If you’ve been a Ball State Cardinals fan long enough, happy endings aren’t the story you know. Sure, there are outliers. The Keith Wenning/Willie Snead/Pete Lembo years were a pleasure. The undefeated regular season in 2008 was a treat that Ball State fans may never see again. But for the most part, you fall into two camps: the longtime sufferers and those who have suffered a little less. So it made sense when the fanbase exploded with optimism about Mike Neu, an alumni head coach and former MAC Offensive Player of the Year QB that harkened back to brighter days in Muncie.
After three years at the helm and a 10-26 record, optimism doesn’t live here anymore. Remember that scene in The Shawshank Redemption where Red forlornly recounts, “I wish I could tell you that Andy fought the good fight, and the Sisters let him be. I wish I could tell you that, but prison is no fairy-tale world.”? Unfortunately, neither is Muncie under Mike Neu. The reasons aren’t excuses for the record. They are real. They are justified. Injuries and fluke turnovers are both hard to control and hard to win despite, and Neu and the Cardinals have had their fair share of both. So there’s plenty of reasons for the lackluster performance. But unfortunately, in this business it’s all about the latter with the former being just a footnote.
There’s two ready-made reasons for 2019 to be more of the same, as the offseason was dominated by two high-profile transfers. QB Riley Neal has left for the Vanderbilt Commodores and RB James Gilbert has transitioned to the Kansas State Wildcats. Replacing them, or attempting to will be junior QB Drew Plitt (who saw the majority of action in 2018 after a Neal injury) and RB Walter Fletcher, a grad transfer from division two Edinoboro along with returners Caleb Huntley and Markice Hurt.
Having said all that, there’s reason for optimism yet again. Eight returning starters on offense and nine returning starters on defense tell part of the story, but with the injuries and dings Ball State has had to endure the last three years under Neu, pretty much everyone on the depth chart has seen game action. In a weird way, the lack of depth the last few years has actually helped build it going forward. Football is a strange game, man.
Offensively, the Cardinals have their entire offensive line returning, along with six of their top seven receivers from 2018. Riley Miller and Justin Hall headline the group, combining for 130 catches, 1500+ yards, and seven TDs last season. Neu’s offensive knowledge and expertise is without question, but it is hard to build any kind of system with a constant revolving door of student athletes at every position as injuries mount. 2018 saw a statistical bump in the offense, averaging 24.2 points per game and 409 ypg. Simply put, that’s not good enough for the MAC. It was an uptick from 2017, though (17.9ppg, 335 ypg) so I guess there’s that. The pieces are present. Possibilities are endless. It’s what happens next that is the great unknown.
Frankly speaking, and I feel like I can because we’re all friends here, the Ball State defense the last few years has been kind of a mess, even by MAC standards. Two years ago the Cards gave up the most points in school history, while allowing the lowest yards per game in the Neu era. Go figure. Most of that has little to do with a lack of skill on defense and almost entirely to do with an offense that didn’t stay off the field and a team that gave up special teams TDs and turnovers like Mardi Gras beads. It’s hard to stop anyone after yet another three-and-out offensive drive or short field from a turnover. If that trend continues, this year’s defense will be just as bad as the rest. Removing one or all of the things like offensive time of possession, turnovers, or special teams woes from the equation on the field changes the math for the better. This will be the second year in the new 3-4 scheme and six of the front seven return. The experience is there for the Cardinals to improve. It is simply a question of will they. Again, optimism and possibility.
There’s certainly consistency in the coaching ranks as the Cardinals return nearly everyone and make one critical addition. Joey Lynch remains as offensive coordinator (his 6th year in the positon) and David Elson is back for a third year as defensive coordinator. They add a co-defensive coordinator this year with Tyler Stockton who has lower level DC experience and also history with Elson. If these two can somehow figure out the defense then perhaps brighter days are ahead.
The personnel and coaching staff are only half of the equation for 2019, though. The MAC home office did the Cardinals no favors and their schedule is simply brutal. Three of the four toughest games from the West are on the road and their three crossover opponents from the East are arguably the best from that division. The out of conference schedule has one winnable game (Fordham) and very likely three losses (Indiana Hoosiers, Florida Atlantic Owls, N.C. State Wolfpack) So it is not without question that the Cardinals could see significant improvement on the field and a worse record than 2017. But, Lane Kiffin is going to be coming to Muncie, so I hope BSU Tinder is ready.
Each year it’s hard to write any kind of neutral Ball State preview. Though I run the place around here, I am still a Cardinal at heart and my sports allegiance will always lie with my alma mater. Back when I ran OverThePylon, it was common for us to inflate the predicted wins and assume everything broke correctly for BSU along the way. That was our job: to get a fanbase that had a tepid and lackluster fire for BSU athletics excited about what was to come. Here at the Belt, it’s a little bit different. I have to be somewhat impartial. But the odd thing about this coming season is for maybe once in my life my heart and my head are actually in line. Maybe it’s the tough schedule, the recent history, the performances I’ve seen on the field. It’s likely a combination of all of it with a historical downtrodden lack of success to ice the cake.
2019 for Ball State in all likelihood is going to be an up and down kind of year, at best. The most plausible scenario is the one that has played out for the last few years, where early season injuries make late season success almost impossible and the late fall nosedive occurs. Is it possible that the random things like turnovers, injuries, and fluke luck all break the Cardinals’ way in 2019 and their experience and skill leads them to an eight-win or nine-win kind of year? Sure. Is it also equally possible that in a Dennis Green kind of way, they are who we think they are? That maybe this team has just backslid a bit amidst several other programs rising up to historically unreachable levels? Sadly, also yes. Cardinals fans should find a way to prepare themselves for a 1-11 or 2-10 season. It is possible.
What likely happens is another frustrating season that ends in the three or four win range with the saving grace being a new coach in January that lights the optimism fire once again. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Mike Neu was supposed to be the conquering hero who rescued his alma mater and brought them to sustained and consistent glory. But that’s the thing about Muncie. There’s no happy endings here.