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Second-half comeback not enough, Ball State falls to Liberty
Flames become second ranked FCS team to defeat Cardinals at home in as many seasons
Needing just one yard for a touchdown, quarterback Mike Brown called his own number. The reigning Big South Player of the Year took the snap in shotgun and barreled over two Ball State linebackers into the end zone.
The inspired running from the Flame’s best offensive weapon gave the visitors a 27-23 lead late in the fourth quarter. Despite a comeback attempt from the Cardinals’ offense, the score stood. Liberty, ranked No. 18 in the Football Championship Subdivision, left Muncie with the upset and Ball State was left with its second loss to a ranked FCS team in as many seasons.
Stan Parrish had talked all week about Brown’s ability, calling him the best quarterback his team would face this fall. But it was Brown’s feet and moxie that beat Ball State, not his arm.
“He’s a gamer,” Parrish said. “You don’t get guys like that very often.”
Even after Brown flattened a pair of defenders, the Cardinals still had a chance to win. Quarterback Keith Wenning, who took over for starter Kelly Page on the last drive of the first half, almost completed a stunning comeback.
With just under two minutes left, Wenning lofted a spiral toward wide receiver Tori Gibson for what appeared to be the go-ahead touchdown. But the ball fell through Gibson’s hands, and the Cardinals had missed their golden opportunity to stave off the upset.
“You’ve got to make plays if you’re going to win,” Parrish said. “We had it right in our hands.”
To even be in a position to win the game took a comeback that seemed more than a little far-fetched at halftime. Liberty led Ball State 14-3 after an uninspiring first half.
After halftime, the Cardinals’ defense turned up the pressure on the Flames and made it a game again. Cornerback Charlie Todd started the second half with a 36-yard interception return for a touchdown. It was the first touchdown on an interception return for Ball State since Nov. 25, 2008, when it beat Western Michigan.
Liberty drove into field goal range on the next possession. But instead of taking the momentum back with a 50-yard kick that would have made it a two-score game, safety Sean Baker blocked the field goal and cornerback Jason Pinkston returned the loose ball 22 yards.
“The defense helped us in the second half,” left guard Michael Switzer said. “But we couldn’t finish.”
Wenning didn’t waste the good field position the defense had gift wrapped for him and the offense. He completed a four-play, 44-yard drive with a 15-yard touchdown pass to tight end Aaron Mershman.
It was Wenning’s first career touchdown pass and Mershman’s first touchdown reception, something that seemed out of the realm of possibility just few weeks ago. Then Mershman was still a quarterback, competing with Page and Wenning to be the starter. He was happy to haul in the touchdown, though it was hard to stay that way after the game.
“At the time, it was exciting,” Mershman said. “Now it doesn’t mean a whole lot.”
As unlikely as Mershman catching Wenning’s first touchdown pass was, the Cardinals scoring any points on offense appeared to be a long shot in the first half. The rushing attack that carried Ball State on Opening Night against Southeast Missouri State disappeared, thwarted by Liberty’s defense. Page was once again inconsistent, overthrowing targets in key situations.
Looking to jumpstart the offense, Parrish made the move to Wenning. He impressed his coach with a 50-yard drive in the final 55 seconds of the first half. Though Ian McGarvey missed a 44-yard field goal to end the half, Wenning earned more playing time.
But Wenning would never have had the chance to pull Ball State back into the game if the defense, led by Baker, hadn’t turned its game around. The safety grabbed two interceptions, the third multiple interception game of his career, and blocked a field goal.
Baker said he was just in the right place to make plays. He credited his field goal block to a new play Liberty didn’t see on film.
“We put in a new block with two jumpers in the middle,” he said. “I was fortunate to have the ball kicked right into my hands.”
The loss isn’t what the Cardinals wanted as they enter the toughest part of their schedule. Ball State will go on the road for three weeks, playing Purdue, No. 9 Iowa and Central Michigan.
Parrish couldn’t avoid the disappointment. When asked if the Cardinals suffered any injuries he said no, except perhaps the most important aspect of any team.
“Just our pride,” he said. “It would have been a great 30-27 win, wouldn’t it?”
By Teddy Cahill, The Ball State Daily News