. -- Ray Wilborn's
fourth-quarter interception gave the Ball State football team life Saturday, but the Cardinals' potential game-tying drive ended with a pass batted down in the end zone as time expired.
Northern Illinois held on for a 24-16 win to remain unbeaten in Mid-American Conference play, while the Cardinals suffered their first league setback.
"We lost to a good football team that came in and used their formula to get a win against us," Ball State head coach Mike Neu
said. "We had our opportunities; we simply didn't make enough plays in critical situations to get a win. When you're playing against a team like that, every opportunity matters."
Through three quarters, the Huskies (3-3, 3-0 MAC) held the Cardinals to just three Morgan Hagee
field goals as they built a 21-9 lead. Then Wilborn stepped in front of a Marcus Childers pass at midfield and took it all the way to the NIU 6-yard line.
found an opening on the next play for the Cardinals' lone touchdown of the afternoon, cutting the deficit to 21-16.
After the Huskies answered with a field goal, Ball State (2-4, 1-1 MAC) moved the ball into NIU territory twice in the final six minutes. The first of those drives ended when Gilbert was stuffed on a fourth-and-one, and the second when Riley Neal's
heave from 35 yards out fell to the ground on the final play.
It was a familiar unfriendly ending for Ball State, which also had a Hail Mary batted away two weeks ago in a 28-20 loss to Western Kentucky.
"We had a chance at the end," Neu said. "We were down eight, we got ourselves in a position where we had a couple cracks at the end zone, but we simply didn't get the job done."
Northern Illinois led 14-0 after a scoring pass from Childers to D.J. Brown and a touchdown run from Tre Harbison. Ball State went its first four possessions without a score before its final two drives of the first half ended in Hagee field goals, the second a career-long from 51 yards.
Harbison's second touchdown run of the game extended the Northern Illinois lead to 21-6 midway through the third quarter before the Cardinals started to chip away.
Ball State ran 24 more plays than the Huskies (96 to 72) and outgained them 391-370. The Cardinals sacked Childers three times and held him to 143 yards passing.
Neal attempted a career-high 56 passes, hitting on 32 of them for 260 yards. Gilbert led the ground attack with 79 yards and his fifth touchdown of the year on 19 carries. The Cardinals moved the ball to at least midfield on 11 of their 12 possessions but only got into the red zone twice.
"We're close, but close doesn't really count," Neu said. "We've got to make sure we take advantage of those opportunities when we have them."
Saturday's game wrapped up Ball State's three-game homestand. The Cardinals will return to action next Saturday, Oct. 13, with a 3 p.m. kickoff at Central Michigan on ESPN3. The team is back in Muncie for Homecoming Oct. 20 against Eastern Michigan.
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