BOWLING GREEN, Ky. – The Ball State football team overcame a 10-point deficit to grab a late lead on the road Saturday night only to see Western Kentucky spoil the comeback.
The two-time defending Conference USA champions answered Caleb Huntley’s go-ahead touchdown run with their only touchdown drive of the second half in the closing minutes. WKU then tacked on a pick-six on its way to a 33-21 victory.
“We’re disappointed, obviously,” Ball State head coach Mike Neu said. “To come on the road and have an opportunity with a one-point lead in the fourth quarter and not be able to finish the deal, we’re just disappointed.”
Ball State quarterback Jack Milas, starting for an injured Riley Neal, threw for 267 yards on the night. The fifth-year senior engineered a pair of second-half touchdown drives to give the Cardinals (2-2) the lead in their final tune-up for Mid-American Conference play.
Milas drove Ball State 80 yards late in the third quarter, connecting on 4-of-5 passes before handing off to Malik Dunner for a 5-yard touchdown run that cut Western Kentucky’s lead to 17-14.
The Hilltoppers (2-2) added a field goal before Ball State went back to work offensively midway through the fourth quarter.
Milas found receivers Justin Hall and Antwan Davis for a pair of highlight-reel grabs – Davis toe-tapping the along the right sideline – to set the Cardinals up at the 4-yard line. Huntley took it from there, scoring his second touchdown of the day as Ball State grabbed a 21-20 lead with 4:50 remaining.
“I’m proud of Jack on short notice,” Neu said. “I thought he came out and competed. He always stays locked in during the week to the game plan. You never know when your number is going to be called.”
The Cardinals were in front for the first time all night, and Western Kentucky had managed just three points over its previous six possessions. But the Hilltoppers figured something out offensively when they needed it.
WKU quarterback Mike White hit six consecutive passes, driving his team 76 yards in a little more than three minutes and finding Jakairi Moses for a score to put the Hilltoppers back on top 26-21 (two-point conversion failed).
Ball State got the ball back with 1:38 to play but could not move it. On third-and-10, under some duress and trying to make a play, Milas threw a pass that was intercepted by Joe Brown and returned 34 yards for a touchdown to seal the win for Western Kentucky.
The game was even from a total offense perspective with Ball State gaining 374 yards on the night and Western Kentucky logging 371. The Cardinals limited WKU to 52 rushing yards on 30 attempts, partly with the help of four sacks.
National sack leader Anthony Winbush added one to run his season total to 7.5. Jaylin Thomas got to White once, and Antonio Phillips and Verenzo Holmes each took him down on corner blitzes.
White threw for 319 yards, but the Cardinals picked him off twice in the red zone. Linebacker Damon Singleton intercepted White to halt a first-half scoring chance, and safety Bryce Cosby made a key interception in the end zone late in the third quarter to keep it a 10-point game and ignite the comeback.
“Our defense did a good job of keeping us in the game until we could get going there a little bit in the second half,” Neu said. “Even though we gave up a touchdown after we took the lead, we had an opportunity for a two-minute drive. We had plenty of time. We had one timeout, but we didn’t get it done.”
Huntley and Dunner combined for 101 yards on 28 carries for the Cardinals who also played without All-MAC running back James Gilbert and starting left guard Vinnie Palazeti among others.
“You miss those guys; you miss their experience,” Neu said. “It’s hard to replace that. But our job as coaches is to always make sure our men are prepared. Every team has injury situations they have to deal with. The next man has to be ready to go.”
Ball State will go on the road again next week to open MAC play at defending league champion Western Michigan. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. Saturday in Kalamazoo, Michigan.