These were the three adjectives redshirt senior quarterback Drew Plitt used to describe Ball State Football (6-1 MAC).
Those words guided Ball State to its first Mid-American Conference championship win since 1996 and the Cardinals’ first appearance since 2008, as they beat Buffalo (5-1 MAC) 38-28.
Those words kept the team glued through the difficult 2016 and 2017 seasons — going a combined 6-18. Plitt said he knew the team had to stick through it and remain resilient. He wanted to be a part of a class that would change the course of Ball State football.
“Way back in 2016, there was a group chat with all of the incoming freshmen,” Plitt said. “We were talking about how we were going to be the ones to change the program. Now we are here. We are the ones that did it. We stuck through the tough times.”
The last time the Cardinals won the MAC, head coach Mike Neu was the quarterback. Now, he is coaching the team to follow in those footsteps. He said his goal was to put the team back in a position to win it all, and they did it.
Ball State fell short in the championship game back in 2008, as they lost to Buffalo 42-24. The players from that team made sure to wish the Cardinals luck so they didn’t repeat what happened 12 years ago.
“We had a chance to put our program back on the map,” Neu said. “We are so proud to be able to take the MAC championship trophy back to Muncie for the first time in 24 years. There have been a lot of good wishes the past few days from our alums. The 2008 team was making sure we took care of business this time because it was the same matchup.” ‘
Ball State had some bumps between those 12 years, such as the 2017 season. The Cardinals’ didn’t win a single game in the MAC and only won two games that year. Neu didn’t know if he was going to have a job after that. All he said he could do was preach positivity.
“2017 was really ugly for us,” Neu said. “There were a lot of lopsided losses. I just continued to preach positivity and hard work. These men stayed here, and they stayed the course. They committed to hard work and doing things the right way. There are no shortcuts to success.”
Each year the Cardinals improved. In 2018, Ball State went 4-8, and last season, the Cardinals ended the year with a 5-7 record and went an even 4-4 in the MAC.
Fast forward to 2020. The seniors finally felt like they had it together. They even came up with the mantra, ‘Detroit or Bust.’ Then at the beginning of August, the MAC canceled the season just for them to change their minds around a month later and decide on a six-game season.
2020 brought a lot of uncertainty on the field and off for the Cardinals. Neu said he is proud of how responsible his team was with handling more adversity. This time, he said they were prepared for anything to come their way.
“They taught me a lot in terms of heart,” Neu said. “Fight and mental toughness. To see that on display and in the games each and every single week. To see it every day in practice. We have guys that are banged up and giving everything that they got. To see how much they give. To see how committed they are to making good decisions.”
Redshirt junior inside linebacker Jimmy Daw echoed Neu’s words about hard work and buying into each other. It paid off for him, as he won player of the game, with a blocked field goal and seven total tackles and a strip-sack which was returned by senior outside linebacker Christian Albright for a touchdown.
He said he is proud of how his teammates handled the pandemic and stayed responsible when it came to testing and taking all of the measures possible to stay healthy.
“With COVID, everything has been uncertain,” Daw said. “The guys on this team continue to come in, even though we didn’t know if there was going to be a season, and they would just work. They really bought in, and we have been lucky to stay COVID-free throughout this whole thing.”
Now Ball State can call themselves champions. Through all the pain and struggle, they won the MAC Championship, and while Plitt said he was speechless, Daw still can’t believe it.
“It’s unbelievable,” Daw said. “All of the hard work that we have put in and all of the adversity and staying true to the team and coaches. Getting ahold of that trophy is unbelievable.”
Contact Ian Hansen with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ianh_2.