MUNCIE – One of the most prolific pass-catchers in Ball State history helped extend one of the longest winning streaks in Ball State history.
Cardinals wide receiver Justin Hall hauled in two long touchdown catches and finished with eight catches for 137 yards as the Cardinals overcame a tougher-than-expected challenge from visiting Western Illinois to open the season with a 31-21 victory at Scheumann Stadium in front of an announced crowd of 13,149 on Thursday night.
"We won, but we have a lot of things that we need to work on, a lot of things that we need to clean up," Ball State coach Mike Neu said. "Maybe the best thing that could have happened to us, a little bit of a slice of humble pie, but still get a win."
The victory was the eighth in a row for the defending MAC champions, a streak that is tied for the second-longest active in the country along with Oklahoma and Texas A&M.
Hall's heroics began early. After three straight punts between the teams to open the game, the two-time All-MAC receiver beat his man deep and quarterback Drew Plitt found him in stride for a 49-yard touchdown that sent Ball State (1-0) to a 7-0 lead.
The Leathernecks (0-1), nearly four-touchdown underdogs, knotted the score at 7 in the second quarter, dinking and dunking their way to a 13-play, 96-yard touchdown drive that took 6:55. Ball State forced a field goal attempt that missed, but lined up illegally on the play and the resulting penalty gave Western Illinois a first down.
The visitors had a chance to take the lead after Hall lost a fumble in Cardinals territory, but back-to-back sacks from Tavion Woodard sent the game into halftime even.
Hall was "upset," in his words, about his team's performance in the first half.
"I feel like we came out flat," the receiver said. "After that first touchdown we had, I guess we thought we already had the win and that they weren't going to come out and compete. We have to compete at all times no matter who the opponent is. ... We came out thinking this team was going to be just some pushover and obviously they weren't.
"I'm actually happy a little bit that they came and knocked us in the mouth because we came out in that second half like monsters and we were running that ball up and down the field. If we come out with the same effort and intensity we came out with in the second half, we'll be fine."
The Cardinals got back to basics to open the second half. They started the third quarter with a 68-yard touchdown drive that featured nine runs in 10 plays. Ball State's coaching staff made a concerted effort to establish the run early in the second half and the Cardinals won the resulting battle in the trenches.
"I look at myself first, I didn't do a good job in the first half, I didn't commit enough, I didn't get the line of scrimmage established enough," Neu said. "We have an awful good group of guys on the offensive line so at halftime, we talked and we wanted to go to some heavier sets (more running backs and tight ends and fewer receivers). We wanted to make sure we established the line of scrimmage and showed our physicality and it was great to grind out a drive there to open the second half. That really set the tone."
Norwell graduate Curtis Blackwell started for the Cardinals on the offensive line, the fifth straight season he has been a starter.
The Cardinals finished the opening drive of the second half with a score when running back Will Jones broke multiple tackles on the way to a 21-yard touchdown. Jones had 18 carries for 93 yards.
The Ball State lead lasted for exactly 12 seconds, however. On the first play of the ensuing Western Illinois drive, wide receiver Dennis Houston caught a pass from quarterback Connor Sampson in the flat, made Ball State's Amechi Uzodinma II miss along the sideline and raced 75 yards for a score that deadlocked the game at 14.
Houston had 12 catches for 237 yards and two touchdowns.
But then Hall struck again. From the WIU 48, he sprinted straight up the field in the slot and a blown coverage left him all by himself behind the defense. An easy pitch-and-catch from Plitt put the Cardinals ahead for good with 8:41 left in the third quarter. It was the third touchdown in a 1:48 stretch.
Hall has a catch in 44 straight games, the longest active streak in the country, and his 265 career catches are a national-best among active players, as well.
Ball State put the game away when 2020 Indiana Mr. Football Carson Steele broke up the middle for a 37-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter. Steele had seven carries for 79 yards.
"When (Steele) showed up here (on campus), he was physically ready to go," Neu said. "He's quickly earned the respect of his teammates on the practice field with how hard he runs. I knew he was going to run hard, it's good to see him break a couple."
Cardinals linebacker Brandon Martin, the 2020 MAC co-Defensive Player of the Year, left the game in the second half with a knee injury and did not return. Neu could only say that Martin would be evaluated today.