Ball State coach Pete Lembo was leery of Army's triple option. His Cardinals had just enough answers to thwart the Black Knights.
Jahwan Edwards, patient at every turn, rushed for 148 yards and scored once, Keith Wenning threw for 189 yards and two touchdowns, and Ball State held on to beat Army 30-22 on Saturday.
Ball State (6-3) promised to provide another challenge, and they did, gaining a 14-0 lead in the first 10 minutes and then holding on every time the Black Knights challenged.
"We got off to a really good start," 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 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. Wenning hit Connor Ryan for a 12-yard gain on a third-and-7 play to keep the march alive, and Edwards, who had 30 carries, scored on a 2-yard run.
Army (1-7) has lost eight straight to Mid-American Conference opponents, including Kent State (31-17) at home and Eastern Michigan (48-38) on the road in its previous two games.
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 even held the ball longer — 79 plays and nearly 31 minutes — a rarity against a triple option that leads the nation in rushing.
"The script was they weren't going to get many turns," Army coach Rich 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."
Army, which entered the game averaging 389 yards rushing per game, finished with 341, never able to find any kind of consistent rhythm on offense. Trent Steelman had 101 yards on 17 carries and Hayden Tippett 100 on 20 totes, the first 100-yard game of his career. It marked the fifth time this season the Black Knights have had two 100-yard rushers in a game, an academy record.
Another loss wasn't what Army needed with archrival Air Force visiting next Saturday.
"We were ready to go. We had full confidence that we could get the job done," Steelman said. "We came up a little short, but we're almost there. We've just got to put this one behind us."
The Black Knights, who trailed the entire game, 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.
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.
"All of that work it went to the preparation of the scout team, hands-down, simple as that," Ball State linebacker Travis Freeman said. "The scout team gave us a great look out there today. They made things essentially easy to read, and that's basically it right there."
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 16 yards, gained 16 on a keeper, and completed a 13-yard scoring pass to Mabon 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.
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 against Ball State — 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.
Meier hit Wenning as he threw and Justin Trimble intercepted at his own 21 to thwart a Ball State drive. The Black Knights capitalized on Daniel Grochowkski's 24-yard field goal to cut the lead to 17-10 with 5:22 left in the second quarter.
Meier also sacked Wenning for a 4-yard loss on a third-and-1 play early in the quarter, forcing the Cardinals to settle for Schott's 49-yard field goal. Wenning had been flawless to that point, connecting on 8 of 10 passes for 89 yards in the first quarter.