MUNCIE, Ind. (AP)—With Ball State’s most inspiring player, Dante Love, on hand, the Cardinals had no real problem getting to 8-0.
Love, who was leading the nation in receiving before a career-ending spinal injury at Indiana last month, returned to Scheumann Stadium for the first time Saturday and watched from the coaches box as the No. 20 Cardinals beat Eastern Michigan 38-16.
Nate Davis caught the first touchdown pass of his career and threw two more as the Cardinals (8-0, 4-0 Mid-American) continued their best start in 43 years.
“It was nice,” coach Brady Hoke said of his pregame visit with Love, who was hospitalized in Indianapolis for three weeks before returning to campus to continue his therapy. “I thought we were ready to go. We were excited to play. That gave us a lot of energy.”
Ball State didn’t find that energy, though, until the second quarter.
“We played hard, but we didn’t play as well as we needed to. Until we watch film, it’s hard to digest everything that happened out there,” Hoke said.
Eastern Michigan (2-6, 1-4), whose last game against a Top 25 team was a 55-0 loss to Michigan three years ago, averted a shutout on a 7-yard pass from Andy Schmitt to Jacory Stone on the final play of the third quarter and later got a 5-yarder from Schmitt to Tyler Jones. Schmitt finished with a career-high 309 yards passing, most after the game was long out of reach.
Davis gave the Cardinals their first touchdown in the second quarter when he pitched the ball to freshman Briggs Orsbon and sprinted toward the sideline, where Orsbon found him open for an easy 4-yard catch and trot into the end zone. Davis, who finished with 241 yards passing, also had a 5-yard touchdown pass to Darius Hill in the third quarter and a 6-yard TD pass to Orsbon late in the period.
As a junior he is already Ball State’s career passing leader in yards and touchdowns.
“He’s a pretty doggone good athlete overall,” Hoke said. “He has a lot of the physical things we’d all like to have.”
Ball State’s MiQuale Lewis, who came in with a streak of six straight games rushing for at least 100 yards, was held to 75 yards, including a 52-yard scoring run two plays into the fourth quarter. Trey Buice finished the rout for the Cardinals with a 45-yard interception return for a touchdown midway through the final period, and Ian McGarvey’s extra-point kick extended his school record to 48 in a row.
“It was a play designed to go to the left, and I cut it back to the right and broke a few tackles,” said Lewis, whose TD run was his team-high 14th of the season and 2 yards short of his career long.
“It was a slow start … we weren’t clicking,” Lewis said. “In the second half, we did what we had to do.”
Ball State, coming off a bye week, had trouble moving the ball early, but Chris Miller averaged 54 yards on three first-half punts—despite a strong wind — that repeatedly pinned the Eagles deep.
Two Eastern Michigan drives, meanwhile, were stopped on sacks that forced punts, and another drive that reached the Ball State 34 ended on downs, keeping Ball State’s early lead at 3-0 following a 27-yard field goal by McGarvey in the first quarter.
The Cardinals stopped Eastern Michigan on a three-and-out for the first time midway through the second quarter. Davis then passed 20 yards to Madaris Grant and 22 yards to Louis Johnson, helping Ball State to the Eastern Michigan 4 to set up Davis’ TD catch.
Ball State got the ball back in the final minute of the half and threatened to score again after a 24-yard run by Davis to the Eagles 21. A pass by Davis was deflected at the line, however, and Kevin Long made an interception for Eastern Michigan to keep the lead at 10-0 at halftime. The Cardinals pushed the lead to 24-0 in the third quarter before Eastern finally scored.
“The fact Nate Davis can keep plays alive so long … when he throws downfield he puts the ball where it can be caught,” Eastern coach Jeff Genyk said.
Ball State held the Eagles to 67 yards rushing and had two interceptions.
“They’re very fundamentally sound,” Genyk said. “Ball State does a great job keeping the ball in front of them and limiting the big plays.”