"I'm still standing better than I ever did, looking like a true survivor, feeling like a little kid."
Elton John once sang those lyrics in his 1983 hit. They echo how Ball State Football (7-1, 5-1 MAC) finished 2020, following years of adversity dating to the team's 2-10 finish in 2017 — when many of its 22 senior players were freshmen.
After losing three of its final four games in 2019 by one touchdown or less, Ball State flipped the script in 2020. The Cardinals won the Mid-American Conference West Division and a MAC Title and defeated No. 19 San Jose State 34-13 (7-1, 6-0 MWC) in this year’s Arizona Bowl on New Year’s Eve, capping off a historic season and year.
“This has been a process,” head coach Mike Neu said, “a long process [of] high-character young men that just bought in and tried to do things the right way. We got here because of hard work.”
Back in August, the Cardinals’ mantra, “Detroit or bust,” came to a halt when the MAC postponed its football season due to COVID-19 concerns. After the conference reversed course in late September, the Cardinals not only showed this season wouldn’t end up a “bust,” but went the extra mile in Tucson, Arizona, giving the program its first-ever bowl victory in a year full of uncertainty, surprise and hardships.
Empty stadiums and artificial crowd noise. Weekly COVID-19 tests. Social distancing while off the field. The Cardinals didn’t let any of that get in their way this season and ended 2020 on a victorious note.
Never wanting to wear a face mask again, Neu said, he couldn’t think of a better way to end 2020 with Thursday’s win.
“What a great way for us to ring in the new year,” Neu said. “I cannot wait for [COVID-19] to be behind us — I hope that’s sometime in the very near future. I’m just so proud of our guys.”
When the MAC postponed its football season, it was the first Football Bowl Subdivision conference to do so. It was also the last to make a decision on returning to play. While a number of MAC teams were affected this season due to the coronavirus, Ball State was not one of them. The Cardinals remained diligent and stuck to their process, which Neu preached after the team’s MAC Championship-winning victory.
Senior safety Bryce Cosby, who has experienced his share of adversity dating back to his freshman season, expressed how special Thursday’s bowl win meant to him. Cosby was one of the driving forces behind Ball State’s “Detroit or bust” mantra, one the Cardinals went above and beyond with over a shortened, six-game 2020 season.
“The year started off on a pretty rough note to say the least,” Cosby said. “While we still wish we could have some type of normalcy, it’s safe to say the end of 2020 didn’t finish too bad for the Cardinals.”
Cosby finished Thursday’s win with nine tackles and one interception. Ball State's defense forced four interceptions off the Spartans — an Arizona Bowl record.
Prior to Thursday’s game, Cosby said, he viewed his team as the underdog against the nationally ranked Spartans — a type of mindset he’s followed all season. He continued sticking to the fundamentals of quality leadership and teamwork heading into Arizona, which he said paid off in Ball State’s win.
“Being a senior here, I take it upon myself to make sure the guys are preparing the right way,” Cosby said. “We’re locked in every week, and we know the situation at hand. Obviously, I was able to make some great plays, but all the credit goes to the whole defense. Without those guys, none of those would be possible.”
Cosby said he felt Thursday’s bowl win meant a greater deal to Neu — finishing his fifth season at the helm — than it did for his teammates. Even after the team finished 2-10 three years ago, Cosby said, he knew it was a matter of when, not if, Neu would reach greater heights.
"He has dealt with so much slander, and it was harder for him than it was for us, just because of the expectations,” Cosby said. “[The win] just speaks volumes to him. He never brought any negativity into the locker room. He was always positive, preaching family and reassuring us that we were going to get this thing going.”
Likewise, Neu praised Cosby and his senior players for battling adversities and ending their Cardinal careers on a high note with both a championship and bowl win. He said he will try to recruit as many of them back as possible heading into the team’s 2021 season.
“It’s a special, special, special class that I’ll be forever indebted to,” Neu said. “They did not have to stay here when things were really tough and rocky a couple years ago, but they did because they believed in one another and they saw something in each other.”
Defeating Buffalo in the MAC Championship game and San Jose State in the Arizona Bowl, the Cardinals finished their 2020 campaign with back-to-back wins over nationally ranked opponents for the first time in program history. The team’s first scheduled matchup on its 2021 slate is Sept. 2, 2021, when the team welcomes Western Illinois to Muncie.