KALAMAZOO, MI – Western Michigan entered its Week 6 football game against Ball State ranked sixth nationally in turnover margin and was one of five teams in the country yet to throw an interception.
That all changed Saturday at Waldo Stadium, as the Cardinals scored 28 points off two interceptions and two fumbles from quarterback Kaleb Eleby to escape Kalamazoo with a 45-20 win in front of an announced crowd of 11,403.
Eleby goes down as responsible for the four turnovers – at least according to the box score – but the redshirt sophomore is hardly on the hook by himself, as he faced pressure all game, including a big hit on a throw that fluttered into the arms of Ball State linebacker Clayton Coll, who returned the pick down to the Broncos’ 32-yard line.
The Cardinals scored five plays later on a massive WMU coverage bust that left receiver Yo’Heinz Tyler without a Bronco defender within 10 yards of him as he walked into the end zone. Ball State barely got the snap off before the play clock hit zero, and the snap nearly sailed over the head of senior quarterback Drew Plitt, but the calm signal caller snagged the pigskin and floated the easiest touchdown pass of his career for the 24-yard score that gave his team a 31-20 lead with 14 minutes left in the fourth quarter.
That marked Plitt’s second wide-open touchdown toss of the game, following the first play from scrimmage, where Detroit Martin Luther King graduate and former WMU recruiting target Jalen McGaughy got behind a bust in the Broncos’ coverage and scored easily from 75 yards out.
“The safety is supposed to be on the top on that; same as the first play,” Lester said of Ball State’s two easy touchdown passes. “The first play was two-by-two; they put (star receiver Justin Hall) in the slot; our safety, instead of playing Cover 2, he bit up on the under, and they got us down the sideline on the first play the game, and that was (Jake) Moertl, and then the next one was A.J. (Thomas).
“Believe it or not, we actually kicked the coverage to that, and the field safety did not get with – he stayed there, he looked at the ball fake, stopped his feet, and it looked open. Sometimes it looks bad because it looks like the corner, and everyone’s going to give the corner some grief, but both of those plays were on the safety not getting over the top.”
Eleby threw his second interception of the season on WMU’s ensuing drive after the Cardinals went up 31-20, as he zipped a pass over the middle toward Corey Crooms, but the ball bounced off the receiver’s facemask and skied up in the air back toward the line of scrimmage, where Ball State’s Jaylin Thomas won the jump ball battle to give the Cardinals possession at the WMU 31-yard line.
The Bronco defense found itself in a tough spot for a second consecutive drive, but the unit looked like it could salvage some momentum by putting Ball State into a third-and-9 situation. However, Plitt broke contain around the right side and scooted upfield for a gain of 10 to move the chains.
Five plays later, Ball State made it 38-20 with 9:35 left in the fourth on a 5-yard end-around to explosive wide receiver Justin Hall.
That touchdown off a turnover put a dagger in WMU’s comeback chances, but the Cardinals added some salt to the wound by pressuring Eleby on a desperation fourth-and-14 from the Broncos’ 17-yard line, which resulted in the quarterback’s second lost fumble that was scooped and scored by Ball State’s Brett Anderson to make it a 45-20 game.
“If you turn the ball over four times, you’re not going to win it, and the score is closer than it showed, but we have to do better,” Lester said. “Everyone’s got to look themselves in the mirror, including the coaches and the players. Everything’s still in front of us. Hopefully they got a chip on their shoulder, and we learn from this and move forward.”
Eleby finished with 257 yards on 19 of 33 passing, while adding a 2-yard rushing score that gave WMU a 14-7 lead with 3:35 left in the first quarter.
He carved up the Cardinals for 91 yards on 6 of 8 passing in the opening frame, and it looked like the early stages of another Ball State-WMU barnburner, but Broncos’ turnovers stopped a repeat of the team’s thrilling finishes from the past three years, which included an overtime finish in 2018, a 35-31 contest in 2019 and a 30-27 final in 2020.
“The ball security of Kaleb in the pocket, he has to be better at that,” Lester said. “We talk about it all the time, and we haven’t gotten that through to him yet. I thought he missed some reads. He didn’t miss many throws; he doesn’t miss many throws – actual throws – but he’s got to read coverage better, and it’s something that we’re working on with him, and he’s getting better and better at it.”
Ball State sacked Eleby four times, including a clean shot from the blindside by Bryce Cosby, which dislodged the ball and gave the Cardinals possession at WMU’s 37-yard line. That short drive ended with a 21-yard touchdown pass from Plitt to Tyler, which tied the game at 14 early in the second quarter.
“It’ll be great learning for us,” Lester said of the pass protection issues. “Obviously, our name of the game is to stay in the game, stay up and run the ball, and make it a little bit easier, but we got to be better in those situations. We put a tight end in a couple of times just to give him a little bit more time, and they did a good job, but we did make that adjustment so, but, yeah, I think we need to be better.”
WMU outgained Ball State 376 to 375, but the Broncos twice settled for field goals inside Ball State’s 5-yard line, decisions which Lester attributed to his own intuition and the probability model the coaching staff uses, known as “the book,” which determines the play call that provides the best likelihood of winning the game.
“One of them was on me, and what I mean by that is it tells me ‘go,’ ‘recommended go,’ which means up to me, and then kick,” Lester said. “There was one of them that was a recommended go – I think it was fourth-and-3 from the 3 or something like that. Brought the team over, talked about it and wanted to see if we had a play up our sleeve that we had seen. By the end of the game, I knew what I would have called if I was there right now, but we hadn’t even seen what they were really doing down there yet, so I chose to kick it, but it was a recommended go, which means it’s about 50-50, maybe 51-49.”
On the plus side, newly minted starting kicker Nick Mihalic converted both of his short kicks and both extra points, after taking over the job midway through last week’s Buffalo game.
He also handled kickoff duties and registered touchbacks on 3 of 5 kicks against a dangerous return man in hall, averaged 35.3 yards on three punts, despite one getting partially blocked and traveling just 12 yards to set up another short field for Ball State.
Plitt completed 15 of 25 yards for 310 yards and four touchdowns, with Tyler catching five of those for 93 yards and two scores.
After four wins in a row, the Broncos fall to 4-2 overall and 1-0 in the MAC, while Ball State improves to 3-3 and 2-1 in conference.
Both teams figure to be part of a wide-open MAC West race, and that will be the Broncos’ focus as they prepare for next week’s 3:30 p.m. homecoming kickoff against Kent State.
“You got to fall in love with the process of trying to become a great team, and we’ve done a pretty good job of that, and now we’ve had our second setback, I guess – the first game was a tough one.
“We knew coming in that any MAC West team we play, they’re all going to be – in the MAC West right now, I think the only undefeated team is the team that was picked to finish last (Northern Illinois); they didn’t win a game last year.
“Welcome to the MAC West; this is it. We talked about it before the game, talked about it when it was tired of halftime – this is what we’re going to face every single day, and it’s a wake-up call. What we did wasn’t good enough; the calls weren’t good enough; the execution was good enough; ball security wasn’t good enough – things that we’ve been pretty good at up to this point. There’s no question whether we can do it, we just got to make sure we can do it next Saturday at homecoming.”
See 34 photos from Western Michigan victory over Ball State
WMU football’s elite ball-control offense a product of players over play calling, coach says
Western Michigan receives votes in both college football polls for first time since 2016