It was a Battle of the Birds in Statesboro, Georgia on Saturday evening, as the Ball State Cardinals (1-3, 0-1 Mid-American Conference) faced the Georgia Southern Eagles (3-1) in what was a compelling contest under the lights at Allen E. Paulson Stadium. The Cardinals held a late lead in the fourth quarter, but ultimately could not keep the margin, falling by a final score of 34-23.
The teams exchanged efficient drives ending in field goals to start, with Eagles Alex Raynor kicking from 25 yards out and Cardinals kicker Ben VonGunten kicking from 22 yards out to start the scoring account.
Georgia Southern would then gamble early, going for a fourth-down conversion inside BSU territory at the 29-yard line after generating a 10-play drive over 46 yards, getting stuffed on the attempt. Ball State had no luck in generating a drive afterwards, punting the ball back and allowing the Eagles to get another field goal on the board to take the 6-3 lead early in the second quarter.
The Eagles would find their first touchdown with 5:29 remaining in the first half, as running back Gerald Green punched it in from six yards out to end a 10-play, 80 yard drive and extend the GASO lead to 13-6.
Ball State responded in kind, with John Paddock finding tight end Tyler Kozoil on a nine-yard connection to cap a 10-play, 75-yard drive of their own to maintain pressure on the Eagles going into the half.
Coming out of the halftime break, Ball State took the first possession and held the ball for over six minutes, eating up 69 yards on 12 plays, eventually settling for a field goal from the GASO nine-yard line, which VonGunten converted to tie the game up at 13-all.
The Eagles didn’t let that stand for long, as a 53-yard dart from former Buffalo transfer quarterback Kyle Vantrease to Derwin Burgess Jr. set up what would ultimately be a Vantrease rushing score to place the Eagles back up top at 20-13. Not to be outdone, Ball State once again put down an excellent sustained drive over nine plays to score, with Jayshon Jackson reeling in a 19-yard receiving score to tie the ball game.
The Cardinals seemingly regained control of the momentum in the late going, forcing a three-and-out and goinf on a 12-play, 69-yard drive with the ball on the ensuing possession, but their inability to generate maximum points in the redzone showed up once again, as they settled for another short field goal from VonGunten to take a slim 23-20 lead with 12:39 remaining.
It was all GASO from there, as Kyle Vantrease connected with Jjay Mcafee and Amare Jones for touchdowns on the last two Eagle possessions to take a commanding 34-23 lead. Ball State would get one last possession to try and make up the gap, but on first-and-10 from the Eagle 27, Justin Birdsong would intercept a John Paddock pass in front of the endzone to seal the Cardinals’ fate.
John Paddock finished 33-of-47 for 338 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, while Carson Steele led all rushers with 119 yards on 23 carries. Jayshon Jackson led all Cards with 10 catches for 122 yard and a touchdown, with Yo’Heinz Tyler reeling in nine passes for 65 yards. Ben VonGunten was good on all three field goal attempts and two extra-point attempts to score 11 points.
Clayton Coll finished with 10 tackles to lead the Cardinals, while Tavion Woodward came down with the team’s only sack. Cole Pierce led the team with 1.5 tackles-for-loss and had six overall, while sophomore safety Jordan Riley had four pass break-ups to lead the secondary.
For Georgia Southern, Kyle Vantrease finished 26-of-39 for 310 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions, while Jalen White (15 carries, 69 yards), Gerald Green (nine carries, 38 yards, one score) and OJ Arnold (seven carries, 38 yards) each split the rushing load. Derwin Burgess Jr. led all receivers with 133 yards on just five receptions, while Amare Jones led GASO with seven catches for 94 yards and a score. Alex Raynor was perfect on both field goal attempts and all four extra points.
Defensively, there was an incredible four-way tie for first in tackles, with Wylan Free, Khadry Jackson, Derrick Canteen and Marques Watson-Trent each getting 10 stops apiece. Justin Birdsong snagged the game-winning interception and also had two pass break-ups, one of three players to get at least two PBUs (Marc Stampley II and Canteen.)
Ball State will host the Northern Illinois Huskies for their second contest in MAC play, hoping to get back to .500 in-conference after a tough loss to Western Michigan two weeks ago. The game will have a scheduled kickoff of 2 p.m. Eastern next Saturday.
Georgia Southern is set to take on Coastal Carolina next week to open up Sun Belt Conference play.