Each season, at least one of Ball State Football’s first games of the year is against a “Power-Five Conference” (Big Ten, SEC, Big 12, PAC-12 and ACC) program. To kick off the 2022 season, the Cardinals and the University of Tennessee Volunteers will square off at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tennessee Sept. 1 in each program’s first game of the season.
This is Ball State’s first matchup against an SEC program since 2014 when they took on Texas A&M. For comparison, the average attendance of a Volunteer football game in Knoxville for the 2021 season was 86,386 people, per 24/7sports.com, whereas Ball State’s average attendance in Muncie, Indiana, for the 2021 season was 10,483 people, according to Ball State Athletics.
In the fourth game of the 2019 season, the Cardinals took on North Carolina State (ACC) in Raleigh, North Carolina, in front of a crowd of an estimated 57,702. Ball State junior defensive back Nic Jones was a freshman at the time and has played in multiple Bowl games and games against “Power-Five” opponents since.
“These are moments you prepare yourself for since you were a kid," Jones said.
Ball State head coach Mike Neu said the biggest focus for the Cardinals during and before games like these is communication.
“Certainly for a lot of guys, this would be the first time in this kind of environment so [it’s] awesome,” Neu said. “[It’s] one of the best stadiums in college football; to have 100,000+, [it’s a] great atmosphere. We've been prepping as much as we possibly can to make it hard in practice to hear.”
While Ball State redshirt junior quarterback John Paddock has been in attendance for many Cardinal games in front of large crowds, he’s been on the sideline for almost every snap. Paddock was able to see the field in Ball State’s second contest of the 2021 season against Penn State (Big Ten) in front of an estimated 105,323 people.
Now, set to be QB1 for the Cardinals, Paddock said being Ball State’s backup quarterback for four years helped him establish a routine and get enough experience that he feels prepared for the matchup against the Volunteers. Paddock pointed to the Carindals' preparation during the offseason as a sign of good things to come in 2022.
“At times last year, I think early on, maybe there was still some question marks schematically [and] offensively,” Paddock said. "I think we did a really good job of introducing things really early this year with new stuff that we're going to put in, so I think guys are just gonna go out there and let it rip. You can’t count your steps, you can’t play tentatively. You know, mistakes can be made, that’s all part of it, but if you make those mistakes with 100 percent effort, it kind of works itself out.”
Neu spoke highly of Paddock, in particular the quarterback’s work ethic and dedication.
“He’s got great work habits,” Neu said. “I think that's the thing about John. He's so committed to the process, and when I say the process, what it takes from a full week of preparation in terms of studying your opponent, practicing at a high level on the practice field, being a great leader, making sure the team periods in practice where it's an offensive emphasis. He approaches it like a game.”
While Paddock is set to be the man under center for the Cardinals this season, 2021 standouts in senior wide receiver Jayshon Jackson and sophomore running back Carson Steele return to the fold for Ball State as well. When asked about Steele, Paddock laughed and said, “the dude’s a monster.”
The Volunteers will also be confident about their attack in 2022, boasting an offense that averaged the most points scored in the first quarter of any team in college football in 2021 (14.7), and one featuring many returning key starters. Jones said he knows the Cardinal defense has to be mindful of the Volunteers’ tempo. With many new players manning the secondary in particular, Jones said Ball State’s defense has looked cohesive during the offseason and preseason.
“I think we've been gelling,” Jones said. “ You know, letting the new guys come in and just play their roles. The guys that have been here kind of stepped into that role that the leaders left empty and more so just let the new guys come in and really understand like, this is how we are learning the culture and gel together.”
After winning the Mid-American Conference (MAC) Championship and the Offerpad Arizona Bowl in 2020 and being favored to repeat as MAC Champions in 2021, the Cardinals did not live up to their lofty standards last season. Jones acknowledged that and said the Cardinals look to use their game against Tennessee as the first step in bouncing back in 2022.
“[We have] really just been trying to flush all the bad from last year out and use it as fuel for the most part,” Nic Jones said. “This has been everybody, all hands on deck moving forward. That's really all we've been trying to do, flush out the bad, — what happened, we can't change it at this point, but just do the best we can.”
In a 24-member MAC preseason media poll, Ball State was voted to finish last place in the MAC West Division. Predictions aside, Neu said he believes the Cardinals will “shock people” in the 2022 season.
Given the first game of the year is scheduled to be broadcast on the SEC Network and played in a stadium with a capacity of 102,455 people, Paddock, Jones and Neu all said the atmosphere during practice and in the locker room has been filled with excitement. Nerves too, but mostly excitement.
“It's been awesome,” Neu said. “ Every day when you get one step closer to actually playing a football game and knowing that it's gonna get real, it's awesome. It's been extremely loud at practice, so I would imagine on the practice field they haven't been able to carry much of a conversation, so in the locker room, after practice is over or before we take the practice field, we got a good locker room. We got a great group of quality young men that are [of] high character and take a lot of pride in that, and I'm proud of our guys that are leaders on our team for just showing guys how to do things the right way.”