Ball State Football has to win. It’s that simple. If the Cardinals want to play in their first bowl game since 2013, they have to win.
According to ncaa.com, a bowl eligible team is defined as one that has an equal or greater number of wins than losses. In other words, the team must have a record of 6-6 or better. The Cardinals currently sit at 3-6 (2-3 MAC) with three games left to play, and the players know what’s at stake Wednesday at Toledo.
“We can’t lose any games,” redshirt senior cornerback Josh Miller said. “If we want to be bowl eligible, we can’t lose any games. It’s like the playoffs. You lose, you go home.”
Redshirt freshman linebacker Jimmy Daw echoed Miller’s statement, saying the team has to take the rest of the season week by week.
“We got to go 1-0 each week,” Daw said. “We just got to focus on one game at a time.”
The Cardinals took a four quarters approach to the 2018 season. The first quarter was training camp, second was the nonconference schedule, third was the first four games of Mid-American Conference play and fourth was the last four MAC games. This makes Ball State 0-1 in the fourth quarter of its season after a 52-14 loss to Ohio on the road.
The Cardinals have outscored opponents 72-40 in the fourth quarter of games this season and held the scoring advantage in six of those nine quarters. Head coach Mike Neu said the only goal heading into the final three games is to win.
“Our approach has been just control your effort and control your positive attitude,” Neu said. “If you bring those things the best that you’ve got every single day, then we’ll have a way better chance of getting the results we want.”
Staying positive could be tougher down the stretch. Neu listed redshirt juniors Jacob White and Riley Neal, both injured in the first half of Thursday’s contest, as “day to day.”
The Cardinals were 2-1 in 2017 before Neal suffered a season-ending injury. The team went on to lose its last nine games without its starting quarterback. White, starting linebacker and team captain, went down late in the first quarter with the Cardinals up 7-0. The Bobcats scored their first touchdown on the same drive and went on to score 52 unanswered points. Defensive coordinator David Elson said he doesn’t think losing White was a direct correlation to Ohio’s success, but it did have an influence.
“Jacob obviously has been an important part of what we do. It’s a matter of next man up, and other guys got to respond,” Elson said. “Ohio is a good football team. They were outexecuting us, outcoaching us and all of that. No question is it a factor when you lose a guy like Jacob White, but I don’t think that’s the factor of why they did what they did.”
The defense has embraced that next man up mentality and plan on going back to the fundamentals.
“When a guy goes down, we got to be able to step up and act like nothing just happened,” Daw said. “Jacob’s obviously a really, really, really good player for us. Losing him is huge, but we definitely have to step up and play like Jacob’s still out there.”
The Cardinals have improved their defensive performance from a year ago, allowing 29 points per game compared to more than 40 last season. However, the previous two weeks have seen the Cardinals give up a total of 94 points. Miller said the struggles have been mental more than anything else.
“It’s more of we need to show ourselves who we are and who we were at the beginning of the season,” Miller said. “We just got to get back to us. We haven’t been playing like us the past two weeks. Proving to ourselves who we are is the most important thing.”
Neu said he’s been telling the team “Winners never quit.” He said he wants to find the players with the best attitude, rally around them and go to battle. Ball State isn’t out of bowl consideration just yet, and the path to the postseason starts at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Toledo (4-4, 2-2 MAC).