They needed that.
After two straight losses to start Mid-American Conference play, Ball State overcame a touchdown deficit to defeat Buffalo 31-21 on Oct. 15. It was the fifth time in seven games this season that the Cardinals have been behind after the first half.
"I told our guys at halftime, 'The next 30 minutes here in the second half will go a long way in determining the rest of our season here,'" head coach Mike Neu said. "We got back here, watched the game tape, and told our guys whatever it is that we're doing in the second half — whether it's mojo, mindset — let's bring that in the first half."
Ball State (4-3, 1-2) will look to build on its latest win as it returns home this weekend to take on Akron (4-3, 2-1). The Zips have beaten Kent State and Miami (Ohio), but suffered a 41-0 loss at home to Western Michigan last weekend.
Here are three takeaways from Neu's press conference Oct. 17.
You talked about how the first drive at Buffalo was a potential defining moment for Riley [Neal] to come back and show mental toughness. ... How do you gauge his night overall?
Neu: "He had three turnovers — two interceptions and a sack fumble that wasn't necessarily his fault. It was more of a protection scheme issue than him being sloppy with the ball in the pocket. When you develop your openers for the game, you want to make sure you're doing a good job of getting him going, and have a couple quarterback runs to get him going. But when you're able to run the ball like we were, certainly you want to get the ball in James Gilbert's hands also. We had great field position our first drive, and ran nine plays to get it in the end zone. After that, we had a stretch of about 10 plays where we were not as good as we needed to be. ... I was proud of the way he came out in the second half and showed some mental toughness."
Analysis: Neal's yardage totals weren't bad, but the three turnovers didn't look good. He got hit on the first interception, and the second was just plain forced.
Thankfully for Ball State, Gilbert was (and has been) good enough this year to carry the offense a lot of times. He's fourth in the country now with 854 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns.
If Neal can cut out some of the first half turnovers moving forward, he should be all right. But the Cardinals will need him to be at his best against some of the MAC's top teams over the next several weeks.
Coach [Tim] Daoust said when he grades the film, he's starting to see more wins in the secondary on a more consistent basis. How would you best describe their improvement?
Neu: "We've had some weekly changes in the lineup. Every team has injuries, that's just something you have to deal with. I think the confidence level for those guys, and a performance like that for David [Moore], has done a lot for his confidence from the early part of the season. When he played until now, his confidence level is totally different. He believes he can go out there, whatever receiver he is on, and win that matchup. ... When you're playing that position, you have to have a short-term memory and play with confidence, and I think that's something you've seen. Marc Walton has been consistent all year. And I think David, he had his fair share of balls caught on him earlier in the year, has really responded, competed and is starting to believe in himself."
Analysis: Outside of a few big plays over the last two weeks, the secondary has been better. Buffalo quarterback Tyree Jackson threw for 306 yards and three touchdowns, but one of those came with Ball State up 17 late in the game.
Starting corner Josh Miller has been out, and Moore stepped in well with four pass breakups.
Ball State still ranks third-to-last in the MAC in pass defense, however. There has been improvement, but it will have to be even better as the Cardinals still have to take on Thomas Woodson (Akron), Zach Terrell (Western Michigan) and Logan Woodside (Toledo) this season.
What sticks out on film when you watch Akron? I know their quarterback is out, but what has impressed you about the backup?
Neu: "Well, he's a runner. He can do some damage with his legs. I think going into that game against Western Michigan they anticipated their starter to be back, but he did not return. I expect him to be in the lineup for our game. He was off to a great start through four games, he can throw it. ... They're a good football program, and right in the thick of things in the MAC. Obviously they're gonna be disappointed about the loss, but I think the credit more than anything goes to Western Michigan for playing mistake-free football. But Akron will be ready to go, and there's a lot on the line for them like there is for us."
Analysis: Akron has been solid this season, averaging 32.3 points and 395.7 yards per game.
The Zips have a balanced attack out of the backfield, and two receivers — Jojo Natson and Jerome Lane — with at least 36 receptions, 530 yard and three touchdowns this year.
It will be a big challenge for the defense, but the offense has a chance to make some noise as Akron's defense is giving up 483.9 yards per contest.