With fewer than 30 seconds left in this weekend’s most exciting game, Ball State receiver Dante Love flashed across the Nebraska 10-yard line wide open on a post pattern. Quarterback Nate Davis read the Cornhuskers’ blitz and whistled the ball right into the chest of his best receiver, a kid who had tortured the Nebraska secondary for 10 catches, 214 yards and one TD.
The ball bounced off Love’s shoulder pads and fell harmlessly to the ground, ending my alma mater’s fairy-tale upset bid and prolonging Nebraska’s uneasy marriage to coach Callahan.
Nebraska 41, Ball State 40.
Oh, my Cardinals ran one more offensive play and tried a desperation 55-yard field goal with a freshman kicker, but Love’s drop was the final error that broke the Cardinals’ back.
The kick had no real chance, and a heroic effort by a midmajor that has legitimate aspirations of being the next Boise State came up one play short against a BCS giant still reeling from Tom Osborne’s retirement and a premature decision to fire Frank Solich.
The football gods are unfair. Callahan gets an undeserved victory, avoids calls for his immediate dismissal, and my Ball State Cardinals are denied their first-ever victory over a BCS foe.
I traveled to Lincoln for fun and to anoint Ball State tight end Darius Hill as my Jeff George replacement — the super-talented hometown football star that I’ll spend the next 15 years championing. Hill made his bones at Blue Springs High School as a 6-foot-6, skinny football-basketball combo. He’s now 6-6, 240 pounds and, according to NFL draft guru Mel Kiper, Hill is the fourth-best tight end prospect in the 2009 draft.
But I’ll now have to save Hill’s story for another day. I never imagined that the Cardinals and the Cornhuskers would stage such a dramatic shootout. Sure, I fantasized about a Ball State upset, what it would feel like, what I would do in its aftermath. In fact, the night before the game, I addressed the team and told them why we could beat the Huskers.
However, I made no preparations for this, an amazing, scary, breathtaking roller-coaster ride that ended with a trap door stealing every ounce of joy.
It’s worth repeating: Being a fan is far more difficult than being a sports writer.
When Love burst open at the 10 and Davis flicked a perfect spiral, I felt like it was the payoff for more than two decades of longing for my program to hit the real big time. Yeah, a year ago we went into Michigan’s Big House and received a lot of attention for losing by eight points.
I’m not into moral victories.
Saturday, we outplayed the Cornhuskers. We rolled up 610 yards of offense compared to Nebraska’s 552. We had more first downs (27-25). We outgained Nebraska on the ground (200-137). We won the turnover battle (3-2). We made Nebraska fans boo the Blackshirts inside Memorial Stadium.
Nate Davis, our sophomore QB, was clearly the best football player on the field. He threw for 422 yards and three TDs. Had Love held onto two long throws in the first half, Davis would’ve thrown for 500 yards.
I’m sure Nebraska fans are wondering how it happened. I’m sure they think it was all a fluke, a product of the Huskers taking Ball State lightly.
Nope. Davis is for real. He’s potentially the best player the Mid-American Conference has seen since Randy Moss played for Marshall. And Davis has a strong supporting cast, including Hill, a veteran offensive line with two potential pros at the tackle spots, Love, a second tight end, Madaris Grant, and an offensive coordinator, Stan Parrish, with tremendous experience at the professional and collegiate levels.
Parrish had Tom Brady when they both were at Michigan. Parrish was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ quarterbacks coach the year the Bucs won the Super Bowl. Obviously, Kansas State fans know that Parrish has head-coaching experience.
Nebraska caught Ball State on the wrong Saturday. The Cardinals are young — the entire offense will return next season — and maturing. They’re just realizing how good they are and how to finish games.
Head coach Brady Hoke did a marvelous job preparing his team mentally for Saturday’s game. I sat through the team meetings Friday night, sat in the locker room before the game, at halftime and following the devastating loss. His message throughout was that Ball State had the better team.
He won’t find any disagreement in Nebraska this week. He’d probably find football fans there wondering what it would take to get him and Nate Davis to Lincoln in time for the 2008 season.
Courtesy of the Kansas City Star.