This is not what Army needed — another loss with Air Force on the horizon.
Jahwan Edwards rushed for 148 yards and scored once, Keith Wenning threw for 189 yards and two touchdowns, and Ball State held off the Black Knights 30-22 on Saturday.
Army (1-7) has lost eight straight to Mid-American Conference opponents and now faces one of its most intense rivals in the Falcons (5-3) at Michie Stadium next Saturday.
"We were ready to go. We had full confidence that we could get the job done," said Army quarterback Trent Steelman, who rushed for 101 yards on 17 carries. "We came up a little short, but we're almost there. We've just got to put this one behind us. What Ball State showed us today is exactly what we're going to see next week."
What the Black Knights saw was a patient offense that waited for the young, anxious Army defenders to make the first move, and the strategy worked much more than it failed as the Cardinals took an early lead and never trailed. Edwards had 30 carries, picking his way through the defense and breaking tackle after tackle.
"He's a big, strong runner, and he's very patient," Army coach Rich Ellerson said. "What you saw was our second-row guys losing their patience and just burying themselves into the pile. That's how you end up out of position. If the back can be that patient, then our linebackers need to be."
Ball State held the ball for nearly 31 minutes, a rarity against Army's powerful triple option, and only punted twice, once in each half.
"The script was they weren't going to get many turns," Ellerson said. "We were going to possess the football. Given the opponent we were playing, that was the formula for victory. We needed to stay on the field. We needed not to have a three-and-out and we had a bunch of them. Good football teams don't do that, and we're playing nothing but good football teams."
Offensively, the Cardinals were averaging 480 yards and 34 points per game and had rushed for over 200 yards four times behind Edwards, who entered the game averaging 100 yards a game. Ball State finished with 224 yards rushing, outgained Army 413-379, and held the ball for 11 more plays (79-68).
"He (Edwards) was just sitting behind the line waiting for us to make a move," Army linebacker Geoffery Bacon said. "We should have been waiting for him to make a move. That's pretty much what it was."
Army, which entered the game averaging 389 yards rushing per game, finished with 341. Hayden Tippett had 100 yards on 20 carries, the first 100-yard game of his career, as the Black Knights had two 100-yard rushers for the fifth time this season, an academy record.
The Black Knights pulled within 27-20 early in the fourth quarter, but the Cardinals sealed it by holding onto the ball for 11 plays and driving to the Army 20 as the Black Knights used all three of their timeouts.
Steve Schott kicked a 37-yard field goal, his third of the game, with 4:52 left, for a 30-20 lead.
Army drove to the Ball State 30 with just over 2 minutes left, but Patrick Laird dropped halfback Malcolm Brown's pass at the goal line and the Cardinals escaped, taking an intentional safety on the final play of the game.
"Maybe you can't see it, but we made some progress," Ellerson said. "We're getting some stops. We're creating some opportunities. We're on track."
The Cardinals led 17-10 at the half and gained a 27-13 lead early in the fourth behind Wenning, who hit freshman wideout KeVonn Mabon for a 13-yard scoring pass in the right corner of the end zone over defender Marques Avery. It was Mabon's first career TD.
Unfazed, the Black Knights moved 73 yards in just seven plays to keep the game close. Steelman keyed the drive with a 35-yard run on a third-and-5 play and Brown took a pitch right on the next play and scored on a 23-yard run to make it 27-20 with 10:53 to play.
"This is one of those weeks. We have to unload this one as quick as we can," Ellerson said. "We can salvage so much and drop so much of this frustration, so much of this hurt. We know we can compete. We've stayed together through all this stuff. We've continued to compete through all this stuff. We believe in one another. We believe in what we're doing. They're hurting, but they can see it, too. They can see they're gaining on it. They're staying together. They know they're close."
The Cardinals were flawless the first two times they had the ball. They drove 75 yards in nine plays with no third downs on their first possession, gaining 56 of those yards on first down. Wenning hit Jamill Smith on a 6-yard slant on the right side for a 7-0 lead.
Ball State forced Army into a three-and-out and made it 14-0, driving 60 yards on 12 plays in 4:11, capped by Edwards' 2-yard TD run.
"We got off to a really good start," Ball State coach Pete Lembo said. "We knew that was going to be critical in having a chance to win the game. We were able to maintain some kind of balance, run the ball and move the chains, get some critical first downs and stay on the field."
The Black Knights got untracked late in the first quarter behind Tippett and Steelman. Tippett started a nine-play, 76-yard drive with a 26-yard bolt off left tackle, Steelman converted a fourth-and 1, then followed that with a nifty 20-yard run down the right side after faking a pass to set up Tippett's 7-yard touchdown run.
Army's young defense — the Black Knights started four freshmen and four sophomores — entered the game allowing nearly 38 points per game, more than Todd Berry's woeful 2003 team that went 0-13 — the only team in Division I to lose that many games in a season. But after falling behind by two scores, freshman linebacker Alex Meier made two big plays as the defense regrouped, forcing an interception when he hit Wenning as he threw and sacking him on a third-and-1 play to force the Cardinals to settle for Schott's 49-yard field goal early in the second quarter.