For the first time since November 2019, Scheumann Stadium was full of Cardinal fans Thursday evening.
Ball State (1-0, 0-0 MAC) used a 24-point second half to pull away with a 31-21 victory against Western Illinois (0-1, 0-0 MVC).
Head coach Mike Neu was ecstatic with the atmosphere and fan turnout.
"Just to see the fans, warming up, going through their routine,” Neu said. “To see the tailgate area, all the food trucks set up outside, it’s so cool to see that, and as people walked into the stadium, just to get that vibe and energy, I loved that so much for our players. I know how hard they’ve worked, and that would mean more to them than anything.”
Fifth-year quarterback Drew Plitt connected with fifth-year wide receiver Justin Hall for both of his touchdowns. The two scored on a 49-yard touchdown in the first quarter to put the Cardinals on the board 7-0. With under eight minutes remaining in the third quarter, Hall found himself wide open down the middle of the field, and Plitt hit him again for a 48-yard touchdown.
Plitt finished 17-of-28 for 188 yards and two touchdowns, while Hall compiled 150 yards from scrimmage (137 receiving, 13 rushing). With Hall and other weapons on the outside, Plitt understands his responsibility of facilitating the ball around.
“Being a quarterback, you have to know where Justin Hall is at,” Plitt said. “You have to know where Yo’Heinz Tyler and Jayshon Jackson are at, because they’re going to be your playmakers. Give them the ball in space, and they're going to make a play, and that’s really my job as a quarterback.”
With under three minutes left in the third quarter, Western Illinois was driving in hopes to tie the score back up after falling behind 21-14. However, their drive ended abruptly when Sampson threw the ball directly to junior defensive back Nic Jones. Jones finished with four tackles and two pass breakups. After his first career interception, Jones credits his mentality and preparation.
“We stayed disciplined, with our eyes, in our zone,” Jones said. “We knew they were going to have to come out and try new things, different things. We trusted our instinct, what we saw on film, and everybody doing their job. Nothing really changed for us, just coming out and doing our job.”
Near the end of the first half, the Leathernecks were at midfield after recovering a Ball State fumble. Western Illinoins had the opportunity to take the lead before halftime, but junior defensive end Tavion Woodard had other plans. Woodard recorded two consecutive sacks which forced the Leathernecks to punt. After not having fans a year ago, Woodard is grateful to have a full stadium to compete in front of again.
“Seeing the fans out there, it was great,” Woodard said. “It hyped us up, them cheering us on. Shoutout to the fans for coming out and supporting us.”
A pair of running backs were responsible for the other Ball State touchdowns. Redshirt senior running back Will Jones scored the first touchdown of the second half on a 21-yard run, while freshman Carson Steele found a hole in the middle of the defense early in the fourth quarter, leading to a 37-yard touchdown. The two combined for 172 yards on 5.4 yards per carry.
For the Leathernecks, senior quarterback Connor Sampson led the passing offense with 367 yards on 30-of-43 passing, with two touchdowns and one interception. Senior wide receiver Dennis Houston tallied 12 receptions, 237 yards and two touchdowns.
Ball State returns to action Sept. 11 against Penn State (0-0). Kickoff is 3:30 p.m.
Contact Charleston Bowles with comments at email@example.com or on Twitter @cbowles01.