After Ball State's 31-27 comeback victory at Florida Atlantic Sept. 24, the Cardinals ended nonconference play with three wins — matching their total from all of last season.
Sophomore quarterback Riley Neal's rushing touchdown with 1:47 left gave Ball State its first lead of the game. Head coach Mike Neu was happy with the way his guys stuck together through four lightning delays during the game.
"We handle adversity, we handle anything that presents itself as good as any team that I've been around," he said.
Ball State will return home this weekend for its Mid-American Conference opener against rival Northern Illinois. The Huskies have defeated the Cardinals seven straight times dating back to 2008.
Here are three takeaways from Neu's press conference Sept. 26.
We saw the graphic going around on Twitter that said you were leading the nation in sacks. How exciting is that for the program?
Neu: "Coach [Tim] Daoust hates the fact that that's out there. He hates the fact we've talked about it, but it's important. It's something we should be proud of as a program. Four games in, here we're 3-1, to lead the country in sacks with 17, I think that's a credit to the hard work the players have put in from the time we arrived here together. ... And the recruits need to see that. That's a big piece for us in recruiting, for us to be at that point right now. Last night, we joked with our guys, we're at 17 but we've left some more on the field. So let's not eat the cheese, let's not get caught in the mouse trap. Let's just get back to hard work and having a good week of practice. But yes, it's something that's a good accomplishment for our guys for the work they've put in."
Analysis: Neu went on to say that's just the way Daoust is, because he feels there should be more than that. He's a total team guy.
Ball State has 17 sacks already this season through four games, which matches last season's total through 12 games. They're tied for first in the nation with programs like Florida and Michigan.
Some of the Cardinals' biggest plays this year have been sacks, including Josh Posley's sack on third down at the end of the Sept. 24 game. That's a big change from a year ago.
In the first half (Sept. 24), you kind of got after the offense a little bit, Coach [Chevis] Jackson and Coach [Keith] McKenzie got after the defense on the sideline. They seemed to respond. How do you balance getting on them while also staying positive and trying to encourage?
Neu: "It is a balance, I tell those guys all the time. I think they know who I am, though. I'm an emotional guy, I get passionate, but yet I love them as soon as that's over because we're all in it together and we're trying to play the best we possibly can. So yeah, I got after some guys. But they also know too I'm not a guy that holds grudges. I expect the guys to accept the constructive criticism, and get back on the field and do their job, make the plays when they present themselves. They know who I am. And if I get on them, don't take it personal. Accept it, and let's get back at it."
Analysis: Another game, another slow start on offense.
Neal threw a pick on Ball State's first offensive drive against Florida Atlantic, and the Owls turned it into points. The Cardinals found themselves down 14-0 after the first quarter Sept. 24.
Neu still doesn't seem too worried about the team's slow starts, probably due to the fact they've overcome them in three out of the four games. On the other hand, Ball State is going to see better teams than Florida Atlantic in MAC play. Getting off to a better start will be important if the Cardinals want to compete with some of the league's best.
Northern Illinois is 0-4, but we know what they've done in the MAC over the last several years. When you watch film on them, what kind of things jump out at you?
Neu: "It's a good football team. I don't care that they're 0-4 right now, they're 0-0 to us because a new season starts right now. This is our first conference game, and the West Division goes through Northern Illinois. They've won the last six years, and three out of the last five they've won the MAC championship. I've got a ton of respect for that program, it's the Bronze Stalk Trophy that's at stake for us. It has not been in Muncie since 2008, so that's a challenge for our guys. I have a ton of respect for Coach Carey, and I don't care what their record is. They've had some injuries, but they have some players. ... It's going to be a good football team that comes in here [Oct 1.]."
Analysis: Northern Illinois is winless, but the Huskies have played some good teams. Their worst loss of the season came last week to Western Illinois of the FCS.
Still, Ball State can't take its conference rival lightly. Northern Illinois has beaten Ball State seven straight times, including last season's 59-41 shootout, and only two of those games have been within single digits.
Northern Illinois will be fired up, and this rivalry game will give them even more motivation. The Cardinals are going to have to play at their best to beat the winless Huskies, even on their home field.