MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. — James Gilbert had a pretty good freshman season for the Ball State football team a year ago when he ran for 608 yards and a team-high eight touchdowns.
His sophomore campaign is shaping up to be a special one. The Indianapolis product matched his freshman touchdown total and nearly reached his rookie yardage mark Saturday … in just the sixth game of the season.
Gilbert ran for 141 yards and two touchdowns, but Ball State came up short in a 24-21 loss to Central Michigan at Kelly/Shorts Stadium. It was the second straight week the Cardinals (3-3, 0-2 MAC) lost a Mid-American Conference West Division game by just one score.
Gilbert, who entered the game first in the MAC in rushing scores and third in yards, topped the 100-yard mark and scored multiple touchdowns for the second straight week. He now owns 590 rushing yards and eight touchdowns at the midway point of the regular season.
The Ball State defense came alive in the second half Saturday, sacking Central Michigan quarterback Cooper Rush five times. The Cardinals held the Chippewas (4-2, 1-1 MAC) without an offensive score over the final 30 minutes to give themselves a chance for a third road win.
But fourth-quarter turnovers were Ball State’s undoing. Central Michigan returned an interception for a touchdown on its first defensive play of the quarter and picked off another pass in the end zone on its last one. The second pick preserved the Chippewas’ first win over Ball State in the past five meetings in Mount Pleasant.
“It’s tough to overcome that on the road,” Neu said of the turnovers, “especially against a good team like Central Michigan.”
Rush threw for 269 yards and one touchdown on 21-of-32 passing, but only 76 of those yards came after halftime when he was under fire from the Ball State front seven. The Cardinals entered the game seventh in the nation in sacks and ran their season total to 23.
Anthony Winbush had two of those sacks Saturday. He and Kevin Willis dropped Rush on back-to-back plays on the Chippewas’ second possession of the third quarter to flip field position and provide a spark for the Cardinals after they trailed 17-7 at the break.
Ball State took over at the CMU 40-yard line following a short punt into the wind and scored eight plays later on an acrobatic grab by Damon Hazelton Jr. in the corner of the end zone. The touchdown cut the Central Michigan lead to 17-14, and the Ball State defense stood strong to force punts on the next two Chippewa possessions to maintain that margin.
But the momentum swung back into Central Michigan’s favor in one play after the second of those punts. Riley Neal’s pass to KeVonn Mabon on the sideline sailed high, and CMU’s Josh Cox picked it off and returned it 33 yards for a score to push the lead back to 10.
Ball State answered back quickly, thanks in large part to a 47-yard scamper from Gilbert. The running back capped the drive four plays later with a 1-yard rush to bring the Cardinals within three points one more time.
The defense again forced Central Michigan to punt on their next two possessions. Ball State had the ball twice, needing a field goal to tie or a touchdown to take the lead, but could not come up with points. Neal went deep for Hazelton on a first-down play from the 29-yard line on the final possession, but CMU’s Amari Coleman picked it off. The Chippewas then ran out the clock.
“Obviously, it’s disappointing,” Neu said. “We lost the turnover battle. We had an opportunity to go down the field at the end of the game. We did a good job executing the two-minute drive and unfortunately underthrew a go route.”
Neal completed 18-of-30 passes for 174 yards, hitting Mabon eight times for 56 yards. Aaron Hepp, who entered the game without a catch this season, had three receptions for 54 yards. His three catches came in the fourth quarter, including a pair of grabs on the final possession to help move the Cardinals into Central Michigan territory before the turnover.
Ball State’s 10-point deficit at halftime would have only been three if not for an improbable scoring drive from Central Michigan at the end of the second quarter. The Chippewas had the ball on their own 22-yard line with 32 seconds to play, heading into the wind. But they broke a big play with a 63-yard run from Devon Spaulding on a draw to give themselves a chance to add points.
Rush hit Corey Willis for a 15-yard score three plays later for a touchdown that proved to be crucial. Those were the last offensive points the Chippewas scored.
Spaulding finished the day with 157 rushing yards on 23 carries, while Willis led Central Michigan with six catches for 105 yards.
Ball State will be on the road again next week with a 3:30 p.m. kickoff at Buffalo on ESPN3.
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