Head football coach Mike Neu will remember Ball State’s 2017 season.
And not because it was only the second time in program history that the team failed to win a conference game, or that it was the Cardinals’ ninth straight season without bringing home a rivalry trophy.
He’ll remember it for how it made him grow as a coach.
“Quite honestly, it was one of the best seasons I’ve ever had because it made me challenge myself as a coach from a positive standpoint because you’re leading men,” Neu said. “It’s easy to be a leader when things are going great, when things are always working out for you. But when things aren’t going your way and you’re trying to mold freshmen and young guys, it’s really going to challenge what you’re all about leadership wise.”
Neu was immediately back on the recruiting trail after the season finished up with a team meeting Sunday to make sure players finish their classwork for the semester.
“Monday morning, everybody on the coaching staff is on the road recruiting,” Neu said. “With the early signing day now being December 20, you have to take every day you get. So we’re on the road all next week recruiting.”
Even with the 2-10 record, there are signs Ball State is buying into Neu’s message. The Cardinals finished the season at sixth in the nation for fewest penalties per game, despite starting several young faces on the offensive line.
Ball State also saw production from several young players in 2017. Freshman running back Caleb Huntley became just the second Ball State freshman to ever run for 1,000 yards in a season.
Freshman quarterback Drew Plitt saw increased play because of injuries, and at times looked like a quarterback who the Cardinals may find success in down the road. Freshman wide receiver Justin Hall made plays up and down the field, becoming the favorite target of all four Ball State quarterbacks who started a game in 2017.
But all that cannot change the facts about the 2017 season. Ball State was uncompetitive in all but one of its eight conference losses and lost each game in MAC play by at least 16 points. The score lines say it all.
55-3 to Western Michigan. The Broncos finished 6-6.
56-14 to Eastern Michigan. The Eagles finished 5-7.
28-7 to Miami. The RedHawks finished 5-7.
Defensively, Ball State struggled to stop opposing offenses. They gave up over 48 points per game in conference play and were suspect against the deep ball, giving up long passes throughout the season, most notably in blowout losses to Northern Illinois and Toledo.
“We have a lot of talent, you can see flashes of talent a lot,” junior cornerback Josh Miller said. “But we’re young, so there’s a lot we got to learn because talent is not going to win you games, you got to have experience too.”
The Cardinals now move to the offseason, where they hope to get back junior running back James Gilbert and junior quarterback Riley Neal, who missed most of the 2017 season due to injuries before next season's opener on Aug. 30, 2018. Both led the team in rushing and passing in 2016.