As fans trickle into Scheumann Stadium for Ball State Football’s season opener against Western Illinois Sept. 2, there will be a different energy in comparison to last season. There won’t be capacity limitations due to COVID-19 concerns, and the Cardinals will be the defending Mid-American Conference Champions.
Last season, Ball State only allowed 500 student fans into Scheumann Stadium, which has a 22,500-person capacity. The MAC Championship and Arizona Bowl didn’t have a single fan in attendance when the Cardinals made history, and, with 20 returning starters, they said they want to win a championship in front of people this time.
“It’s a big motivation factor,” fifth-year outside linebacker Christian Albright said. “Two of the biggest games of the season — the MAC Championship and the bowl game — we had no fans there. So, being able to have our parents and our loyal fans, that's going to mean a lot. We want to repeat that so they can be a part of it this time.”
Sophomore elementary education major Erin Muller is a fan of the Cardinals and said she is excited to finally see Ball State play in person. She didn’t get to attend a game in 2020 due to the pandemic and a shortened season.
“Well, it really stinks we couldn’t have a regular season with tailgates and games, especially with our football team doing such a great job,” Muller said. “This year, I am so excited for things to be mostly back to normal. My family is already planning on coming up to tailgate and go to games.”
The 2020 season was full of uncertainty and adjustments, and senior public relations major Jett McGowan is excited to watch the Cardinals play without the worry of games getting canceled or missing out on the fan experience.
“After the year we had at Ball State last year with all the changes and adjustments to daily life, it’ll be nice for everyone to have something to look forward to,” McGowan said. “It was a special season for [Ball State Football] last season, and it was so tragic that circumstances couldn’t allow us to support them the way we would’ve liked, but now we can.”
Playing in front of a full house, head coach Mike Neu said he is excited for the atmosphere to feel normal again, and he especially wants the players who have been around for a while to have the proper college game day experience in their final season.
“The fans and the community are excited about the buzz generated from last year,” Neu said. “It's really just that — it's last year. Nothing would mean more to our players than to come out here on Thursday night for game No. 1 and have a full stadium.”
With the excitement comes the work and practice to keep the fans excited and pull out a victory Thursday night. Neu said he expects the same intensity going into this season that they had last season.
“We got a lot of work between now and Thursday night to make sure we're playing our best brand of football,” Neu said. “That's really all I'm concerned about. It's totally a one-game season every single week, so our approach for this game better be the same approach that we had for the MAC Championship game.”
From a personnel standpoint, redshirt fifth-year quarterback Drew Plitt said he believes the Cardinals are on the right track to perform even better than last season, which he thinks has the potential to make them a “scary” competitor.
Plitt said he has confidence in this season because of the number of players returning, the leadership on the team and increased maturity levels, which he hopes will prove to fans that the Cardinals’ success is not a one-time thing.
“We know how bad it was years ago,” Plitt said, “and we know what it took to get to where we were last year. We want to prove this is not a fluke. So, I mean, I think the maturity level of that is on another level.”
Neu said winning a championship only makes the next season more difficult and that his team can’t get complacent and feel as if they have done enough work. However, the experience his team has had in previous seasons has helped them "have a database in the back of their heads on what they have seen," which can help them prepare for any new adjustments thrown their way while also recognizing their weaknesses.
“You have to have a new identity,” Neu said. “You have to work on your weaknesses. We've tried to do that day in and day out. We tried to just keep constantly preaching to get one percent better and just be a better version of ourselves every day, and that's the challenge.”
Albright said he believes Ball State will be the team everyone is after this season, and he recognizes the challenge that presents.
“We have a target [on] our back this year,” Albright said, “so our approach had to change. We know everybody is gunning for us. We've never been in that position before, so we know we had to just keep working hard or really work harder than we ever have to repeat because it's going to be harder to stay at the top for sure.”