KENT, Ohio – Where does the blame lie in a game where a team allows 461 yards of total offense, 45 points, and five first downs on the final, critical drive?
Well obviously the defense should shoulder that criticism.
Not so fast.
A football game is comprised of many components and in the case of Ball State's 45-43 sickening defeat at Kent State on Saturday, the Cardinals offense can't get away unscathed after fumbling the ball on the Golden Flash one-yard line, not sustaining a fourth quarter drive, or averaging less than three yards per rushing attempt.
As well, the special teams can't rest easy knowing that it missed an extra point, a long (51-yard), but makeable field goal, and also allowed a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
Cardinal coach Pete Lembo didn't hesitate following the defeat to start pointing fingers – at himself.
“It was disappointing,” Lembo said. “I didn't think that we played well start to finish and that's on me. I have to do a better job of getting these guys ready.”
Ball State captured a lot of attention over the past two weeks by knocking off BCS programs in Indiana and South Florida, but on Saturday it essentially knocked itself off. The Cardinals uncharacteristically made error after error as it allowed the Golden Flashes (3-1, 2-0 Mid-American Conference) to jump out to a second quarter lead and never trail again until the final moments.
“It's real frustrating,” Cardinal receiver Willie Snead said. “But we've just got to learn from this.”
Ball State (3-2, 1-1 MAC) has to learn from this because it essentially has seven more games on its schedule just like this one, in that the Cardinals are capable of beating each team on their schedule, but they don't have any gimmes either, and Kent State certainly fit that description.
“Against a really good defense like this,” Lembo explained, “not coming away with points on that first possession (due to a fumble) really hurt us. It was one of those pieces of the game, just knowing what we were up against today, you just knew that it was going to come back to haunt us.”
The special teams play – which has been very good this season – was particularly haunting. Cardinal kicker Steven Schott was strangely inaccurate. He missed an extra point attempt, and even on his 51-yard attempt, which is not easy for any kicker, but a legitimate kick for Schott, it wasn't that he missed, but the kick was 15 yards short and to the right.
But he wasn't alone in his struggles. Returner Jamil Smith bobbled a kick off that was nearly recovered deep in Cardinal territory by Kent, and on a punt return, Smith called for a fair catch, only to decide to let it bounce and it nearly hit him because he hadn't gotten away from the ball.
“Some of our best guys didn't play their best today,” Lembo said. “I've got to get them ready to do that every week. (But) as ugly as it was, we still had a chance at the end.”
The Ball State defense is ranked as one of the worst in the conference for a reason and it did little to dispel that reality on Saturday. However, to the Cardinal defenders credit, when they had to get stops in the final minutes, they did so twice.
After Ball State quarterback Keith Wenning (32 of 43, 445 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions) hit Snead (14 catches for 216 yards and two scores) for a touchdown with 6:08 remaining, the Cardinals had trimmed what appeared to be an insurmountable 42-29 lead to 42-36.
Kent State took over deep in their own territory and on the first play; a Golden Flash pass was tipped by Ball State corner Eric Patterson and eventually caught by Cardinal defensive lineman Brandon Newman at the Kent State 21-yard line. Two plays later Wenning hit Connor Ryan for a score to give the Cardinals their first lead of the day (43-42).
Kent State opened its next series, but was forced to punt after Cardinal defensive end Jonathan Newsome registered his second sack of the day. However, the Ball State offense could not maintain its drive and that opened the door for some Kent State heroics.
The Golden Flashes drove 94 yards in the final 2:05 and twice averted disaster when Cardinal defensive backs Jeffrey Garrett and Patterson each had near interceptions, but could not come up with the balls.
“Our defense had opportunities to put that game away with a couple of interceptions and a fourth down,” Wenning said. “(They) never got the job done. But it's a team effort, so it is what it is.”
What “it is” according to Lembo is time to gather the troops and not deviate from what this squad – particularly on the defensive side of the ball – has been working on since last spring.
“We just have to stay the course and keep working at it,” Lembo said. “We had some busts today that are really hard to explain. It's not great back there (in the secondary) right now, but we don't have a choice. We just have to keep working at it.”