Ball State Football went 4-8 in 2018, marking the fifth straight season the Cardinals have finished the season with a losing record. The team had its highs from competing with Notre Dame to winning in overtime on senior night. It also had its lows from injuries to dropping five games by at least 21 points. Here are the most notable moments and facets from the Cardinals’ season.
Season begins with a bang
The Cardinals kicked off their season by breaking a record that stood for more than 40 years. In 1977, Ball State compiled 618 total yards of offense against Cal Poly Pomona, the most yardage gained in a single game in school history. That number was topped on Aug. 30, 2018, at the 3:53 mark in the fourth quarter against Central Connecticut State when redshirt sophomore Drew Plitt connected with freshman Yo’Heinz Tyler for a 63-yard touchdown. At the half, the team had already accumulated a total of 384 yards, surpassing the total game yardage in 10 out of 12 games in the 2017 season. The Cardinals finished the game with 652 yards, 34 more than the previous record.
Holding their own
Notre Dame is going to the College Football Playoff after finishing off a perfect 12-0 regular season. The Cardinals were faced with the challenge of taking on the then-eighth ranked Irish in week two. The meeting was the first between the two schools in history, and while Ball State arrived in South Bend as the underdog, it almost departed as Cinderella. After falling behind 24-6 late in the third quarter, the Cardinals outscored the Irish 10-0 in the fourth, but it wouldn’t be enough as they fell by a final score of 24-16. Ball State rushed for 52 more yards than Notre Dame, and the Cardinal defense came away with three interceptions.
Senior night special
Ball State entered its final home game of the season against Western Michigan with a 35.2 percent chance to win. With a 21-17 lead at halftime, the Cardinals’ chances rose to 53.5 percent. Ball State’s 21 points scored was the most in the first half since the Mid-American Conference opener against Kent State six weeks prior. It was also the team’s first lead at the half since Kent State. After four ties and two lead changes, the Cardinals and Broncos found themselves heading to overtime. It didn’t take long for Ball State’s win probability to rise to 100 percent. The Cardinals found the end zone on their first possession. Western Michigan answered with a score of its own but decided to risk it all and go for two. The Cardinal defense rose to the occasion and stopped the ball carrier in the backfield, sending Ball State’s 10 seniors out with a victory.
To run or to pass?
At MAC Football Media Day in July, head coach Mike Neu said it was no secret his team planned to run the ball offensively, and with good reason. In 2016, then-sophomore James Gilbert rushed for 1,332 yards en route to an all-conference selection. Last year, Gilbert was injured for the last nine games of the season, but then-freshman Caleb Huntley stepped up and ran for more than 1,000 yards. Through the first three games of 2018, the Cardinals lived up to that potential, averaging almost 230 yards on the ground per game including a 316-yard performance in the season opener. Ball State only eclipsed the 200-yard mark once more in large part due to an 80-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter. The Cardinals leaned on the passing game for the majority of the season after week three and would end up with 510 more yards through the air than their opponents on the year.
Quarterback position in good hands
Redshirt junior Riley Neal had a career day against Kent State. In the Cardinals’ first conference win since 2016, Neal posted career highs in both passing yards (402) and touchdowns (four). He started the week prior completing his first nine pass attempts. In that same game, Neal moved into third on Ball State’s all-time passing yardage list, bumping his own coach, Neu, down to fourth. Plitt started the final three games of the season as Neal nursed an injury. In those games, Plitt threw for 773 yards and five touchdowns, raising questions about who would be the front runner to start under center next season. That question may be answered as it was confirmed Monday that Neal will be transferring for next season. Then, there’s redshirt senior Corey Lacanaria, who got a few chances to throw the ball on trick plays this season. He completed all four of his pass attempts including a 24-yarder to set up the game-winning score on senior night.
Solid receiving core
Sophomore receiver Justin Hall was an All-MAC selection as a freshman last year. He was Ball State’s leading receiver by more than 500 yards. In 2018, the receiving core was anything but a one-man show. Hall led the Cardinals is receptions, but his yards and touchdowns took a small hit from last year. That’s where Lacanaria and redshirt junior Riley Miller stepped up. Lacanaria finished the season with 524 yards and three scores. Through week seven, he had the most receptions without dropping a pass among all Football Bowl Subdivision receivers. Miller led the team in receiving yards with 878. He found the end zone seven times including one in each of the final six games of the season.
Ball State finished the season with a record of 4-8 (3-5 MAC). Record-wise, there was a two-game improvement from 2017 where the team went 2-10 (0-8 MAC). Playing competitively has also been an improvement. The Cardinals lost by three to Illinois in week one of the 2017 schedule. Other than that, they didn’t play in any other close games throughout the season with their next-closest contest being a 12-point difference. Five games from 2018 – three of them losses – were decided by eight points or fewer. Two of the losses came down to a desperation pass as time expired. If a couple things went the Cardinals’ way, they could have just as easily been 7-5… or 2-10.