Andy Sneddon, CMUChippewas.com
MUNCIE, Ind. - Cooper Rush threw for 316 yards, Brian Eavey kicked three field goals, and the Central Michigan defense slammed the door when it had to Saturday as the Chippewas gritted out a 23-21 victory over Ball State.
The win, which snapped a five-game losing streak against Ball State, lifted CMU to 4-4, 3-1 in the Mid-American Conference. Ball State is 2-6, 1-3. CMU plays at Akron, 3-4, 1-2, next Saturday.
It was CMU's first road victory of the season, and the first away from Kelly/Shorts Stadium for first-year coach John Bonamego.
"I'm just really proud of our kids for hanging in there and never throwing in the towel," Bonamego said. "We made the plays when we needed to make them.
"We'll take the win any way we can get it. It's great to get the win. It's nice to know you can come out ahead in a close game. It just feels really good to get a win on the road and get back to .500."
Rush completed 30-of-38 pass attempts and tossed two touchdown passes.
"Definitely not pretty," Rush said. "We showed our resolve. Win ugly. We don't care. Tough battle with a team that's got a lot of history, lot of tradition here. We're just happy to pull it out."
Eavey tied his career-best with the three field goals, the second of which, a 47-yarder, was a career-long. All three of his field goals came into a stiff southerly breeze.
"In practice I was hitting 50-yarders," said Eavey, a junior. "I knew I could hit it. I just had to angle it, just a little bit. It was more of a crosswind and that made it a little more difficult. You've got to angle it and kick the ball a little bit lower rather than higher."
Bolstered by the confidence from his career-long field goal, Eavey nailed what proved to be the game-winning 34-yarder with under six minutes remaining.
Eavey's 47-yarder early in the fourth quarter gave the Chippewas a 20-14 lead.
Ball State immediately seized the momentum when KeVonn Mabon returned the kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown to put the Cardinals in front, 21-20.
The Chippewas responded with an 11-play, 55-yard drive that ended with Eavey's game-winning boot. The Chippewas converted two third downs on the drive, the first on third-and-18 from their own 20.
Martez Walker took a screen pass from Rush and gained 19 yards on the play, giving the Chippewas a first down. Walker finished with 52 yards on four receptions, and he gained 86 yards on 19 carries.
"(Walker) stepped up today, he was just unbelievable," Rush said. "Play of the game was that third down, third-and-20 or whatever it was."
The Chippewa defense stood tall after that, twice holding the Cardinals on fourth down, the final time on fourth-and-9 from the Ball State 45 with just over a minute remaining.
CMU called a blitz against freshman quarterback Riley Neal, and the pressure provided by Nathan Ricketts and Trevor Apsey forced an incompletion which effectively ended the game.
"We know we've just got to dig deep and find a way to get off the field no matter what," CMU senior defensive end Blake Serpa said. "No matter who does it. Doesn't matter."
Central Michigan held Ball State to 79 total yards and three first downs in the second half. The Cardinals' lone score in the final two quarters came on Mabon's kickoff return.
The Chippewas trailed 14-10 at the break after Ball State's James Gilbert scored on a 1-yard plunge on the final play of the first half.
"I think coming out of the half the defense really took on the challenge," Serpa said. "We felt we had played good enough in the first half to not be down like we were but we ended up giving them a few too many plays."
The Chippewas marched down the field on the game's opening possession, and Rush capped the drive with a 15-yard TD pass to Corey Willis.
Eavey's 29-yard field goal midway through the first quarter upped CMU's lead to 10-0 and it appeared the Chippewas would roll.
A fumble by CMU's Jay Roberson gave Ball State possession at their own 39, and the Cardinals went 61 yards in eight plays to draw to 10-7 on 22-yard Neal-to-Corey Lacanaria TD pass.
Neal finished 25-of-40 passing for 187 yards. But just 77 of those yards came in the second half.
"At halftime our guys were very confident," Bonamego said. "We knew exactly what happened in the first half. We knew we hadn't played our best football by any stretch. We just challenged them to play a great second half."