Ball State football coach Pete Lembo’s career has been marked by explosive offense that picks at an opponent’s defensive weaknesses bit by bit or with the suddenness of a bolt of lightning.
Both of those characteristics were apparent Thursday night when the Cardinals opened the 2015 season against Virginia Military Institute.
Ball State and VMI combined to put on a prolific show of offensive football that ended with the Cardinals claiming a 48-36 victory in front of 10,473 fans in their season-opener in Scheumann Stadium. The win was Ball State’s sixth in a row in a home opener.
Anybody expecting to be entertained likely had no complaints as the teams combined to pile up 1,114 yards of offense, breaking the stadium record of 1,072 set in 2012 in the Cardinals’ game vs. Northern Illinois.
“These games are like three and a half hours in purgatory if you’re in my position,” Lembo said. “We were expecting a high scoring game going in … we also anticipated we were going to get the kitchen sink thrown at us, which we certainly did.
“We saw a fake punt, a fake field goal, two onside kicks and certainly some chances they took going for it on fourth down.”
While the Ball State defense wobbled after a strong early start, the offense functioned at a high level considering sophomore quarterback Jack Milas was making only his seventh collegiate start, the backfield was relatively inexperienced and the offensive line included two players who made starts for injured players.
Despite those potential obstacles, the Cardinals’ performance on offense was notable in several areas.
Their 567 yards was the ninth-best offensive output in school history, and gave them 1,152 in their past two games going back to the 2014 finale. They ran 95 plays, tying for fifth most in school history.
Sophomore tailback Darian Green tied a school record for a single game with four touchdowns – rushing for three and catching a pass for one. He also returned four kickoffs for 120 yards, with a long of 48 yards.
Milas set personal bests with 34 completions, 52 attempts and 338 yards. He wasn’t sacked all game despite numerous blitzes attempted by VMI.
Eight players caught at least one pass, with Jordan Williams snagging eight for 99 yards andKeVonn Mabon seven for 54.
“We operated pretty well offensively other than settling for some field goals in the first half,” Lembo said. “It was a good, solid win.”
Milas played his first game since cracking a bone in a wrist late last season. He admitted to some nerves at the start of the game, but Lembo and offensive coordinator Joey Lynch dialing up 34 pass attempts in the first half helped him settle down.
“Just being out there again, getting the feel of a game, was great,” said Milas, whose 52 pass attempts were second most in school history. “I think I’ve improved, as an offense we’ve improved, and as a team we’ve improved tremendously.
“From last year to this year, it’s a completely different story.”
Milas threw only one touchdown pass as several drives bogged down in the red zone, but he showed he has numerous threats around him to cause concern for defenses.
“It’s always fun in these kind of (fast-paced) games, kind of a shootout,” he noted. “From our standpoint, we just have to move the ball and get first downs and continue to keep moving the ball and get touchdowns instead of field goals.”
Teddy Williamson led the Cardinals in rushing with 74 yards on 16 carries. Green added 73, and true freshman James Gilbert had 61 on 12 carries while rushing for two touchdowns.
Ball State’s defense shut down VMI early, holding the Keydets to 46 yards and forcing them to punt after each of their first five possessions.
But VMI eventually found some momentum and capitalized on some spotty play by the Cardinals’ defense to finish with 547 yards (303 after halftime). VMI scored 26 of its points in the second half.
Lembo said there were mistakes to correct, for sure, but he didn’t want his players to lose sight of the winning feeling they experienced.
“I told them afterward that I never want to not be happy with a win because they’re too hard to come by,” he said.
Linebacker Sean Wiggins led the Cardinals with 10 tackles. Defensive end Joshua Posleyforced a fumble that Osa Igbinosun recovered, setting up a fourth-quarter Ball State touchdown.
Ball State returns to action Sept. 12 at Texas A&M.