The extra challenges of midweek MACtion
Head coach Mike Neu says he doesn’t know who’s starting at quarterback in Ball State football’s Thursday night game against Toledo.
Junior Riley Neal, the starting quarterback, is definitely out again. He hasn’t played since Ball State’s last win on Sept. 16 and has been diagnosed with a tibial plateau fracture.
Redshirt senior Jack Milas started the last four games, but he injured his elbow in the third quarter of the Central Michigan game.
Neu hasn’t ruled out Milas, saying he could start if he’s “healthy and can do everything.” Still, the Thursday game means he has less time to heal than he normally would. In fact, redshirt sophomore Zack Blair and redshirt freshman Drew Plitt took all of the reps in Tuesday’s practice while Milas went through the motions behind the play without actually throwing.
“When your hand is forced quicker, then you’ve got to make a decision a little bit faster,” Neu said after practice Tuesday.
Mid-American Conference football teams have played midweek games since 1999, and Ball State started playing midweek MAC games in 2006, so the Cardinals have some experience dealing with the turnaround. In 2015, Ball State played UMass on Oct. 31, then played Western Michigan on Nov. 5.
Redshirt senior defensive end Anthony Winbush was a part of that team in 2015. He says younger players just need to follow the example set by the players who went through it before.
“They can’t be immature about it because you’ve got to grow up someday,” Winbush said. “It’s just another game you’ve got to prepare for.”
But 2015 is the only season Ball State had to make that quick turnaround since mid-week “MACtion” began, and this year the Cardinals have to do it twice. In a few weeks, Ball State plays Buffalo on Thursday, Nov. 16 before playing Miami (Ohio) Tuesday, Nov. 21.
Every other year the Cardinals played midweek MAC games late in the season, their bye week lined up to give them an extra few days to transition. Last season, for example, Ball State hosted Akron on Oct. 22, then had its bye week before playing Western Michigan on Tuesday, Nov. 1.
This year, the schedule forced Neu’s hand — the bye week already passed before the Central Michigan game. Neu, however, said injuries aren’t even the most difficult part of the short turnaround.
“The toughest part really is class-wise,” Neu said. “Now you switch to a midweek schedule and so you’re trying to still juggle your class schedule and Thursday guys are still going to be doing study tables. Some of the guys it’s going to be their first time going through that.”
Redshirt sophomore linebacker Jacob White agreed, saying the biggest adjustment is balancing schedules.
“You have a lot more on your plate and you have to do a good job prioritizing what needs to be done,” White said. “These midweek games are definitely different and you don’t have as much time in the week like you normally would.”
So that begs the question — if there’s less time to recover from injuries and athletes have to juggle classes and the game-day schedule, why play these games in the first place?
The short answer: money and exposure.
Neu also said the exposure benefits recruiting. Ball State’s 2016 recruiting class was the according to 247sports.com, and 10 of their commits were from Georgia — too far for their families to attend games, but just a flip of the channel away.
Redshirt senior offensive lineman Vinnie Palazeti said the opportunity to play on national television is worth a few sacrifices.
“I think it’s a toss-up,” Palazeti said. “Is it fair? I think it depends on what you think the outcome is. I enjoy being able to tell my friends that I’m playing on ESPN, so if I have to take a couple extra hits a little sooner than normal to do that ... personally, I enjoy it.”
The game with Toledo isn’t going to be televised, but it will be streamed on ESPN3 without much competition in the 7 p.m. timeslot. The only other Football Bowl Subdivision game will be South Alabama (3-4, 2-1 Sun Belt) at Georgia State (3-3, 2-1 Sun Belt) on ESPNU.
In the press conference after the Central Michigan game, a reporter asked Neu if he thought it was fair to ask students to play midweek games.
“That’s not for me to decide, but I think it’s tough,” Neu said. “Just because of the class part — they’re student-athletes. They’re not just getting paid to play football.”
Ball State (2-5, 0-3 MAC) and Toledo (6-1, 3-0 MAC) are scheduled to kick off 7 p.m. Thursday at Scheumann Stadium.
Contact Colin Grylls with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @colin_grylls.