Ball State football players celebrate a victory against Eastern Michigan University by singing Ball State's Alma Mater. Ball State's win gave it a 3-1 record. DN PHOTO COREY OHLENKAMP
CUT TO THE CHASE: Why Ball State football was better than its record
I'd like to start this off by saying: at least we're not Eastern Michigan. They finished the season 0-8 in the conference, 1-11 overall. Of course, Ball State's record of 2-6 in the conference and 3-9 overall isn't much better.
But, believe it or not, the Cardinals' season wasn't as bad as you may remember, and the first game set the tone for the rest of the season.
The Cardinals hosted Virginia Military Institute in week one. The final score wound up being 48-36, Ball State. The score showed that the Cardinals were able to move the ball and score on anyone, but would struggle on defense.
The second game of the season was the toughest opponent the Cardinals had to face all year: Texas A&M. The game was competitive all the way up until the third drive. Running back Darian Green was able to break off a couple long runs on the opening drive, but the Aggies' defense would force the Cardinals to settle for the field goal after making it to the 1 yard line.
From there on, it was all Aggies.
True freshman quarterback Riley Neal would replace Jack Milas after throwing 1-8 for 5 yards and a pick six. Neal went on to score on the opening drive against an Aggie team that had already begun resting its starters after a commanding 49-3 lead at halftime. One of the best takeaways from this game, though, came in the trenches. Just the week before, the Aggies demolished Arizona State and had nine sacks. Against Ball State and an offensive line anchored by senior center Jacob Richards, they managed just one sack and two quarterback hits.
The Cardinals got a chance to recover, and Milas had one last opportunity to prove he was the starter in the game against Eastern Michigan. After falling behind 17-0 early on, he was once again replaced with Neal halfway through the second quarter. The Cardinals went on to to score 28 unanswered points, with Neal marching down the field and junior linebacker Sean Wiggins coming up big with a pair of interceptions in the game. From this point on, Neal remained the starter, and Wiggins began to establish himself as one of the top linebackers in the conference.
Now, onto the Northwestern game.
I could go on and on about how incredible, yet frustrating, this game was for the Cardinals. Coming into the game, Northwestern had allowed a total of 16 points and one touchdown in three games to start the season off 3-0. They had the best defense in the country and were ranked 17th in the nation. At the time, they must have underestimated what Ball State was capable of. Ball State rushed for over 100 yards in the first half, and 181 total in the game. Northwestern came in allowing 110.7 yards per game on the ground.
Senior receiver Jordan Williams finished with eight catches for 133 yards and two touchdowns. If it weren't for some missed field goals and a fumble on offense just five yards away from the endzone, Ball State would have won this game handily. Instead, they lost 24-19. Other coaches around the country must have noticed what Ball State did on offense because, from that game on, Northwestern started allowing an average of 23 points per game, when they only allowed 5.3 up to that point. Now, I'm not saying the Cardinals exposed the Wildcats, but that's kind of what I'm saying. If Ball State could move on Northwestern, one of the best defensive teams in the country at the time, they could move the ball on anyone.
Then the rest of the season happened, and we don't talk about it.
Despite the rough year, Ball State has a lot of good takeaways and things to look forward to next year. Quarterback Riley Neal is going to have an offseason to improve and work on some fundamentals to continue leading the offense. Before the game against Bowling Green, Neal was careful where he placed the ball, only throwing three interceptions on the year. Of course, he had three in the first half against Bowling Green.
KeVonn Mabon stepped up in a big way the last couple of games, which he desperately needed to do with receiver Jordan Williams headed to the NFL draft. Corey Lacanaria has also shown that he can be a good receiver and is a threat in the open field.
The running back duo of James Gilbert and Darian Green can only improve as they progress in the offseason.
The biggest area of improvement for the Cardinals has to be in the secondary, though. The program tried to address it by spending most of their scholarships on defensive backs last year, but that didn't do much initially to fix the issue. This will be the first offseason development many of the defensive backs will get, and they will need it to step their game up to help lead the Cardinals to victory.
Above all else, if you only take one thing away from this season, let it be this: At least we're not Eastern Michigan.