The Cardinals (2-2) were in search of their third win over a Big Ten squad in five years under head coach Pete Lembo and first win over a nationally-ranked team in nearly three years.
“It was one of those nights where you felt really good about the effort and how we competed, but at the end of the day to beat a quality team like this you have to play an extremely clean football game,” head coach Pete Lembo said.
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Late in the half, the Wildcats fumbled deep in their own territory, giving Ball State the ball at Northwestern’s 22-yard line. One play later, freshman QB Riley Neal hooked up with senior WR Jordan Williams for a touchdown strike to give the Cardinals the 10-7 lead.
However, that lead could have been bigger. Ball State missed two field goals in the half and fumbled at the Northwestern four-yard line on the first play of the second quarter.
Northwestern came out of intermission and scored on its first three possessions to jump ahead, 24-10.
The Cardinals finally responded late in the third quarter to stay in the ball game. Neal jump-started the offense with his arm and legs. First he hit Williams on a 19-yard pass and then scrambled 22 yards to move the football into Northwestern territory. Williams capped the drive with a spectacular 29-yard touchdown catch in the back of the end zone to cut the deficit to 24-16. The Cardinals missed the ensuing PAT.
Ball State made one more push deep into Northwestern territory with five minutes to play. Sophomore RB Darian Green rumbled 21 yards around the right end to move the ball to the Wildcats’ 19-yard line. When the drive stalled, the Cardinals settled for a 36-yard field goal to make the score, 24-19.
Northwestern ran down the clock on its final drive, converting two big third downs to essentially ice the game.
Williams scored both of Ball State’s touchdowns and finished with season highs in receptions (eight) and receiving yards (133). Ball State’s 19 points were more than Northwestern allowed in its first three games combined.
Junior CB Tyree Holder chipped in with his first interception of the season as well as a forced fumble. Senior LB Ben Ingle led all players with 13 tackles.
Northwestern’s Justin Jackson ran for 184 yards on 33 carries. QB Clayton Thorson threw for 256 yards and three scores.
Ball State returns to MAC play next Saturday when the Cardinals host Toledo at 3 p.m.