By Doug Zaleski
MUNCIE, Ind. -- Ben Ingle said he was fooled on a curl route early in Saturday’s football game, but he didn’t fall out of position the second time.
That proved to be especially critical for Ball State as it turned in perhaps its most consistent effort on defense this season. The Cardinals bent at times, but they didn’t break in key situations.
The result was a 20-10 Mid-American Conference victory over UMass at Scheumann Stadium as the Cardinals ended a five-game losing streak.
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“I fixed my mistake,” said Ingle, who tied Lamont McPhatter for the team lead in tackles with 14. “I sat on the curl route and just read the quarterback. We made that adjustment at halftime and it ended up being a big play.”
The play could have been a six-yard touchdown pass to bring UMass within 20-17 with 9:42 left in the game. Instead, Ingle picked off the ball, and the Minutemen were unable to score in the final nine minutes of the game.
The Cardinals (3-6, 2-3 MAC West) had just enough of those types of plays to thwart a UMass offense that has one of the top passing attacks in the MAC.
The Minutemen entered the game ranked second in the league in passing yards per game (315.0) They possess the No. 3 passer in quarterback Blake Frohnapfel (290.6 per game) and a top receiver in Tajae Sharp, who was first in catches per game (11.0) and second in receiving yards (128.1).
UMass scored 20 points in the first half against Notre Dame and 28 in the opening half against Toledo, both of which are national top 25 teams. The 10 points against Ball State represented a season low for the Minutemen.
“To hold them to 10 points, it wasn’t just the secondary … everybody played a part,” free safety Martez Hester said.
Ball State had come up short defending the pass in recent games. Though it gave up yards against UMass, it also was able to make decisive plays.
The Cardinals were hurt in other games by playing soft coverages while trying to pressure the quarterback. They tried to pressure Frohnapfel but also played a lot of two-deep coverage to try to avoid big plays down the field.
“It really helped against a lot of their deeper throws, especially to the outside receivers,” Cardinals coach Pete Lembo said. “The kids executed it well. We mixed in a lot of coverages and more two-deep in the first half, and it kept them off balance.”
Though Ball State gave up 448 yards of offense to UMass, it allowed the Minutemen only a field goal in the second quarter and a touchdown in the third.
The Cardinals’ defense came up big in the closing moments after UMass reached the Ball State 21-yard line.
The Minutemen lined up to go for it on fourth-and-one, but a false start moved them back to the 26. Frohnapfel completed a pass for five yards, but it was a yard shy of the first down and Ball State took over with 3:52 left in the game while maintaining its 20-10 lead.
“We brought the linebackers up to give kind of a bluff (blitz) look,” Ingle said. “That pulls the guard. It was a great call that coach Kelly (defensive coordinator Kevin Kelly) dialed up.”
Frohnapfel completed 32 of 44 passes, but his average completion gained only eight yards. The quarterbacks Ball State played against in the past three games averaged 12.5 yards per completion.
“We gave up some completions, but we were right there to tackle it, whether it was a 1-on-1 situation or we had them boxed in,” Lembo said. “For the most part, it seemed we were containing big plays, and that’s a key to slowing (UMass) down.”
Ball State led 10-3 at halftime and received an immediate spark to start the second half when Darian Green returned the kickoff 85 yards to the UMass 15-yard line.
Two plays later, Cardinals quarterback Riley Neal passed 10 yards to Jordan Williams for a touchdown to open a 17-3 lead.
“I knew it was vital to set the tempo for the (second) half,” said Green, who entered the week as the MAC’s No. 5 kick returner and now has an average runback of 25.6 yards. “Me and the guys on that unit had a mission to go out and set the tempo.”
Ball State’s offense gained 427 yards in the game.
Neal completed 20-of-32 passes for 275 yards. KeVonn Mabon caught six passes for 150 yards (the highest total by a Cardinal this year) and Jordan Williams had six receptions for 60 yards.
Williams has 2,556 career receiving yards, the fourth player in school history to reach that level.
James Gilbert rushed 25 times for 73 yards, including a two-yard touchdown in the second quarter. Green added 71 yards on 16 carries.
Lembo called the victory “a real team win” and credited his players for not giving up despite the five-game losing streak.
“When you go through a tough stretch like we have, everybody on the outside tends to point fingers and (ask) ‘What about this?’ or ‘What about that?’ ” he said. “These guys have been practicing better, have had a lot of confidence, had a lot of energy.
“We haven’t really played 60 minutes, (but) this is probably the closest to it that we showed today.”
The Cardinals have a quick turnaround with a game Thursday night at Western Michigan. The Broncos are tied for the MAC West lead with Toledo at 4-0.
Massachusetts is home against Akron next Saturday.