Ball State’s quarterback Riley Neal makes a touchdown during the home opener game against Eastern Kentucky on Sept. 17 in Scheumann Stadium for Family Weekend. Ball State won 41-14. Grace Ramey // DN
Confidence powers Cardinals past Colonels
With Family Weekend wrapped around Ball State football's home opener, a confident air spread across the Cardinals' sideline.
The swagger started with head coach Mike Neu — he said he told the players they wouldn't leave the field unless the Cardinals beat Eastern Kentucky to improve to 2-1.
And they did, in a 41-14 blowout.
Ball State total yards: 431
Eastern Kentucky total yards: 289
Ball State rushing yards: 193
Eastern Kentucky rushing yards: 3
Ball State time of possession: 38:59
Eastern Kentucky time of possession: 21:01
"We talk about protecting our house. We want to do a good job of winning at home," he said. "We want to have that mentality and that mindset that whenever we take the field, we expect to win."
Quarterback Riley Neal also got off to a hot start by completing his first 16 passes. In the previous two games, the Cardinals had turned the ball over on their first two drives. Neu said Neal's mentality was the biggest difference, and it helped that Ball State's defense limited Eastern Kentucky to 289 total yards.
"There's nothing better as a quarterback than when you have defense and a running game because it takes the pressure off of you," Neu said.
Neal relied on short, quick passes early in the game. Even though he completed his first 16 passes, they only went for 108 yards (6.75 yards per completion). Freshman wide receiver Damon Hazelton Jr. said the playcalling "means the coaches trust us."
Hazelton caught six passes for 52 yards and a touchdown in his first collegiate start, but he still thought he could've done better.
"I'm still haunted by that one deep ball I think I should've had," Hazelton said.
Neu said the defense also felt it could've done better. The Cardinals sacked the Colonels' quarterback eight times and only gave up three net rushing yards, but they lost the shutout when Eastern Kentucky scored a touchdown with 3:29 left in the game.
"It's a confidence-driven game," Neu said. "Our defense has a bit of confidence right now, [and] they believe they're going to hold the offense to three-and-out."
Senior safety Martez Hester hauled in one of Ball State's two interceptions. He said the defense was able to be more aggressive when Eastern Kentucky fell behind early, forcing an offense that averages 230 rushing yards per game to abandon the run.
"Going into the game they were a big running team," Hester said. "The fact that they had to do something they're not comfortable doing definitely helped the defense."
Ball State, however, had no problems moving the ball on the ground. Six Cardinals combined for 193 rushing yards, led by sophomore James Gilbert's 72 yards.
Once again, Neu said it started with his players' attitude — this time from the offensive line.
"They want to be known as guys that impose their will on their opponents and they have fun playing the game," he said.
Even Neal got in on the blocking.
"I'm a pretty big guy," he said. "I'm 6-foot-5 and I can get in there and slow someone down at least."
The Cardinals hit the road next week when they take on Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Florida, on Sept. 24 at 6 p.m. Though they won't have a friendly Scheumann Stadium crowd behind them, they'll take that same confidence with them.