The special teams weren’t. Special, that is. Ball State quarterback Keith Wenning was. Special, that is. That particular combination was the primary reason why Ball State trashed Army 40-14 Saturday at Scheumann Stadium. They weren’t the only potholes the Black Knights stepped into, but they were surely the deepest.
What Army head coach Rich Ellerson called the “core competencies” that led to Army’s opening-night victory last week against Morgan State were nowhere to be found against Ball State. Last week, the Black Knights neither committed a penalty nor had a turnover. Against Ball State, the numbers were eight penalties for 90 yards, two fumbles and one interception.
The Black Knights started uncharacteristically fast. On just the third play of the game, fullback Larry Dixon broke through the line for a 71-yard touchdown run, the longest run of his career. A 7-0 Army lead lasted less than 3 ½ minutes. That’s when Horactio Banks completed a 60-yard drive with a 10-yard run. The Cardinals scored the next 30 points. And it was Wenning who did most of the damage.
Following an Army punt that had Ball State starting on its own 23-yard line, Wenning completed all seven of his passes, the last one an 8-yard completion to Jamill Smith for a touchdown. Wenning, just over a month from knee surgery, continued his mastery of the Army defense.
In the Cardinals’ two victories over Army the last two seasons, Wenning completed 42 of 57 passes for 513 yards and five touchdowns. This time around, before being pulled midway through the fourth quarter, he was good for 23 of 32 for 325 yards and two touchdowns. Last week, in Ball State’s opening victory over Illinois State, he threw for an incredible 34 of 40 passes for 340 yards and three touchdowns and ran for two more. With Ball State’s leading rusher, Jahwan Edwards -- who rushed for 212 yards and four touchdowns in those previous games against Army -- out with a concussion, Wenning coming up big was of even greater significance. He responded.
The Cardinals continued their onslaught with the first of Scott Secor’s four field goals, a 47-yarder that gave them a 17-7 lead. It took just two plays on its subsequent possession for Army to hand over the ball, this time when quarterback Angel Santiago mishandled the ball on a hand off to Dixon. Taking the ball over at the Army 21, the Black Knights were able to stifle Ball State, having it settle for another field goal, from 33 yards out, for a 20-7 lead.
What Ellerson considered a turning point came with just 2 minutes, 21 seconds left in the first half. That’s when Army kicker Dan Grochowski missed far right on a 33-yard field-goal attempt. It took Ball State 70 seconds to move down field – thanks mostly to Wenning’s four completions for 74 yards -- to set up Banks’ 6-yard touchdown run. What could have been a 10-point Army halftime deficit was now 20. Once the third quarter began, it didn’t take much time for the game to get away.
Smith took the second-half opening kick 31 yards. An additional 15 yards was tacked on thanks to a personal-foul penalty by Steve Ricciardi. A combination of Smith rushes and Wenning completions and rushes brought the ball to the Army 3. But with the ball at the 1 on fourth down, Ball State played it safe, settling for a 19-yard field goal and a 30-7 lead. It went from bad to worse for Army on the ensuing kickoff, when Stephen Fraser misplayed the ball, then fumbled when hit by Chris Calloway. Recovering the ball at the 11, it took Wenning one play to find Zane Fakes in the end zone.
Five Army players contributed to the ground game that led to its final touchdown, a 9-yard run by Dixon with 1:40 left in the third. Ball State completed the scoring on a 12-play, 75-yard drive that set up Secor’s final field goal, a 20-yarder with 12:21 left in the game.
After rushing for just 18 yards against Morgan State, the Black Knights’ top rusher the last two seasons, Raymond Maples, had 12 carries for 84 yards, his biggest gain a 22-yarder. Dixon led the team with 107 yards on 14 carries. For the game, Army averaged 5.7 yards per carry, ending the game with 363 yards. In its last two games against Ball State, Army rushed for 402 and 361 yards.
After a solid performance last week, Santiago took a step back, completing just 3 of 11 passes for 49 yards and 15 rushes for 37 yards. Backup A.J. Schurr entered the game early in the fourth quarter, completing 4 of 8 passes for 27 yards.