Brent Baldwin, 1996 Ball State graduate and former Cardinal quarterback, knows a thing or two about playing for high stakes.
As a freshman, Baldwin was a backup to then-quarterback and now-head coach Mike Neu, who led the Cardinals to the 1993 Mid-American Conference Championship. Three years later, as a senior, Baldwin led the Cardinals to a conference title as the starter.
Twenty-four years following his senior season, Baldwin will watch the Cardinals face San Jose State in this year’s Arizona Bowl from his Michigan home. Baldwin said he watched every Ball State game this season and is proud of Neu, who he shadowed, for leading the Cardinals to success.
“I’m definitely a true Cardinal,” Baldwin said. “I’m just so happy for Mike and all the work he’s put in. I know there was some doubt a couple years ago when things didn’t look as well, but I’m really proud of Mike and what the guys have fought through.”
Following the Cardinals’ 38-28 win over Buffalo in this year’s MAC Championship game, Baldwin sent his congratulations to redshirt senior quarterback Drew Plitt for becoming the first Ball State quarterback to win a MAC Title since his tenure.
Baldwin said he sees parallels between the Cardinals’ success this season and what the team accomplished in 1996. Ball State started 0-3 that year and lost to Miami (Ohio), its first MAC opponent, before going undefeated until the team’s 18-15 loss to Nevada in the Las Vegas Bowl. This season, the Cardinals lost their first game to the RedHawks, but they are now riding a six-game win streak heading into the Arizona Bowl.
As a former player, Baldwin said he believes having an experienced senior class helped the Cardinals win the MAC Championship and reach a bowl game. Many of Ball State’s 22 senior players were freshmen when the team finished 2-10 in 2017.
“They had to battle through [COVID-19] this year, and they’ve battled through so much adversity,” Baldwin said. “I think that will help them in terms of, ‘Hey, it’s just another game,’ going one at a time and not making the moment bigger than what it is.”
When Baldwin was a freshman, not only did he watch Neu, but also Tony Nibbs — a fellow 1996 graduate and former running back — lead Ball State’s offense. As a junior, Nibbs played with Neu on the 1993 MAC Championship-winning team before playing his senior season in 1994.
Nibbs played in the 1993 Las Vegas Bowl when Ball State lost 42-33 to Utah State. Down 21-0 at halftime, Nibbs said, the Cardinals played harder in the second half but couldn’t seal the comeback.
“The challenge for us, honestly, was just trying to keep your nerves calm, staying under control and playing within yourself,” Nibbs said.
Nibbs played with both Neu and now-defensive line coordinator Keith McKenzie, who played for the Cardinals from 1991-95. McKenzie spent eight seasons in the NFL after graduating from Ball State and was a member of the 1996-97 Super Bowl-winning Green Bay Packers.
“We had an offense that put points on the board,” Nibbs said. “Being able to have a great defense to help you out and stop the opponents was very important. We had some great athletic players.”
Nibbs said he will be “cheering up and down” if Ball State wins its first-ever bowl game against the Spartans.
“Watching them over the past several years — they’ve always been close [in] so many games,” Nibbs said. “This year, they were finally able to flip the script and get on the winning side, which they definitely deserve.”
Like Baldwin and Nibbs, Steve Bell — 2016 Ball State graduate and former offensive lineman — has followed the Cardinals closely this season. Bell made his Ball State debut in 2013 as a redshirt freshman. The Cardinals finished 10-2 that season and fell 23-20 to Arkansas State in the 2014 GoDaddy Bowl.
“Going to the bowl game was another amazing experience,” Bell said. “In the school year, you have classes to worry about, tests, finals and homework. During bowl week, you don’t have any of that. You basically just have football to focus on and friends to hang out with.”
Bell played his final game with the Cardinals in 2016, Neu’s first season at the helm. While Ball State finished 4-8 that season, Bell said he saw potential in Neu to eventually lead the Cardinals to a championship.
“Coach Neu was a player’s coach,” Bell said. “He got to know guys on a personal level … He knew there were stepping stones and building blocks.”
That year, current redshirt senior offensive linemen Kaleb Slaven and Anthony Todd were freshmen. Bell said he has remained friends with both of them and watched videos of them flip tires in their front yards this March, early in the pandemic.
Bell said he had a conversation with Todd over the offseason, who said he wasn’t sure if his team would play this fall. Now, Bell will watch his former teammates play for a victory in Ball State’s first bowl appearance since 2014.
“I think everyone just wants a bowl win,” Bell said. “We’ve been there and had the chance but never finished. I think that would mean a lot to these seniors.”