BY CORY STACE | Ball State Sports Link
In Friday’s season opener at Georgia State, Ball State’s defense could not have performed much better. The Cardinals held the Panthers to 272 yards as head coach Mike Neu won his debut with his alma mater, 31-21 at the Georgia Dome.
Jerome Smith Pick Six
Only four plays into the game, Riley Neal’s pass attempted to KeVonn Mabon was intercepted by Georgia State cornerback Jerome Smith, and returned 48 yards for the first touchdown of the game to put Georgia State up 7-0.
The interception came on a 3rd and 11 out route to Mabon with pressure up the middle from the Georgia State defense.
Neal tried to force the pass into Mabon to pick up the first down. Smith undercut the route in stride to dash his way into the endzone.
Why Not Make It Two?
To make things worse for the Cardinals, the interceptions for Riley Neal did not stop at just one. One possession later, a Neal pass on third down was tipped at the line of scrimmage to end up in the hands of Smith — again.
The pressure came from Georgia State’s Shawanye Lawrence on the right side, as he was able to get his big right paw up to send the pass spinning in the air.
Smith was able to find his way under the ball to make his second interception of the game after making only one interception in 2015 playing corner for the Panthers.
Ball State Responds
After the Cardinals defense came up with timely stops to keep seven on the scoreboard for Georgia State, Ball State was able to craft a nine play, 41-yard drive later in the first quarter to tie the game.
The drive ended on a James Gilbert one-yard bulldozing run up the middle behind stout blocking from the Cardinals offensive line.
The drive composed a good mixture of runs and passes for Ball State including a 15-yard reception from Mabon that was inches away from his first touchdown of the young season to set the up the Cardinals at the Georgia State one-yard line.
Corey Lacanaria Emerges
Nearing the end of the first half, Ball State trailed 14-7. On a 3rd and 16, slot wide receiver Corey Lacanaria made an acrobatic catch on the sideline for the Cardinals to pick up a first down.
Georgia State safety, Bryan Williams, came over in time for the interception to have the ball slip through his hands. Lacanaria torqued his body on the sideline to come down with the leaping grab.
The third down conversion set up a James Gilbert to drive for his second 1-yard touchdown of the game. In return, the Cardinals tied the game up at 14 entering halftime with momentum.
Cardinals Running Wild
With a 17-14 lead for Ball State in the fourth quarter, the Cardinals decided to ramp up the rushing attack to extend their lead.
This time it wasn’t Green or Gilbert, but it was both senior running back Teddy Williamson and sophomore quarterback Riley Neal breaking big gains.
Neal held onto a read option with nothing but green grass in front of him as he burst for a 46-yard gain.
Joey Lynch, Ball State’s offensive coordinator, caught the Georgia State defense napping with the first quarterback-designed run of the game in order to break Neal loose.
The drive was capped off on the next play with Williamson’s purposeful 15-yard touchdown run. He broke three tackles in the process to put the Cardinals up 24-14 giving the game’s first two-possession lead by either team.
Let’s Not Forget the Defense
With the two-possession lead, the Ball State defense continued to halt any offensive movement from the Panthers.
On the next drive after the Williamson touchdown, the Cardinals defense forced Georgia State to go three-and-out, tackling Panthers new quarterback, Aaron Winchester, for a two-yard loss on 3rd and 10.
Winchester tried to escape the pocket to the left side, but Ryan wrapped his ankles to prevent the mobile quarterback from picking up the third and long conversion.
The tackle for loss was just another example of the Cardinals defense coming up in a big situation to stop any momentum the Georgia State offense could put together in the second half.
That’s a Wrap
A touchdown for both teams later in the fourth quarter made the game 31-21, Ball State.
The Cardinals recovered an onside kick with 2:21 remaining in the fourth quarter.
Gilbert put the dagger into Georgia State on the final drive with a 43-yard scamper up the middle to push his rushing total to a career-high 160 yards.
After the run, the Cardinals were able to line up in victory formation for the first win of the season and the seventh consecutive season- opening win.