The Ball State Cardinals (2-6, 1-3 MAC) were in a desperate position coming into Saturday’s tilt against the Central Michigan Chippewas (4-4, 2-3 MAC).
Ball State had to win to keep their slim postseason hopes alive— and win in order to finally get a major statistical monkey off their back. After last week’s heroic performance against Toledo went sideways, no one would have blamed the Cardinals if they had simply packed their bags and sailed through the last third of the campaign aimless and adrift.
Instead, Ball State put down their best performance of the season, leading CMU 10-3 at the half and as far as 17-3 early in the third quarter in what would ultimately be a 24-17 victory after a late Central Michigan rally.
The visitors struck first, as Tristan Mattson converted from 45 yards out to put the Chippewas up 3-0 just over three minutes into the contest. That would be the last time CMU held the lead, as Ball State went straight to work on a seven-play, 75-yard drive lasting just over three minutes to take the lead on a Kiael Kelly rushing touchdown from three yards out to put Ball State up 7-3 with 8:05 remaining in the first quarter.
The game turned into a defensive slog until halftime, with Ball State and Central Michigan combining for six punts over eight drives— though the Cardinals briefly interrupted the punting exhibition to score a field goal from 33 yards out with just under six minutes remaining in the second quarter.
The Cardinals would take the 10-3 lead into the break after a botched end-of-half drill, but made up for it quickly on a 15-yard Marquez Cooper running touchdown to go up 17-3 with 10:07 remaining in the third quarter.
The Chippewas, who were held under 100 total offensive yards in the first half, settled down and put together their best drive of the afternoon on a 12-play, 79-yard scoring drive capped off by a SportsCenter Top 10-worthy one-handed catch by Jesse Prewitt III in the endzone from 19 yards out to cut the Ball State lead to 17-10 late in the third quarter.
Ball State wasn’t fazed by the counterpunch, methodically moving the ball downfield on a 12-play, 75-yard drive lasting over six minutes to once again re-claim a two-score lead. The touchdown came on a fourth-and-one situation at the CMU one-yard line, a handful of plays after a previous Kiael Kelly rushing score was wiped off the board on a replay. This time, Kelly committed an error on the read-option play and found himself flat-footed with defenders in his face. However, Kelly evaded the incoming pressure and leaped over the trenches, stretching the ball as far out as he could to get over the goal line.
The stretch was enough, and Ball State claimed a 24-10 lead with 13:02 remaining. Though it turned out not to matter much, Jackson Courville’s first PAT was missed, but a penalty on Maurice White for being offsides allowed a re-try from half-distance, which Courville hit.
After an exchange of quick punts, Central once again put up a sterling effort to score points on a drive, with an 11-play, 65-yard drive culminating in a Marion Lukes run up the middle from one yard out to pull the game back into survivability.
Needing a quick stop and a quick score to tie the contest, Central Michigan managed to force a Ball State punt with 2:15 remaining after using all three of their timeouts. Ball State punter Lucas Borrow pinned the Chippewas back deep, booting a 50-yarder to pin the Chips inside their eight-yard line.
The Chippewas’ last-gasp effort, which included a third-down conversion and a fourth-down conversion, would be for naught, as on a must-have fourth-and-13 at their own 49-yard line, Jase Bauer’s pass to Tyson Davis over the middle of the field beyond the line to gain was dropped on contact with 19 seconds remaining, effectively ending the game.
With the win, Ball State can finally claim their first FBS win of the season; prior to tonight, their only win was against Indiana State, an FCS opponent.
With the loss, CMU falls to 4-4— but more importantly to 2-2 in league play, all but eliminating them from MAC West contention.
Kiael Kelly shined in his second career start, as the Ball State gunslinger finished 13-of-16 for 101 yards passing and had 15 carries for 64 yards and two rushing touchdowns. Marquez Cooper also gashed the Chippewas defense, slicing them for 162 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries. Qian Magwood led the receivers with seven catches for 49 yards.
Keionte Newson led the game with 10 total tackles, while Cole Pearce had six solo stops (nine total) and a tackle-for-loss right next to him. Jordan Riley, who left the game late with an injury, finished with six tackles, two tackles-for-loss and a pass break-up. Sidney Houston had both of Ball State’s sacks.
Jase Bauer led the way once again for Central, finishing 19-of-31 for 169 yards and a passing touchdown, with no interceptions. Bauer also netted 23 yards rushing. Marion Lukes handled the primary running duties after an injury to Myles Bailey in last week’s game, finishing with 58 yards on 18 carries, scoring once. Lukes was also the second-leading receiver, with five catches for 42 yards. Tyson Davis led all receivers with six receptions and 65 yards. Jesse Prewitt III had a touchdown on one of his two receptions, totaling 23 yards.
Justin Whiteside led the Chippewas in tackles with eight total, while being one of four CMU defenders with a tackle-for-loss. Maurice White finished with 1.5 sacks to lead CMU, with Jacques Bristol also nabbing a half-sack.
Central Michigan will return home to play Northern Illinois for their next contest, scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 31.
Ball State looks to carry this momentum into a matchup on the road against Bowling Green. The game is scheduled for Wednesday, Nov. 1.