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TOLEDO – Toledo had everything going for it. There was no reason for the Rockets not to believe that they had this Mid-American Conference football game with Ball State right where they wanted it.
Except for the fact that the Cardinals have a defensive unit – no, that isn't a typo – that equally believes in its ability to achieve what few think is possible. And after shocking the 23rd-ranked team on its home field 34-27 in front of 18,211 fans at the Glass Bowl, who can blame them?
The Cardinal defense made several big plays in the second half, including the biggest one of the season up to this point on a critical fourth down, to pull off the upset on national television (ESPN2).
“It doesn't get any better than this,” a Gatorade-soaked Pete Lembo said of his team's win after the game. “These guys just hang in there and they keep battling.”
It was Ball State's (7-3, 4-2) first win over a ranked opponent since 2001 and was the Rockets only MAC defeat this season so far.
With just over six minutes remaining, Toledo (8-2, 5-1) had seized all of the momentum and appeared to be in the process of deflating the hopes of Lembo's guys.
The Cardinals had embarked on three pervious series and accumulated just three points after missing a relatively easy field goal and quarterback Keith Wenning throwing a mind-boggling interception.
Conversely, Toledo had booted a field goal and scored a touchdown on its two prior series and with the score tied at 27, the Rockets had driven inside the Cardinals 14-yard line and were threatening to dismiss its league rival.
On a fourth-and-one, Toledo handed off to its star running back David Fluellen, who finished the night with 200 yards rushing, so you really can't blame the Cardinal Nation for being just a bit worried given that its defensive unit is ranked 106th (in total defense) in the country and had the game riding on its shoulders.
Fluellen got stopped by a swarm of red jerseys and it wasn't even close.
“There have been a lot of doubters and we've faced a lot of criticism,” Ball State linebacker Tony Martin said. “In my opinion, we've been improving all season. We've been getting better every single game.”
That singular play, as well as opening the second half with a pair of three-and-outs for Toledo, epitomized the growth of this Cardinal defense.
“Just to have a team try to go for it on fourth down is disrespectful,” Cardinal nose guard Brandon Newman said. “Our pride was in check as well. It felt good to get the stop and it was exactly what we needed.”
Ball State's defense wasn't perfect, nor was its offense for that matter. The Rockets amassed 526 yards of total offense, but in the second half, the hosts had six offensive series and the Cardinals forced a pair of punts, stopped the Rockets on fourth down twice, and held Toledo to a field goal on another series.
“We are definitely playing with a lot more confidence on that side of the ball,” Lembo said. “We're getting enough stops to give us a chance and that is what we did tonight.”