In 1993, Ball State head coach and then-quarterback Mike Neu led the Cardinals to their ninth conference title in program history.
Three years later, Ball State won its 10th conference title. A dozen years after that, the Cardinals played for the Mid-American Conference Championship again but fell to Buffalo 42-24.
Twenty-seven years following his senior season, Neu is guiding the Cardinals from the sideline and has a chance to win another championship — this time as head coach. In this season's MAC Championship game, Ball State (5-1 MAC) faces the No. 23 Bulls (5-0 MAC) Dec. 18 at Ford Field in Detroit for a rematch of the 2008 title game.
“This was my vision,” Neu said. “I knew it was going to take a lot of hard work, and I knew it was going to take a lot of growing pains….nothing would make this group of young men happier than to bring a MAC Championship [to Ball State].”
In 2017, Ball State failed to win a game against MAC opponents and finished with a 2-10 record.
The Cardinals improved to 4-8 in 2018 and finished 5-7 in 2019. Despite the improvement, though, Ball State lost three of its final four games last season by one score or fewer.
Not closing out tight games inspired the Cardinals to adopt their “Detroit or Bust” mantra last offseason. Nearly a year later, Ball State and its 22 senior players — many of whom endured growing pains just three seasons ago — are headed to the Motor City.
“Back in 2017, we certainly had some ugly losses,” Neu said. “Guys continued to stay positive and continued to work hard. We continued to close the gap yearly. I think coming out of last season and some of the games we lost, our guys really took it to heart.”
When Neu played for Ball State, there were no East or West divisions. The Cardinals advanced to the championship in 1993 based on their conference-wide performance, but Neu said he realizes the path toward a title is different now. He is not taking this opportunity for granted.
“You’re never promised tomorrow,” Neu said. “You’re never guaranteed another trip to get back there. Our guys understand that, and they know the opportunity that lies ahead.”
Ball State’s offense is entering Friday’s championship game averaging 33.7 points per game. However, the Cardinals’ backfield took a hit last weekend, as senior running back Caleb Huntley announced via Twitter he had played his final game in the cardinal and white and is focusing on preparing for the 2021 NFL Draft.
Neu said the Cardinals will miss Huntley, who finished with 437 rushing yards in Ball State’s first three games before missing the final three with a rib injury. However, he has confidence in redshirt sophomore running back Tye Evans and redshirt junior running back Will Jones to carry his workload.
Evans scored his first career touchdown on a 7-yard run in Ball State’s 30-27 win over Western Michigan Dec. 12. Jones finished that game with a team-leading 71 rushing yards.
“[Evans and Jones] are ready,” Neu said. “Obviously, every one of us loves Caleb Huntley and knows it’s frustrating for him not to be able to get back on this field with his injury. He made this decision, we all supported him, but our guys are ready. They’ve had a great week of preparation.”
Redshirt junior linebacker Brandon Martin leads Ball State defensively, finishing the regular season with 72 tackles. The MAC awarded Martin Co-Defensive Player of the Year honors after missing most of 2019 due to injury and awarded five of Ball State’s defensive players with All-MAC Team honors.
“I feel like when you’re part of any team, the end goal should always be to get to the point where we’re at today,” senior safety Bryce Cosby said. “You've probably heard a lot of people in this facility say, ‘We’ve been through a lot,’ so to see things come full circle….it’s a blessing to say the least.”
Cosby said he is viewing Friday’s title game as an “opportunity” rather than an “obstacle.” He ended the 2020 regular season with 44 tackles, as well as a sack and interception apiece.
“At the end of the day, both teams are well deserving to be in this game,” Cosby said. “We have a lot of seniors on this team who have played a lot of football. We’ve played a lot of competition in the past three to four years, and it’s just another challenge.”
Redshirt senior quarterback Drew Plitt echoed Cosby's sentiments and credited the Cardinals' defense in helping them get to this point. From an offensive standpoint, Plitt said, the team’s improvements on defense this season have made his job easier.
“The defense has been amazing,” Plitt said. “Brandon and Bryce have been tremendous leaders on the defensive side of the ball. For us, as an offense, it’s been great as a complement to us. They’re making tremendous plays when we need it.”
Plitt finished the regular season with 13 touchdowns and 1,674 passing yards, receiving Second All-MAC Team honors. He is excited to play for a championship and said a title would mean a great deal for the Ball State and Muncie communities.
“It can show a lot to the community that we’re here,” Plitt said. “Through everything we’ve been through this year, you can still look to the positives. You can still look to us for something positive to come out of something that’s negative.”
The Cardinals are facing a Buffalo squad led by junior running back Jaret Patterson — the 2020 MAC Offensive Player of the Year — who ranks eighth nationally with 1,025 rushing yards. Neu credited the Bulls’ successes but is confident the Cardinals can stand their own.
“It’s a great challenge for our guys,” Neu said. “We’ve worked all week long, studied our opponent and put a great game plan together here.”
Ball State will face Buffalo Friday, Dec. 18 at 7:30 p.m. ESPN will televise the game.