Ball State looked like a team out to prove something in a record-setting performance Thursday night against Central Connecticut.
With an emphatic 42-6 victory in the season opener, the Cardinals officially put a disappointing 2017 season behind them. In so doing, they gave the Scheumann Stadium crowd a glimpse of what a healthy offense and a revamped defense could look like this fall.
Ball State piled up a school-record 652 yards, topping a mark set more than 40 years ago, and came within 12 seconds of pitching its first shutout in more than a decade.
“We’ve been waiting for this night,” Ball State head coach Mike Neu said. “Our players have been chomping at the bit since the end of last season. I think as much as anything else we’ve grown as a team. We always have each other’s back no matter what because we’ve been through some trying times.”
The Cardinals always expected to boast a wealth of playmakers this season, and that was certainly on full display Thursday. The three-headed monster of James Gilbert, Malik Dunner and Caleb Huntley all contributed more than 70 yards from scrimmage out of the backfield. Ten BSU players caught passes, including true freshman Yo’Heinz Tyler who hauled in two second-half touchdowns on the first two receptions of his college career.
“It starts with the guys up front,” Neu said. “The credit has to go to the offensive line because they give the running backs holes to do what they do. It was good to see number 34 [James Gilbert] back out there. He’s a warrior.”
Sure, the competition will get stronger, especially next week when the Cardinals travel to South Bend. But Central Connecticut is no slouch just because they come from a lower division. The Blue Devils made the FCS playoff last year after going unbeaten in the Northeast Conference and were picked to win the league again this year.
What was really noticeable Thursday was the energy level on the field. Whether it was Justin Hall skying over an upright defender, Dunner scampering 36 yards on a catch-and-run down the sidelines or Brett Anderson dislodging the ball from Central Connecticut’s return man, the Cardinals had plays to be excited about all night.
Neal and Gilbert showed no rust in their return to the field after missing the final nine games of last season to injury. Neal threw two touchdowns and ran for another, completing 23 of 30 passes for 259 yards. Gilbert, an All-MAC First Teamer two years ago, ran for 100 yards and a score on 14 carries. Both of them exited the game before the end of the third quarter.
“I thought Riley was really in control,” Neu said. “He made some big throws and checks at the line of scrimmage. Without looking at the tape, I was really proud of him. I thought he did a good job, and it’s great to have number 15 back in there.”
On the other side of the ball, Ball State’s new 3-4 defense was a hit. The Cardinals held Central Connecticut to 291 total yards, more than 70 yards below the Blue Devils’ average a season ago. CCSU all-time leading passer Jacob Dolegala threw for just 117 yards.
The Blue Devils reached beyond the Ball State 40-yard line only three times the whole game … once on the first possession of the night, once on their final possession and once when Ball State turned the ball over on a fake punt at its own 22.
Only on the final possession did Central Connecticut finally break through. On a third-and-goal from the 2-yard line, Aaron Dawson barreled in to the end zone to spoil the Cardinals’ shutout attempt.
Ball State built a 21-0 halftime lead behind 384 yards of offense, a number that was nearly 50 yards higher than their average game total from a year ago. The Cardinals finished the night with 652 yards, surpassing the school record of 618 set in 1977 against Cal Poly Pomona.
Neal hit Nolan Givan for a 20-yard touchdown on the Cardinals’ second possession as the duo hooked up for the team’s opening score for the second year in a row. Dunner and Neal ran for second-quarter touchdowns as the Cardinals built their lead.
Gilbert scampered 35 yards for a touchdown early in the second half to stretch the Ball State advantage to 28-0. Then Tyler got in on the action, snagging a 20-yard touchdown pass from Neal over a Central Connecticut defender. He later connected with backup quarterback Drew Plitt on a 63-yard catch-and-run for a score that was longer than any passing play for BSU a year ago.
Thursday’s victory was Ball State’s ninth straight in a home opener. The Cardinals will return to action Saturday, Sept. 8, with their first-ever meeting against Notre Dame. The Cardinals and Fighting Irish will kick at 3:30 p.m. on NBC from South Bend.