BOWLING GREEN, Ky. (AP)—Ball State isn’t used to playing with a target on its back.
If the Cardinals keep winning, they won’t have a choice.
Nate Davis threw for 155 yards and two touchdowns as No. 25 Ball State overcame a slow start in its first game as a ranked team to beat Western Kentucky 24-7.
“I think we had some rough edges,” Ball State coach Brady Hoke said. “We got some breaks but I also think we made some things happen.”
That’s been the story for most of this surprising season for the Cardinals (7-0), who are off to their best start since 1965 behind a steady offense and a defense that came within a minute of posting a second straight shutout.
MiQuale Lewis ran for 112 yards and a score, with most of the yards coming during a grinding second half that allowed the Cardinals to finally get some breathing room against the pesky Hilltoppers (2-5).
“For us to get back to our bread and butter, we knew we had to run the ball,” Lewis said. “When we started running the ball, I think we threw them off a bit.”
And it let the Cardinals overcome an early bout of stage fright.
Hoke said his players hadn’t mentioned Ball State’s debut in the Top 25, but for long stretches in the first half the upstart Hilltoppers kept the Cardinals on their heels.
WKU, which is in the final year of transition from the Football Championship Subdivision to the Football Bowl Subdivision, piled up 352 yards of offense but turned the ball over three times and continually self-destructed in Ball State territory. David Wolke threw for 161 yards and a touchdown and added 58 on the ground as the Hilltoppers fell to 0-5 against FBS teams this season.
“This was a classic case of missed opportunities,” Western Kentucky coach David Elson said. “We can move the ball and we were fighting and scratching and playing our hearts out and then we ended up making mistakes.”
The mistakes eventually caught up with the Hilltoppers in the second half as Ball State finally shook off its jitters and started dictating play.
Ball State drove 64 yards on the opening drive of the second half and though it ended with Ian McGarvey missing a 21-yard field goal try, it was the spark the Cardinals needed.
After getting pushed around for most of the first half, Ball State’s defense pushed back and forced WKU into a quick three-and-out after the missed field goal. Lewis bolted up the middle for 38 yards on Ball State’s next possession to set up a 1-yard touchdown run that put the Cardinals up 14-0.
WKU, which used a two-quarterback system of Wolke and Dexter Taylor to keep the Cardinals off-balance in the first half, was ill-equipped to play catch-up.
The Cardinals started getting to Wolke in the third quarter and kept grinding away with Lewis. McGarvey hit a 37-yard field goal to push the lead to 17-0, and after WKU failed on fourth down deep in its own territory, Davis hit Louis Johnson with a 20-yard score with 6:31 remaining to put it out of reach.
The Hilltoppers—playing a ranked team for the third time this season—had plenty of opportunities to beat the first Top 25 team to visit Houchens-L.T. Smith Stadium.
Western Kentucky controlled the first half, moving the ball with ease. The Hilltoppers drove into Ball State territory four times in the first half only to come up empty.
Taylor was a yard short of the goal line when he fumbled out of the end zone for a touchback on WKU’s first possession, starting a series of missed opportunities. One drive ended with a missed field goal attempt. Another ended with a fumble and yet another on a failed fourth down.
“We have to take care of the ball better, especially when you are playing a football team where the difference in the game is going to be making plays,” Wolke said.
Ball State managed just one sustained drive in the half, but made it count. Davis hit Briggs Orsbon for a 5-yard touchdown early in the second quarter to give the Cardinals a 7-0 lead they managed to take into the break.