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FINAL SCORE: Eastern Michigan 24, Ball State 10
Samson Evans now owns the school record for career touchdowns scored.
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It might’ve felt a little too early in the year for a “this is a must-win” motivator, but the circumstances certainly made it so. Eastern Michigan has its hopes set on getting to the MAC title game, and the only way it was going to get there was if it won its homecoming battle against Ball State, a divisional foe that doesn’t see many losses in Rynearson Stadium.
Coming into the ball game, Ball State, in almost 50 years as a MAC club, had lost only six contests at EMU.
Well, make that seven now — EMU 24, Ball State 10 was the final this time around.
The win evens out Eastern Michigan’s overall record at 3-3, and is the first conference dub of the season (1-1).
Eastern’s back was against the wall heading into this week after a road loss to Central Michigan last week. Knowing that this game was one that the team absolutely needed to come away with a win to stay in the early hunt for the MAC West crown, EMU head coach Chris Creighton kept the message to his team tight and to the point.
“What we really talked about is everybody, everything we got,” Creighton said after the game. “It was far from perfect, but it felt like Eastern Michigan football today with all three phases working together.”
Offense start strong
Eastern Michigan’s offense opened with as strong as a performance as one could’ve asked for. Three scores on its first three possessions: another 50+ yard field goal from Jesus Gomez, Samson Evans’ record-breaking run, then J.B. Mitchell’s first career touchdown catch.
After EMU’s first drive was stalled out after 26 yards over nine plays, Gomez bailed out the offense after Austin Smith was sacked twice on the drive.
On its second drive, after Mitchell helped out with a trio of catches, and a defensive pass interference in the end zone helped put the ball at the 2-yard line to set up his fourth run of the drive and 32nd score of his career.
That touchdown put Evans ahead of Gary Patton, and everybody else that has scored for EMU. He tied the school record last year, then barreled through the end zone in the second quarter for his big, career moment.
“It feels good,” Evans said after the game. “It wasn’t something that I’ve been thinking about a lot but the whole staff and a lot of the players, they were rooting me on and kept reminding me what was on the line, the record, and it was good to finally get it.”
After Ball State crossed midfield on offense with the following drive, redshirt-freshman Barry Manning caused a fumble that would be recovered on EMU’s own 38-yard line. Nine plays later, Smith found Mitchell in the end zone for a 3-yard score with Mitchell’s toes dragging in bounds.
“J.B. just had, like, three shoutouts in the locker room. Guys are so excited for him,” Creighton said. “He had a really good game.”
Through three possessions for each offense, EMU reached a comforting 17-3 lead. Sure turned into just a one-score advantage at halftime as Ball State scored on a TD pass to reigning First Team All-MAC TE Tanner Koziol, but still a comforting situation.
The last score of the game on EMU’s second drive of the second half when Smith found Hamze El-Zayat wide open on a vertical route up the middle and let the receiver run away with a 50-yard touchdown.
The last time they connected on a touchdown was, likewise, a 50-yard score to give EMU the win against UMass.
An encouraging start, a step in the right direction. However, on the whole, EMU still allowed too many hits behind the O-line (10 TFL, 5 sacks, 3 QB hurries), especially in the second half. EMU punted three times in the second half, and gained a total of zero yards on those drives. The one scoring chance EMU had (drive: 11 plays, 37 yards) was on a 51-yard field goal try by Gomez, which went right of the upright.
Smith was 18-for-28 passing this week for 192 yards and 2 TD. No interceptions.
Rushing, Evans led the team with 42 yards (14 carries), followed by Jaylon Jackson at 39 (8 att.), and Smith at -20 yards officially (14 att.), mostly from being sacked five times (28 gained, 48 lost). Receiving, Mitchell had another career day with 7 grabs for 71 yards, and 1 TD. El-Zayat had 63 receiving yards on two catches, and Tanner Knue added 23 yards on 3 catches.
Defense with late resolve
Stand up and clap it up for this defense. While EMU did get out-gained on offense (306 yards for Ball State, 253 for EMU), there are two numbers I want to acknowledge for a moment.
The first number is how many points Ball State had in the second half — 0. I think that speaks for itself.
The other number I want to think about with this defense is 35.
That, 35, is where Ball State could’ve done more damage on the scoreboard in the second half.
Ball State’s offense punted to end its first three drives of the second half, then it had its best field position of the day. In an EMU punt to midfield, Ball State’s return was whistled dead on a fair catch, but returner Qian Magwood initially ran the ball and like he was surprised to hear the ref blow his whistle. Joe Sparacio, while the return man turned to face the official in confusion, ran into and hit the returner and was flagged for a personal foul. The added 15 yards gave Ball State its best start to a drive of the game
That’s where great resolve comes in. It took 10 plays for the Cardinals to only move the ball 28 yards because Ball State was forced to two convert two fourth downs on the drive.
On 4th & 3 from the EMU 15, QB Layne Hatcher completed a pass to Koziol for 10 yards. Then on 4th & goal from the 7, Hatcher completed his short pass to his playmaker — RB Marquez Cooper — short of the goal line, and EMU corner Kempton Shine stood him up for the stop.
But that wouldn’t be the last time EMU’s defense saw the field. Mitch Tomasek booted a 70-yard screamer, as per usual, to flip the field and Ball State’s offense made one last attempt at getting past EMU.
Hatcher completed his first three passes before his had an overthrow, but even that resulted in more yards for the Cardinals. Targeting, Bennett Walker was flagged for his his hit on Koziol. Walker gets disqualified (and will miss the first half of next week) in his third start with EMU.
In EMU territory, Hatcher completed a short pass to Cooper again, but that would be demolished by a huge hit by Mikey Haney, who made his first start since the 2021 Lending Tree Bowl. The ball popped out of Cooper’s hands and into DT Tim Grant-Randall’s for the turnover.
Defending the QBs
Ball State rotated both Layne Hatcher and Kiael Kelly at quarterback. Hatcher was used for his arm, and Kelly was used for his legs.
Kelly had a really loud day with his legs, too. He was Ball State’s leading rusher with 94 yards (9 carries), and his 42-yard run in the first quarter is what put Ball State in field goal range.
Hatcher went 20/33 passing for 132 yards with just one score.
Said Creighton on planning for a second quarterback this week: “(Kelly) is an incredible athlete that they like to use in a bunch of ways. The touchdown that they got, used him as a decoy on a ‘now screen’ and got their receiver-tight end running a little too free for a pretty easy touchdown for him. Even when we knew that he was in the game and knew that they liked to run him, he was going to cause some problems. He’s a good player.”