The Cardinals (1-3, 0-1 MAC) aren't strangers to playing with a one-game-at-a-time, grind-it-out-mentality. And while head coach Mike Neu alluded to exactly that after Saturday's 22-12 Mid-American Conference-opening loss against Toledo (2-2, 1-0 MAC), he also recognized the sense of pressure his team is facing after losing its third consecutive game in front of 14,902 fans at Scheumann Stadium.
"I'll accept the blame — that's my fault," Neu said. "I'm the head football coach here. I've got to be better. I've got to closely examine everything we're doing. I've got to make the necessary moves or adjustments, whatever it takes to give us the best opportunity to compete and win. And so it falls squarely on my shoulders ... certainly, there's urgency."
Last season, Ball State also lost its MAC opener against Miami (Ohio) but, of course, was able to make up ground as the season progressed. Neu said he hopes to see a similar trend this season, which all starts with an atmosphere of "positivity and belief," as well as him recognizing his position as a mentor and leader for his players.
"There's nothing magic, no wand that I'm going to be able to wave," Neu said. "There's no magic wand that's going to fix something. We're not going to sign a free agent that's going to come in and fix anything that's going on. We have to execute, and I believe that. I really do. I'm not just saying that — it starts with me first and foremost."
The Cardinals' issues began on offense Saturday, which could not capitalize when the time was right. For the first time in nearly four years, Ball State failed to find the end zone and scored all of its points off field goals while reaching the red zone on three occasions.
Down 14-9, the Cardinals had a prime opportunity to take the lead with seconds before halftime and find some offensive momentum on a second-and-10 at Toledo's 14-yard line, but redshirt fifth-year quarterback Drew Plitt threw an incomplete pass and could not find his target.
Toledo's defense also limited the Cardinals' backfield tandem of redshirt senior running back Will Jones and freshman running back Carson Steele — who entered Saturday's game with three touchdowns in three games — to just 32 rushing yards.
"We've still got to be able to step up and execute because those guys have taken a lot of snaps in practice, in training camp, [in] spring practice," Neu said. "They've taken a lot of reps on some of those plays that we ran today. We've got to be able to execute that — we just couldn't get anything established on the ground game except the jet sweep package for Justin [Hall]."
Like his coach, Hall said he saw areas of improvement following Saturday's loss, but his confidence hasn't wavered. The fifth-year wide receiver finished the game with 97 receiving yards — upping his career total to 3,061 and passing Dante Ridgeway for No. 1 in program history. However, he also is holding the mentality of "this season is this season," meaning he isn't letting last year's success get in the way of where the Cardinals are right now — September 2021.
"Bringing up last season and trying to replicate it, it ain't the same team," Hall said. "We've got different weapons at different spots now. We've got a solid game plan — we just got to keep going. That's the main thing, just keep going and just keep our heads up."
One of Hall's positives from the game was his team's defense. Ball State forced three sacks on the Rockets' quarterbacks Dequan Finn and Carter Bradley, and junior inside linebacker Clayton Coll led the way with a career-high 15 tackles.
"It's always been our spark plug," Hall said. "The offense has just got to lean over — we've got to have their back to come out and put numbers on the board. We're going to do that, of course. We just need to execute and get back to the drawing board."
Coll combined with redshirt sophomore defensive lineman Tavion Woodard on the Cardinals' second sack of the day, bringing down Bradley at Toledo's 47-yard line just before the halfway mark of the second quarter. It stymied a Rockets' offense that redshirt fifth-year linebacker Jaylin Thomas already got the best of earlier in the quarter, as he brought down Toledo junior running back Bryant Koback on its previous drive.
Coll said his approach hasn't changed one bit despite his team's 1-3 start. Whether it's from fans, alumni or his coaches, he said, he recognizes there is pressure everywhere he goes. It's up to him to execute it, which he said he is working to accomplish on a week-by-week basis. It's a mentality he credits redshirt senior linebacker Brandon Martin and senior safety Bryce Cosby for instilling.
"It just comes back to just doing you," Coll said. "You've got to do what you want to do as a team and just execute from that perspective ... football is hard. You're going to come in, and you're going to lift. You're going to come in early morning — football, lift, practice and you're going to go to class and whatnot. But it's just that mentality that those guys instill in us. They've been here. They've seen a lot."
Next Saturday, the Cardinals welcome the 4-0 Army West Point Black Knights to Muncie for their final non-conference game. However, both Coll and Neu are viewing that as an "opportunity" rather than a "challenge," even with the struggles they have faced over the last three weeks. And for Hall, one thing is certain.
"I've been here before — the 2017 and 2018 seasons," Hall said. "We're going to stay together and just keep pushing.
"It's only, what, our third loss all season? We'll still make the bowl game."