It wasn’t how the Rockets drew it up, but Toledo (6-1, 3-0 MAC) will be happy to walk away with a gritty 13-6 win at Ball State (1-6, 0-3 MAC) on a cold and rainy day in Muncie.
After a stop on Ball State’s opening possession it looked like it was going to be a typical Toledo game where the offense puts on a show, with Dequan Finn taking the Rockets down the field inside the opponent’s 10-yard line. Just when it looked like Toledo was going to score an easy touchdown, however, the Cardinals defense stepped up and forced the Rockets into a Luke Pawlak field goal.
On Toledo’s next drive, they got right back in the Ball State redzone but once again the Cardinals D clutched up and made some plays. This time, linebacker Sidney Houston forced a fumble on Rockets RB Peny Boone, and Thailand Baldwin recovered to give the home team the ball back.
Although Ball State made some big plays on defense early, the offense couldn’t take advantage of it for most of the game. Mike Neu gave Kiael Kelly, who had primarily been featured in run-heavy packages up to this point, his first start at quarterback. Predictably, Kelly had more success on the ground than through the air, picking up 98 yards on 18 carries in the contest— but only completing 4-of-16 passes for 38 yards through a heavy, sopping rain.
The Cardinals were able to get on the board before the half after a long drive made possible by some runs by Kelly and running back Marquez Cooper. Going into the half, it was all knotted up at 3-3.
When the second half got back started, it was more of the same: good defense, bad offense.
During the third quarter, it became apparent why Ball State punter Lucas Borrow was on the Ray Guy Award preseason watch list. The Australia native punted the ball six times on the day, landing four of them inside the Toledo 10-yard line and two of them inside the two-yard line. His longest punt of the day went for 55 yards.
As the game entered the fourth, the offenses picked up a little bit of momentum for the first time all game. Toledo put together a 19-play, 83-yard drive to open the quarter, but once again had to settle for a field goal — which was actually a fortunate result considering the Rockets’ play on third down. With a Cardinals pass rush crowding him, Dequan Finn uncharacteristically panicked and threw the ball high up in the air arcing towards the goal line. Jahmad Harmon had a chance to intercept it but Rockets running back Willie Shaw III made a nice play to get a piece of it to break it up.
With Toledo up 6-3, Ball State needed a response and that’s exactly what they did. Kiael Kelly completed his longest pass of the day to Ahmad Edwards, good for 28 yards to get the ball in opponent territory. After Toledo got a stop in there own redzone, Cardinals kicker Jackson Courville kicked his second field goal of the day to knot it up at 6-6.
The Toledo offense that came in averaging over 40 points per game just didn’t look like themselves all day— right up until their last full drive. The two guys at the center of the Rockets explosive offense this year stepped up and put together an impressive game-winning touchdown drive. Dequan Finn threw for 41 yards on two passes and Peny Boone ran for 31 yards on four carries, getting in the end zone to cap off the efficient drive.
With a quarterback who had barely thrown all day, it was going to be tough for the Cardinals to come back with under two minutes left. On second-and-eight, Kiael Kelly tossed what was perhaps his best pass of the day in the direction of a wide-open, streaking Rico Barfield down the right sideline— but the pass bounced off the receiver’s hands and incomplete. Two plays later, Toledo’s Maxen Hook picked off Kiael Kelly to seal the game, completing very solid day for Hook and the Toledo defensive back unit.
Toledo’s main concerns before this game were about the defense and after the showing at Ball State, they have a lot to feel good about there. Offensively, it was more of a struggle, especially with the passing game as Finn finished with 166 yards on 15/27 passing. Still, the rushing attack was enough to get the win, with Peny Boone going for 148 yards, which puts him at just under 800 on the year through seven games.
The Cardinals defense didn’t have a sack in the game but showed good pass pressure, forcing Finn into some incompletions. The Rockets O-line, which has been very good all year, was clearly missing senior tackle David Nwaogwugwu, who left with an injury. On the Ball State side of things, linebacker Keionte Newson made some big tackles in the game and led his team with seven on the day.
Ball State will be very proud of how their defense and special teams played to give their team a chance to win. The offense has a lot of work to do if they are going to be competitive as the season goes on. Something to watch for is Kiael Kelly’s development as a passer if he remains the starting quarterback for Mike Neu.
With their sixth win, Toledo secures bowl eligibility for the seventh time in seven full seasons under Jason Candle and extend their bowl-eligible streak 14, the second-longest streak amongst Group of Five programs (Boise State, 25.)
Both teams are back in action next Saturday, as Toledo has a huge matchup with fellow division leader Miami in Oxford, while Ball State will host Central Michigan.