WEST POINT – If Rich Ellerson were given the opportunity, he could’ve done worse midway through the first quarter Saturday than to choose up new sides. Alas, the NCAA does not permit such a manuever. It still might have been worth a try.
“We weren’t good enough,” the Army coach said after the Black Knights’ 30-22 loss to Ball State at Michie Stadium. “Given the opponent we were playing today, the formula for victory was staying on the field. We need not to have a three-and-out, and we had a bunch of them. We need not to have a turnover in scoring position, and we need not miss a relatively short field goal. Good football teams don’t do those things, and we’re playing nothing but good football teams.”
In contrast, Army has been anything but good. The tone of its seventh loss in eight games was set early, when Ball State scored on its first two possessions, an all-too-familiar pattern this season. In six of Army’s eight games, it has permitted its opponent to score on its first possession. Army has lost all six of those games.
“I missed a tackle on that first drive, and that could have gotten us off the field,” Army linebacker Geoffery Bacon said. “We have players making plays. Alex Meier made a lot of plays today and stepped up. Brandon Fusilier-Jeffires made some plays, too. It wasn’t really us getting into a hole. It hurt us, but it didn’t kill us. It didn’t get us down. We were ready to make plays, and we did that, but we just didn’t make the plays we needed to make when we needed to make them.”
Again, that’s been the story all season for the Black Knights. Ball State completed its first drive, a 9-play, 75-yard effort, when Keith Wenning hit Jamill Smith on a 6-yard touchdown pass. It took 12 plays for the Cardinals to move 60 yards for their second touchdown, a 2-yard run by Jahwan Edwards. Part of Ball State’s offensive dominance was based on its ability to hang onto the ball, which has been one of Army’s few strengths this season. The Cardinals held the ball for 30 minutes, 46 seconds. And when the Black Knights did have the ball, they were limited early in moving it.
“We got ourselves back in scoring position a couple times. We can’t be three-and-out,” Ellerson said. “When we battle ourselves into scoring position, we have to get points. It’s frustrating. We’re doing some good stuff, but we had a penalty in a critical situation, we went the wrong way in a critical situation. Defensively, we struggled, but if you told me that we would have gotten that takeaway, made them kick field goals and got them to punt a few times, I felt like that was the script. The script was that they wouldn’t get many turns, and we were going to possess the football and be productive. That was the key to victory. It was going to be hard enough to move the ball and score on these guys. We don’t need to double-down on those things.”
Actually, Army had one of its typical run-dominant games, finishing with 341 yards rushing. Quarterback Trent Steelman finished with 106 yards and fullback Larry Dixon with 100.
“We feel good, but there are a lot more yards to be had, especially with the talent we have at running back,” Army offensive lineman Michael Kime said. “With Trent at the helm and guys like Raymond Maples and Larry Dixon and Malcolm Brown back there. We need to give them some more opportunities to get in space. It feels good to get that many yards, but there are still a lot more yards that we can get.”
On Ball State’s side, Wenning more than made up the difference, completing 18 of 27 passes for 189 yards and two touchdowns.
“Offensively the things that jumped out were that we got off to a really good start, we knew that was going to be critical in having a chance to win the game,” Ball State coach Pete Lembo said. “We were able to maintain some kind of balance, run the ball and move the chains, get some critical first downs and stay on the field, running the ball.”
Traling 14-0, Army broke through on Hayden Tippet’s 7-yard run with 1:50 left in the first quarter, but, once again, the defense could not return the favor. Less than a minute into the second quarter, Ball State’s Steven Schott kicked a 49-yard field goal. Army closed to within 17-13 thanks to two Dan Grochowski field goals, a 24-yarder with 5:22 left in the second quarter and a 45-yarder with 10:56 left in the third. That was the closest it got.
Ball State, 6-3 extended its lead on a Schott 29-yard field with 4:12 remaining in the third quarter; Wenning’s 13-yard touchdown pass to KeVonn Mabon with 13:38 left in the game gave the Cardinals a two-touchdown lead. Army came right back, finishing a 73-yard drive with a 13-yard touchdown run by Brown. Steelman saw this as a window to a win.
“Absolutely,” he said. “We always have faith in our plays and what we can do as an offensive unit. We were ready to go, and we had full confidence that we were going to get the job done. Unfortunately, we just came up a little short.”
Ball State put the game away with Schott’s 37-yard field goal with less than five minutes remaining. Army scored its last two points when Ball State took a safety as time expired.
“Maybe you can’t see it, but we made some progress,” Ellerson said of his team’s defense. “We’re getting some stops. We’re stopping a good offense. We’re creating some opportunities.”
Just not enough.