The Cardinals have authored several memorable finishes in football against Toledo at Scheumann Stadium, and for a while in the fourth quarter it looked like another was beginning to bud. But as quickly as the opportunity began to take shape, it was snuffed out by a series of mistakes.
That was a game-long trend on a cold early fall day as the Cardinals seemingly kicked away every opportunity they had. Instead of a comeback, they were left scratching their heads as the Rockets claimed a 24-10 victory.
“The truth is, we didn’t do the things from the opening snap in terms of physicality and execution to beat a good football team,” Cardinals coach Pete Lembo. “This game came down to our inability to score any points and move the ball effectively in the first half and take advantage of turnovers, good field position.”
It wasn’t for a lack of cooperation by Toledo (4-0, 1-0 Mid-American Conference West). Rockets quarterback Phillip Ely tossed interceptions on his first two pass attempts in the game.
Tyree Holder picked off the first at the Ball State 43-yard line for his sixth career interception, and Terin Solomon snagged the second at the Cardinals’ 37. But Ball State (2-3, 1-1 MAC West) punted after a three-and-out series on Holder’s pick and again after a 10-play drive following Solomon’s interception ended at the Rockets’ 37 with a punt.
Lembo called it “critical” that the Cardinals didn’t produce points on either turnover.
“The defense got us the ball back, we had good field position early, we put together some decent drives to get the ball down into their territory, and we had nothing to show for it,” he said.
That set the tone for much of the game.
Late in the first quarter, quarterback Riley Neal lost a fumble on a run at the Toledo 34-yard line that wiped out a first down for the Cardinals and took away a scoring opportunity in a scoreless game.
Neal was out of sync in the passing game most of the first half, misfiring on seven of his 14 attempts.
“Riley certainly looked like a freshman at times,” Lembo said. “There were some passes where we were able to separate and had receivers in position to make the catch, and the ball was a little off the mark, whether it was high or wide and so forth,” Lembo noted. “The (fumble) deep in their territory also hurt.”
So did a miscue in the shotgun early in the third quarter when center Jacob Richard’s snap was wide and low and seemed to surprise Neal. The fourth-and-3 play from the Toledo 21 ended Ball State’s drive.
“It was a miscommunication,” said Richard, who made his 30th consecutive start.
While Ball State was having trouble, Toledo flourished on offense in the second quarter behind its two-pronged rushing attack of Terry Swanson and Damion Jones-Moore. They gouged the Cardinals’ defense for big gains to spur a 24-point explosion by the Rockets.
“Missed tackles, way too many missed tackles,” linebacker Ben Ingle summed up the Cardinals’ issues on defense.
The Cardinals played better in the second half, but a 24-3 deficit at halftime proved too big.
Neal settled down and was able to find wideout Jordan Williams after halftime. Williams was held to one catch in the first half before collecting six for 91 yards, including a 51-yard touchdown in the final two quarters.
“Obviously we made some more plays,” said Williams, who extended his streak of games with at least one reception to 29.
Enough plays to throw a scare into Toledo.
Williams’ touchdown with 11:12 left in the game brought the Cardinals within 14 points. They were on the verge of trimming their deficit to 24-17 with just under six minutes to go before more mistakes ended the threat.
First, Neal’s pass from the 4-yard line intended for a wide open Dylan Curry in the end zone was batted down near the line of scrimmage by Toledo. On the next play, Neal threw for an apparent touchdown to Williams but Curry was called for offensive pass interference to wipe out the score.
“I can tell you this, we certainly are not coaching any kind of picks or anything like that,” Lembo said of the call. “It was a crossing route, and I’m anxious to see that on film.”
The penalty pushed the Cardinals back to the 19, and a third-down pass was incomplete. Lembo opted for a 36-yard field-goal attempt instead of a pass from the 19 on fourth-and-goal.
“I don’t know about you guys, but we don’t have many good fourth-and-19 calls,” Lembo said of his decision. “It’s a throw-it-up at that point and maybe you come down with it.
“So we figured let’s try a field goal and get (within) 11 points, and an onside kick. We had all our timeouts left, and maybe we can get two possessions out of it.”
The strategy didn’t work as a Toledo lineman tipped a low kick by Morgan Hagee.
Neal finished 23-for-37 for a career-high 236 yards. Williams had seven catches for 100 yards, his second straight game at that level.
The Cardinals will play at Northern Illinois next Saturday.