The Ball State Cardinals surged to the top of the MAC West this year, winning each of their last five games after dropping their opener. Led by head coach Mike Neu and a slew of senior veterans, Ball State is on track for its first conference championship since 1996. It won’t come easy though, as the Cardinals’ hands will be full with an undefeated Buffalo team yet to be challenged in 2020. The game kicks off Friday night in Detroit, a destination Ball State has planned to encounter since last January.
“Detroit or Bust”
Ball State hasn’t been to a bowl game or experienced a winning season since 2013.
But in January, before COVID-19 swept the nation, the Cardinals released a lofty mantra that would define their 2020 — “Detroit or Bust”.
Eleven months later, the Cardinals are Detroit-bound at 5-1 and set to compete in their first MAC Championship Game since 2012. The program experienced a rapid rise from the cellar to the top of the division, but head coach Mike Neu realized with each passing year that his goal of a MAC title would be attainable.
Neu understands the trials and tribulations of a conference season in a normal season; a former Cardinal QB himself, Neu was a member of two MAC champion teams in 1989 and 1993.
Friday will mark his first attempt to add on to Ball State’s MAC legacy as a head coach, a journey which has been filled with growing pains, both from a coaching standpoint and from a roster development standpoint.
“In 2017, we didn’t win a game in the MAC. In 2018, we could compete with about half the teams in the conference. 2019 is when we felt like we narrowed the gap. We know we can compete with anybody, but we had three losses in 2019 by a combined eight points,” Neu said during press availability earlier this week. “That didn’t sit well with any of our players or our staff. But we knew in order to take the next step, we felt we had the confidence necessary and it was time to deliver in those close games.”
Ball State is delivering in those close games this year, as four of its five wins are by one score. The team’s last game was a 30-27 win over Western Michigan, a victory which featured a chaotic final play that featured a premature field storm by the Cardinals.
“I know Saturday was an emotional win for everybody, especially knowing where we’ve come from as a team — two years ago, three years ago — and the struggles that we’ve been through,” quarterback Drew Plitt said. “The goal that we set out this year was ‘Detroit or bust’. To be able to go to Detroit and compete for a MAC title outright is just a tremendous opportunity and it’s complete, utter excitement to be on this stage.”
Adjusting to life without Huntley
Running back Caleb Huntley was flourishing at the start of the truncated 2020 season in his senior campaign.
Through three games, the 5’10”, 229 pound running back bulldozed his way through defenders en route to 437 yards and six touchdowns. Huntley attained the century mark in each outing and became the focal point of a growing Ball State offense.
Halfway through the regular season schedule, however, Huntley went down with a rib injury. He attempted a return by going through walkthroughs in practice, but decided to opt out of the remainder of the season to focus on recovery and preparation for the 2021 NFL Draft. A two running back system of Will Jones and Ty Evans has since taken over the ground game in Muncie, IN.
“Those guys have worked so hard waiting for their opportunity and we’ve been a running back by committee the last few weeks,” Neu said. “They’ve made the most of it when they’ve gotten an increased number of snaps the last few weeks. Obviously, every one of us loves Caleb Huntley and I know it was frustrating for him not to get back on the field with his injury. He made his decision and we all support him, but our guys will be ready.”
Ball State’s offense slightly diverted from the run game to become more pass-happy as a result, and quarterback Drew Plitt is averaging over 300 passing yards per game in his last three outings. Despite the schematic shift, the Cardinals are still flying high on a 5-game win streak — the program’s longest since 2013.
Ball State has not been to the MAC Championship Game since 2008.
That December, the Cardinals entered Detroit with a perfect résumé. Ball State ran through its schedule in dominant fashion and its 12-0 record translated into a No. 12 ranking in the BCS standings and AP Poll alike. But the Cardinals ran into an unexpected road block when a gritty 7-5 Buffalo team forced five turnovers and ruined the perfect season in Detroit. After a heartbreaking finish, Ball State remains in search of its first conference championship since 1996.
When comparing the upcoming matchup to the one from back in 2008, the roles are reversed.
Buffalo is nationally ranked at No. 23 in the AP Poll, while preserving an undefeated record and winning each of its five games by 19 or more points. Ball State is a double-digit underdog that suddenly climbed to a division title after experiencing limited success in prior seasons.
Even though the 2008 Cardinals weren’t able to claim the conference crown in Detroit, the culture that they established still resonates to present-day in Muncie.
“Coming in as a freshman, we heard some of the things that the 2008 team embodied as a team, how they got to the point to where they were at,” Cosby said. “As young guys, we try to stay keen to that and implement that into our locker room.”
Ball State’s 2020 team is able to draw inspiration from the 2008 squad that punched a ticket to Detroit. The two teams separated by 12 years have also established correspondence in the weeks leading up to the MAC title game.
“I’ve had some interaction with those guys,” Neu said. “They’ve been awesome, reaching out through text messages. They’ve been awesome as far as supporting the program and making sure that all of our players know that they’ve been following along. We had a great motivational video last Friday night before the MAC West championship game, so those guys all took the time to submit a video to our Sports Link staff here at Ball State which is tremendous.”