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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — For most of Saturday’s football season opener at Illinois, things pretty much went according to script for Ball State.

The Cardinals (0-1) controlled the ball on offense and let their young defense fly around and make plays. It added up to a 21-16 lead against their Big Ten opponent entering the final minutes.

But a big Illinois punt return set up the go-ahead touchdown with 2:06 to play, and the Illini (1-0) blocked a 54-yard field goal attempt on the final play to escape with a 24-21 victory at Memorial Stadium.

“My hats off to Illinois; they played for four quarters,” Ball State coach Mike Neu said. “There’s plenty of blame to go around, but we have to be able to finish on the road against a Big Ten opponent, and we weren’t able to do that. We had positive things happen for us today, but again it comes down to us being able to finish when we have an opportunity.”

Ball State maintained possession for more than 36 minutes, converted 12 of its first 16 third downs and out-gained Illinois, 375-216. The Illini managed just 76 yards of offense after halftime, including negative yardage during a dominant third quarter for Ball State.

The Cardinals turned a 16-7 halftime deficit into a 21-16 lead with third-quarter scoring drives of 15 and 13 plays. The 15-play touchdown drive was the second of the day for Ball State, with both surpassing the team’s longest touchdown drive from a year ago.

BSU ran the ball on 12 of its first 15 plays of the second half, capping its opening drive with a 3-yard run from Malik Dunner to pull within 16-14. The Cardinals forced a three-and-out on the ensuing Illinois possession and went back to work.

Junior quarterback Riley Neal led Ball State right back down the field, hitting two third-down passes to his old Yorktown High School teammate Riley Miller and converting another one with his legs. All-MAC first team running back James Gilbert then ran 3 yards around the end to give the Cardinals the lead for the second time at 21-16.

But as strong as the Ball State offense looked for most of the third quarter, the Cardinals began to stall out down the stretch. Even so, the defense kept the Cardinals out in front. All-MAC defensive end Anthony Winbush was inches away from getting to the quarterback through the first two and a half quarters, and he started to impose his will late in the third.

Winbush sacked Illinois quarterback Chayce Crouch on three straight passing attempts over two possessions. His plays forced punts on both of those drives, even taking Illinois out of field goal range on the second one after the Illini moved the ball inside the Ball State 25-yard line following an interception.

“When you have a guy like Anthony Winbush on your football team, that’s not a surprise to us because of the way he played and performed and showed up every day during training camp,” Neu said. “His hard work is paying off for him, and I think that’s to be expected out of a guy like him. He brings his best in critical moments, and I thought our defensive line overall did a very solid job today.”

The Ball State stop after the third-quarter turnover was one of three straight possessions in which the Cardinals either forced a turnover (an interception from freshman safety Bryce Cosby) or stood up to stop a drive in their own territory.

But doing it a fourth time was too much to ask. After Ball State failed to move the ball near midfield, the Cardinals were forced to punt with just less than four minutes to play. An Illinois team that couldn’t move the ball offensively then got its biggest play of the day on special teams.

Mike Dudek returned Nathan Snyder‘s 38-yard punt 52 yards the other direction to set Illinois up at the BSU 35-yard line. The Illini scored four plays later on a 1-yard run from Mike Epstein that followed a 25-yard hookup from Crouch to Malik Turner.

Ball State had one final chance, needing to go 75 yards in the final two minutes. The Cardinals moved the ball to the Illinois 30-yard line before a sack and a holding penalty left them needing a 54-yard field goal from Morgan Hagee on the final play to force overtime. Jamal Milan flew in to block the kick for Illinois as time expired.

“We came here with the mindset to win the football game,” Neu said. “That’s the way we coach the game, and that’s the way we play. The game is always a game of inches. There are critical moments in each and every quarter; there are critical moments in each and every series.”

The Cardinals will get another crack next week with the home opener at Scheumann Stadium. Ball State will host UAB on Saturday, Sept. 9 at 3 p.m.