guy, finishing 19-of-32 for 119 yards and two interceptions. Kiael Kelly had one pass for 23 yards and also finished second on the rushing charts with 83 yards on eight attempts.
Carson Steele was the offensive dynamo, with 180 yards and two touchdowns on 26 attempts, while also reeling in a team-leading six receptions for 35 yards. No other receiver had more than 23 yards (Casey Coll) or three catches (Brady Hunt, Yo’Heinz Tyler.)
The Cardinals as a unit had five tackles-for-loss and three sacks, getting into the backfield effectively, especially in the third quarter. Clayton Coll led all BSU tacklers with 11 stops, while Jaquan Amos (eight tackles, 1.5 tackles-for-loss, half-sack) and Sidney Houston (sic tackles, one tackle-for-loss and a sack) also highlighted. Amechi Uzodinma nabbed the lone interception.
With the win, the RedHawks will go to back-to-back bowl games for the first time since 2003-2004, accepting a bid to the Bahamas Bowl on Dec. 16. They also retain the Redbird Rivalry trophy.
With the loss, Ball State’s season ends with the team sitting at a 5-7 (3-5 MAC) record, ending a two-game bowl streak. The Cardinals have never gone to three bowl games in a row.