When it was all said and done, the Ball State football offense finished with nearly the same amount of rushing and passing yards in its 28-13 victory over Tennessee Tech.
Coming into the game, the Golden Eagles had allowed over 300 rush yards per game to Football Championship Subdivision teams. Ball State aimed to full advantage on the ground, with three different Cardinals rushers reaching 50 yards or more.
“Defensively, obviously everyone is out to stop the run against us right now with James [Gilbert] being the kind of back he is,” head coach Mike Neu said. “[Caleb] Huntley and Malik Dunner being a big play guy like he is, I’m proud of those guys because it took turning out and trying to find a way to get loose wasn’t easy to do but our guys stayed the course up front and continued to block against some tough looks.”
As a team, Ball State earned 228 yards on the ground, and junior running back James Gilbert led the way with 92 yards on 11 carries. However, he would leave the game late in the third quarter on sophomore running back Malik Dunner's 66-yard touchdown run.
The Cardinals offensive line stepped up in the victory, not allowing junior quarterback Riley Neal to be sacked, and Tennessee Tech only managed one tackle for a loss all game.
“[I thought the offensive line did well today], especially with a lot of new faces in there, offensive lineman Curtis Blackwell played a lot of football today, Zach Ricketts played a football today,” Neu said. “We got some young players in there for the first time.”
Gilbert also managed his first receiving touchdown of his career, sneaking out of the backfield before Neal found him on a 17-yard pass to extend the Ball State lead to 21-7.
“I’ve been waiting for three years to see James [Gilbert catch] a touchdown,” Neal said. “That was good, I’ve really been waiting for that for a long time.”
Neal finished 18-for-25 with three touchdowns and two interceptions, as the Cardinals lost the turnover battle 3-2. Coach Neu said he is happy with the progress of the junior quarterback after three games.
“He’s really been in command of our offense,” Neu said. “That’s the biggest difference you notice in Riley Neal. Even when something negative happens like it did today, you know he had the two interceptions there and immediately when the play was over he’s able to regain his composure like no big deal and go right back out on the next play.”
The Cardinals offense continued its dominance on third downs, converting 7-of-13 third downs against the Golden Eagles defense. Ball State entered Saturday’s game as the fourth best team in the country on third down conversions.
“We spend a lot of time on game plan, preparation, self-scout logs, we look at we’ve done the first couple weeks and you always want to tweak things and change things up so you’re not presenting your opponent with the same looks, so credit goes to [offensive coordinator] Joey Lynch on making sure we’re sound on our protection against their third down pressures and you got to execute, putting your guys in a position to make some plays and Riley [Neal] is seeing the field well,” Neu said.
Next week, the Cardinals begin a month of road games with a trip to play Western Kentucky. True freshman wide receiver Justin Hall feels the offense can continue to improve over the next week. Hall led the Cardinals with seven catches for 82 yards.
“[We need to be] finishing plays and being more disciplined with our route running,” Hall said. “[Our] receivers can get way better, we can be way better than we played today.”
Next Saturday’s game with Western Kentucky begins at 7 p.m. at L.T. Smith Stadium in Bowling Green, Kentucky.