MUNCIE, Ind. — The Ball State front seven spent so much time in the Eastern Kentucky backfield Saturday, they almost started receiving their mail there.
The Cardinals completely negated EKU’s rushing attack and hounded Colonel quarterback Maty Mauk all day en route to a 41-14 victory at Scheumann Stadium. It was a shut out for more than 56 minutes before Ball State surrendered a pair of late scores.
“The defense was fantastic,” Cardinals head coach Mike Neusaid. “You talk about getting to the quarterback; I’m just proud of our guys. We talked about starting fast, playing a complete game and finishing. It was a great effort. Our defense has been very consistent through three games.”
Ball State (2-1) held Eastern Kentucky (1-2) to only three rushing yards on 27 attempts. The Cardinals racked up 14 tackles for loss, with 12 different players contributing, and eight sacks, led by Anthony Winbush with two. After its first drive of the game, EKU didn’t cross midfield again until the 12:30 mark of the fourth quarter.
Even when the Cardinals’ rushers didn’t get to Mauk or EKU’s other QB Bennie Coney, their presence made an impact. Pressure led to first-half interceptions of Coney by Marc Walton and Martez Hester. Both came deep in EKU territory and led to scores for the Cardinals.
Ball State started slowly in its first two games this season, but Saturday was a different story. The Cardinals came out in red helmets for the first time since 1970, scored on their first four possessions and never looked back.
It was an efficient performance from quarterback Riley Neal, who hit his first 16 passes in a row. He finished the game 28 for 39 for 238 yards with two passing touchdowns and a rushing score in his best performance of the young season. The Cardinals controlled the clock, with nearly 18 more minutes of possession time than EKU, and moved the ball methodically.
“We just encouraged Riley that he didn’t have to win the game by himself,” Neu said. “Our defense is playing great football. We have a running game going. He just needs to go out and run the offense, make the throws that present themselves and limit his mistakes, which he did. I’m very proud of his effort today.”
Neal hit Devin Reece for a 3-yard touchdown on the opening drive, scampered 12 yards for a score on the second and connected with Damon Hazelton Jr. from 5 yards out on the fourth. A field goal from Morgan Hagee was sandwiched in between as the Cardinals led 24-0 less than 20 minutes into the game.
Reece, Hazleton and Jordan Hogue finished with six catches apiece, as Neal connected with seven different receivers on the day. Hazelton, a true freshman from Baltimore, made his first collegiate start after drawing praise throughout preseason.
“There’s nothing better than seeing those guys all with six catches,” Neu said. “I challenged those guys a little bit that I wanted to see them take the next step. They stepped up to the challenge today. I think you can see some of the ability Damon Hazelton has. His role will continue to grow.”
Ball State got its ground game going in the second half as it started to wear down the Eastern Kentucky defense. With a firm hold on the lead, the Cardinals ran the ball on 35 of their 49 plays after halftime. They piled up 134 yards on those rushes and scored on a pair of 1-yard runs from James Gilbert and Teddy Williamson.
Gilbert led the ground attack with 72 yards, while Neal added 49 and Williamson had 42.
Mauk finished the game 19 for 32 through the air for 285 yards for Eastern Kentucky. He hit Devin Borders on a 28-yard score to break up the shutout with 3:29 to play.
After two road games to start the season, Neu finally got to coach him first home game at his alma mater. Morning rains threatened to put a damper on the Family Weekend festivities, but the skies cleared and the sun came out, along with the fans, to see his first home victory.
“It was a great crowd; I was really fired up,” Neu said. “I’m very appreciative of our fans. We feed off of them.”
Ball State will travel to Florida Atlantic next Saturday for its final non-conference game before returning home to begin Mid-American Conference play Oct. 1 against Northern Illinois.