After all, it was a unit that ranked next-to-last in the Mid-American Conference last season, allowing nearly 520 yards and 36 points per game.
In Friday’s season opener at Georgia State, Ball State’s defense . . .
Georgia State punted on seven straight possessions at one point and managed only one offensive touchdown until scoring late on its final drive.
“We played a good football team in Georgia State,” Neu said. “I have a lot of respect for the job coach (Trent) Miles has done and a lot of respect for (assistant coaches) Rick Minter and Jesse Minter. There are some great coaches on that staff, and they went to a bowl game last year.
“We knew it was going to be a challenge, but our guys were up for it. We prepared hard for the last seven months, and it was great to see our hard work pay off.”
Ball State racked up 325 rushing yards, wearing down the Georgia State defense as the game progressed. The Cardinals scored all four of their touchdowns on the ground with two for James Gilbert and one each for Teddy Williamson and Darian Green.
Gilbert finished with a career-high 160 yards on 29 carries, while Green added 93 yards. The Cardinals, who started gashing the Panther defense for big gains in the fourth quarter, managed 267 of their 327 second-half yards on the ground.
“I think our offensive linemen stepped up,” Neu said. “They were so excited about the challenge. They wanted to take the challenge on, for us to be able to run the ball like that, knowing everybody in the building knew we were running the football. For us to have success like that and to finish the game, our offensive linemen deserve a ton of credit.”
It was a slow start offensively for Ball State, falling behind 14-7 while going three-and-out four times and throwing two interceptions. Both of those picks came at the hands of Georgia State corner Jerome Smith, who returned the first interception for the game’s opening touchdown.
Ball State’s defense created a pair of turnovers of its own to keep the Cardinals close until the offense could get going. Atlanta-area native Corey Hall -- who returned after missing all but last year’s season opener to injury -- picked off a pass, and defensive end Anthony Winbush forced a fumble.
The Cardinals finally found some offense on the final possession of the first half, but it wasn’t easy. They seemingly used sheer determination to send the game to halftime tied and swing the momentum.
Ball State took possession at the Georgia State 44-yard line with 6:18 left before the half. The Cardinals used nearly all of that time, converting two third downs and two fourth downs along the way. The second fourth-down play was James Gilbert’s second touchdown run of the game.
After halftime, Ball State looked like a new team offensively. A Morgan Hagee field goal gave the Cardinals the lead on their first possession, and a four-play, 82-yard drive in the fourth quarter put BSU in control.
That drive featured three rushes of at least 15 yards, including a 46-yarder on Riley Neal’s quarterback keeper. Williamson scored from 15 yards out on the next play to push the lead to 10.
Green added a touchdown, and the Cardinals were on the doorstep once again in the final minute before taking a knee.
Neal started slowly through the air but finished the game 15 for 29 for 130 yards. Senior receiver KeVonn Mabon was his top target, catching eight passes for 69 yards. A pair of Mabon’s catches set up both of Green’s 1-yard touchdown runs.
Ball State won its seventh straight season opener while playing its first true road opener since 2005. The Cardinals will be on the road again next week, traveling to play Saturday, Sept. 10 at Indiana. Kickoff is set for 4 p.m. on ESPNews.
(Courtesy of BSU Athletics)