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Colleges

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Cards answer wake-up call to win opener

– Ball State football coach Pete Lembo said it more than once, as August waned and Thursday’s season opener with Illinois State approached: Do not doze on these FCS guys.

He should have talked louder. Those snooze alarms can be pesky things.

In front of an opening-night crowd of 16,397 in Scheumann Stadium, Illinois State – 9-4 and an FCS playoff team a year ago – stunned the Cardinals with two quick scores and led by a dozen points before Keith Wenning and Jordan Williams shook Ball State awake, and the Cardinals went barging off to a 51-28 victory.

“We beat a really good football team tonight,” Lembo said.

“Really, really like how everybody kept their composure. There was no panic at halftime, no peeling paint off the walls in there. We just went about our business.”

Wenning’s 16-yard touchdown to Williams with four seconds left in the half trimmed a 21-9 deficit to 21-16 at the break, and the Redbirds never saw daylight again. An aroused Ball State defense shut them down the rest of the way, Wenning and Willie Snead hooked up for two second-half touchdowns, and Ball State reeled off 42 consecutive points to put the thing to bed.

“To have some momentum going into the second half was huge,” Lembo said. “And the key is, we kept the momentum once we got it. We kept the lead and nobody took their foot off the gas.”

It was an end game startling unlike the opening gambit.

After Ball State won the toss and deferred to the second half, Jared Barnett, the Iowa State transfer who started for Illinois State at quarterback, took the Redbirds 75 yards in 10 plays after the opening kickoff, Collin Keoshian getting the last yard with 9:57 showing in the first quarter.

Ball State immediately retaliated with a 10-play, 79-yard scoring drive of its own, but Barnett simply shrugged and went back to work. This time he took the Redbirds 75 yards in just six plays, finding Anthony Warrum for 47 yards and the score between a pair of colliding Ball State defenders.

Illinois State struck one last time with 3:05 left until halftime. After Barnett converted a third-and-13 with a 22-yard pass to Jordan Neukirch, the Redbirds used the reprieve to find the end zone yet again, this time on a five-yard throw from Barnett to Matt Meyers.

That left Wenning and Co. three minutes and change to shrink the deficit before halftime. With four seconds left and Ball State on the Illinois State 16, Wenning threw and Williams fought off a defender in the end zone to make the catch, and instead of 21-9 it was 21-16 at the break.

“We had about three minutes left, and we didn’t think we were going to go into a two-minute drill,” said Wenning, who was 24 of 40 for 350 yards and three scores. “I told the offensive line we had to go down and make a score before the half, make a statement.”

And just like that, the corner had been turned.

Jamill Smith, who earlier had a career-best 90-yard kickoff return, ran the second-half kickoff back to the Ball State 45, and the end was in sight for Illinois State. A 50-yard Wenning-to-Snead pass set up a Wenning-to-Snead fade to make it 23-21 for the Cardinals, and the torrent was unleashed: Another Wenning-to-Snead hookup, this time for 40 yards … a short Wenning run set up by Ben Ingle’s interception … another short run, this time by Horactio Banks.

The defense, meanwhile, limited Illinois State to 37 yards and three first downs in the second half until a late 11-play, 69-yard scoring drive.

“Basically we just knew what we had to do and knew we had to execute better,” defensive tackle Nathan Ollie said. “Nobody panicked.”

bensmith@jg.net

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