“Detroit or Bust.”
“Win the Wait.”
For months, those two mantras have been the voice of Ball State Football (0-1 MAC), representing a team that lost three games by eight or fewer points during its 2019 season.
Following weeks of preparation, optimism and confidence, it all came down to the final 45 seconds in Wednesday night's season opener for the Cardinals in Oxford, Ohio.
Tied 31-31 in their final drive of the game, it looked as if the Cardinals had their first true shot at achieving said goals. However, an interception from redshirt senior quarterback Drew Plitt to RedHawks’ redshirt senior linebacker Ryan McWood cost Ball State its season opener, falling 38-31 to Miami (Ohio) (1-0 MAC).
“It’s been a year since we’ve played a football game, and we’ve got to learn from the mistakes we’ve made and what we could improve on,” head coach Mike Neu said. “When we play with our best effort, each guy does his job, but there’s a lot of things we’ve got to clean up.”
As Neu put it, confidence was high for the Cardinals late. With 68 seconds remaining in the game, a 47-yard field goal from redshirt freshman kicker Jack Knight tied the game at 31 before the RedHawks failed to capitalize on a three-and-out. All the Cardinals had to accomplish was reach field goal territory once again.
Ball State virtually had the game in its hands, but Plitt’s interception cost the team. A 2-yard rushing touchdown from Miami redshirt senior running back Zach Kahn with a mere 10 seconds remaining gave the RedHawks the victory.
“We didn’t get it done,” Neu said. “I told the team afterward, ‘hey, man — we’ve got to own it.’ We’ve got to keep our chin up. We win as a team, we lose as a team, but we lost. We can’t let that determine the rest of our season.”
Feeding off Neu’s sentiments, Plitt — who finished Wednesday’s opener passing 19-for-32 with one passing touchdown — said he won’t let the interception hover over the remainder of his season.
“There was a play to be made, and I just missed it,” Plitt said. “That was my fault. We move on from this week — next week, we start [MAC] West play. We win those five games, and we’re in the MAC Championship.”
Wednesday’s game represented a tale of two halves for the Cardinals. Struggling to find defensive consistency throughout 2019, Ball State felt the presence of redshirt junior inside linebacker Brandon Martin early on, who missed all of last season with an injury
In his first game in over a year, Martin finished the first half with six tackles and ended the night with 11. Although Ball State took a 14-10 lead into its locker room before halftime — thanks to two receiving touchdowns from senior wide receiver Justin Hall — it wasn’t all smooth sailing for the Cardinals in the first half.
Four minutes into the second quarter, a hit from senior safety Bryce Cosby on RedHawks’ sophomore quarterback Brett Gabbert — the 2019 MAC Freshman of the Year — led to Cosby’s disqualification from the game. Gabbert walked off the field due to injury, with redshirt sophomore quarterback AJ Mayer taking his place.
Neu said while Cosby’s ejection cost Ball State’s defense for the rest of the game, it does not represent his leadership the Cardinals highly value.
“I feel for Bryce,” Neu said. “[Gabbert] didn’t slide, so I don’t really know what else could have happened differently. It happened — that’s part of football and part of the rules. Bryce is a great leader. To lose him is very difficult to do, but he stayed positive, and he did a good job encouraging his teammates.”
Despite Cosby’s absence, the Cardinals opened the second half on a high note, as a 45-yard rushing touchdown from senior running back Caleb Huntley gave Ball State a 21-10 lead early in the third quarter.
However, it was all RedHawks from thereafter. Miami (Ohio) scored 21 unanswered points before Huntley’s second touchdown of the game — an 18-yard run with 7:06 remaining in the fourth quarter — narrowed the RedHawks’ lead to three.
While Knight’s field goal eventually tied the game at 31, Kahn’s late 2-yard run was all Miami (Ohio) needed to clinch its 20th all-time win against the Cardinals in the yearly Red Bird Rivalry.
Huntley was a vital piece for the Cardinals’ offense Wednesday. The senior running back finished the night with 131 rushing yards in addition to his two touchdowns.
“Caleb did a good job of staying patient,” Neu said. “He had a couple of long ones, obviously, which was great to see. When you’ve got a 230-pound running back like [him], I would have liked to see him have more touches, but I thought he was very efficient in terms of his yardage.”
Because of local public health policies surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, a limited 600 fans attended Wednesday’s game — primarily family members and close friends of RedHawks’ players. However, Plitt said he did not feel a difference in Yager Stadium’s atmosphere.
“Football is football for me,” Plitt said. “As long as I’m playing, that’s all that matters.”
Up next for the Cardinals is their home opener, Wednesday, Nov. 11 against Eastern Michigan at Scheumann Stadium. Kickoff is 7 p.m.