MUNCIE, Ind. — Ball State linebacker Sean Wiggins made an observation after Saturday’s football game against Central Michigan that seemed to fit a play teammate KeVonn Mabonmade with the outcome on the line in the fourth quarter.
“Big time players make big time plays in big time games,” Wiggins said.
He was talking about a different situation in the game, but the statement fit Mabon’s act.
With the Cardinals’ offense stuck in the mud, and the team searching for anything resembling a boost, Mabon returned a kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown that put Ball State ahead by one point, 21-20, with 10:24 left to play.
But Central Michigan found a way to make a few big plays of its own after that, and came back late in the game to hand Ball State a 23-21 loss in a Mid-American Conference game at Scheumann Stadium.
It was a disappointing blow for the Cardinals, who fell to 2-6 overall and 1-3 in the MAC.
Ball State struggled with a series of breakdowns on offense throughout the contest, but a 1-yard touchdown run on fourth down on the final play of the first half sent the Cardinals to the locker room with a 14-10 lead.
With the Cardinals getting the ball first in the third quarter, the touchdown seemingly gave them some momentum heading into the second half.
Instead, Ball State gained just 23 yards with no first downs, going three-and-out on all four of its possessions in the third period.
“There was a big risk-reward there,” Cardinals coach Pete Lembo said of going for the touchdown instead of a field goal with three seconds left in the second quarter. “If they stop you, it’s a huge momentum gain for them.
“Why it didn’t pay off momentum-wise for us in the second half, there’s a lot more to it than that.”
Central Michigan (4-4, 3-1 MAC) regained the lead at 17-14 with a 4-yard touchdown pass on a miscommunication of coverage by the Cardinals’ secondary. Then a career-long 47-yard field goal by the Chippewas’ Brian Eavey left Ball State trailing 20-14 going into the final quarter.
At that point, Ball State had run 12 plays without getting a first down in the second half.
“They gave us some different looks; they adjusted after halftime just like we do and every other team does,” Cardinals freshman quarterback Riley Neal said of being stymied on offense. “We just struggled. It was tough for us.”
Neal completed 25-of-40 passes for 187 yards and a touchdown.
On the kickoff after Eavey’s field goal, Cardinals returner Mabon returned the ball 89 yards for a touchdown. Suddenly – and perhaps unexpectedly – Ball State owned a 21-20 lead with 10:24 left in the game.
“As any athlete or competitor, you want to make a big play when you’re on the field,” Mabon said. “I got the ball, the hole opened up, and I hit it.
“When I looked up and saw a hat on a hat, and had (a blocker) in front of me, it was go time.”
All the way into the north end zone with 11 Central Michigan players left in his wake. It was the first Ball State kickoff return for a touchdown since Eric Williams had one in 2010 against Eastern Michigan.
But on a day when the Cardinals managed just 299 yards of offense (only 79 in the second half), the lead was short-lived. Central Michigan’s ensuing possession resulted in a 55-yard drive in 11 plays, ending with what proved to be Eavey’s game-deciding 34-yard field goal with 5:30 remaining.
The Cardinals, needing only a field goal to take the lead, had two chances to rally from the 23-21 deficit.
The first ended when they were stopped on fourth-and-2 from the 50-yard line with 3:21 left in the game. The last was stopped when Neal’s pass was incomplete on fourth-and-9 from the Cardinals 45 with 1:02 left.
“We’re all in this together, and we all share in the disappointment,” Lembo said of the Cardinals’ fifth straight defeat. “I told the kids if we put forth the same preparation and the same spirit we showed today, and a little better execution, we’re going to be just fine.
“This wasn’t the result we wanted, but we played the kind of football with the kind of energy I think this group is capable of.”
Central Michigan first-year coach John Bonamego said his team’s performance on defense after Mabon’s kick return sparked the victory.
“That’s a good football team over there, and coach Lembo’s an excellent coach,” Bonamego said. “They have a lot of pride in their locker room. I’m just really proud of our kids for hanging in and never throwing in the towel. We made the plays when we needed to make them.”
Ball State’s defense, which gave up an average of 491.4 yards in the first seven games, allowed 434 to the Chippewas. The performance was a mixed bag with some mistakes, but there were bright spots for the group.
Strong safety Dedrick Cromartie intercepted a pass, free safety Martez Hester made a season-high 13 tackles and Wiggins took the ball away from a running back for a fumble recovery (his fourth takeaway this year).
“I think we played with passion today and played hard,” Wiggins said.
Ball State sophomore wide receiver Corey Lacanaria turned in career highs with 10 receptions and 72 yards.
The Cardinals are home again next Saturday, facing UMass at 1 p.m.