“The season is not over, the MAC championship might be– well it is over,” senior safety Malcolm Lee admitted through the static of a postgame zoom press conference.
Through the early November chill in a corridor outside of the visiting team locker room, Lee, along with the rest of the Ball State football program reconciled with the result of their 28-21 loss to Toledo.
Entering the matchup, the Rockets sat atop the Mid-American Conference (MAC) West Division, which holds the ticket to the conference championship at Ford Field in Detroit. A win would’ve seen Ball State go level with Toledo with the tiebreaking game in hand.
But the loss dashes any hope of a second championship appearance in three years for head coach Mike Neu’s and his men.
“That’s a tough loss,” Neu said in the same folding chair that Lee would sit in 20 minutes later.
In true midweek MACtion slugfest-style, there were 22 total punts through the 9mph wind. The Cardinals accounted for 12 of the punts, eight of which came from three-and-out drives.
“We had good field position [and] we weren't able to capitalize on that,” Neu said. “Obviously, we struggled in the passing game. All night long [we] struggled on third down.You got to be able to take advantage of that if want to have a chance to win and be in a game like this and and we weren't able to get that done.”
Per usual, sophomore running back Carson Steele was the jewel in the Cardinals’ offensive crown, rushing for 198 yards and all three of his team’s touchdowns. Steele’s performance kept Ball State in the game while the passing attack sputtered. Redshirt junior quarterback John Paddock threw for 94 yards on 37.1% completion (13-34).
“It was a little bit of everything,” Neu said. “[Toledo] did a good job getting some pressure on the quarterback. When we did have an opportunity to make some plays in a 50-50 situation we just weren't able to make any plays and obviously they did a good job defensively from a pass defense standpoint. So you gotta give them credit. Obviously, we couldn't get that figured out. It was disappointing.”
Despite attempting just four less pass plays than rush plays, Neu emphasized that there needs to be balance between the two offensive options.
“You can talk all you want, it's great to be able to run the ball, Carson Steele is special,” he said. “But, we got to have better balance and we have to improve with the time that we have left here. We got to improve from a passing game standpoint and we got to get that attacked once we get back tomorrow.”
Despite a cold and dark setting that could be seen from the pixelated zoom box, Lee echoed the warmth of the ‘never-say-die’ attitude that the Cardinals pride themselves on.
“The season is not over, we’ve still got games to play,” he said. “Anytime you strap up, you play to win. No matter what your record is, you still have to play.”
Ball State is still in search of the all important sixth win, which will punch the ticket to a third-consecutive bowl game, a feat not completed in program history.
“Just taking the little steps, like I said, fixing our mistakes we made this past game,” Steele said. “Being able to get that 1-0 mindset [for] that next game and get that bowl eligibility.
The Cardinals will hope to find that win when they host Ohio University Tuesday Nov. 15 at 7 p.m. in Scheumann Stadium.