Last season, the Cardinals’ mantra was ‘Detroit or Bust.’
This year, it is ‘Run it Back.’
After last year's success, Ball State Football is entering 2021 with the same exact goal as last season: repeat as Mid-American Conference (MAC) Champions.
Thirteen days after winning last year’s MAC Title, the Cardinals won the Arizona Bowl — Ball State’s first bowl win in program history.
Both redshirt fifth-year quarterback Drew Plitt and fifth-year senior safety Bryce Cosby said they remember their share of blowout losses from when they were underclassmen. That alone, they said, is enough incentive for them to continue their success from last season.
“We know that there is a target on our back,” Cosby said. “Another way I look at it is one championship or one good year doesn't really make up for the three years of losses that we took. We're grateful for last year and everything we've accomplished, but I still don't think that equals some of the losses that we've taken in the past couple of years. I still remember those, and I haven't forgotten about them, and I won't forget about them.”
Cosby said the success of last season came from multiple seasons of himself and his teammates proving they belong among the team’s veterans while working to gain their trust. When Cosby was a freshman, he said, there was a learning curve, and he had to understand the amount of trust his teammates already had in him.
By his sophomore year, Cosby said, he felt he improved as a leader. However, it wasn’t until his junior year when he knew he made the jump he needed, as he kept getting reassurance from his coaches that his teammates respected him.
“I really became that vocal leader and presence, and that's kind of out of my personality,” Cosby said. “I'm a laid-back person. For me, being vocal was a challenge at first — trying to get out of my comfort zone. The more vocal I've gotten, I have realized that my teammates [trust me], when I talk, listen, and obviously, I don't abuse that, but it kind of just gave me the confidence to lead these guys in the right direction.”
Head coach Mike Neu knows the formula of coaching a championship team, which he said he believes starts with the veterans molding the newer guys into a successful way of playing football. That is part of the reason Cosby said he had to step up as a vocal leader.
“They know the ropes,” Neu said. “They have been around here. We have been around each other day in, day out, during all phases of our program from in-season to offseason. We are a player-led team. I said that when we started out this year.”
Plitt and Cosby both have parallels regarding how their vocal leadership evolved over time. Both of them said they started out reserved and didn’t know when to speak up to the team. Their growth is part of the reason why they believe they were so successful last season.
“Every year, I have been just a little bit more confident, a little bit more vocal,” Plitt said. “Obviously, I played when I was young as a redshirt freshman. And even in the redshirt sophomore year, I wasn't as vocal, but I was trying to lead by example. And I think every year, it's just learning how to be more vocal every single year and be able to pass on the things that I've learned on to the younger guys.”
For the Cardinals, leadership is the standard, especially from the veterans. The more experience the seniors have gained over the years, the more redshirt senior linebacker Brandon Martin said they understood what it means to play for the program.
“It starts out by understanding our standard and the things we hold high and the morals we hold high here in our building,” Martin said. “Those are the same things we have had since coach Neu has been here. Having the young guys be able to come in, learn from us, see how we do things, see guys get extra work in — the young guys grasp on to that.”
It isn’t just leadership that anchored the Cardinals’ success last season, Martin said, as practices have been met with more energy and competitiveness. He said, over time, everyone understands their side of the ball more and realizes what it means to take care of the little things. Plitt believes accountability and leadership started when a different approach was brought up in practice.
“It really kind of started two years ago — 2019 — when we implemented this [mindset]: compete, practice, survive and being self-disciplined and being real with yourself on how you practice each day,” Plitt said. “And especially with showing those practice clips in the meeting rooms on what you're supposed to do and what you're not supposed to do, it's elevated practice. It has shown on the field — how we play, how much harder we play, and I think that's been a great thing.”
The seniors’ growth as leaders and Ball State’s success last season have “put a target on their back.” They said they aren’t worried about preseason predictions and treat every day like they are still at the bottom.
“That is our No. 1 goal … to make sure our work ethic, our attitude, our focus is still like we are at the bottom — fighting and scratching to figure out how we are going to get to the top,” Neu said. “We really have to keep the process as simple as we can and focus one day at a time.”