As time ran out in the third quarter of the Ball State vs. Georgia Southern’s 2022 contest, things were all square at 20-20.
15 minutes later, Ball State headed home with a loss after being outscored by 11 in the fourth quarter.
“It was anybody's game for the taking and we just didn't get it done,” head coach Mike Neu said.
Redshirt senior defensive lineman Jack Sape remembers that fourth-quarter loss too, and said the locker room will use that as motivation for the Cardinals’ and Eagles’ upcoming rematch this Saturday.
Redshirt junior Marquez Cooper, who was with Kent State last season, still knows what this game means to the Cardinals. With a loss last year, the goal is to get this one back.
Coming off of a 45-7 win against in-state rival Indiana State, Ball State is looking to even its record with a win against Georgia Southern at home on Sept. 23, starting at 2:00 p.m.
Even after the rivalry win, the tone in the locker room is simple: Study, prepare, play and repeat the process. One day at a time, one week at a time, one game at a time.
“The win last week does nothing for us moving forward,” Sape said.
Moving forward is just a part of the business, Neu said. He said in college football, you cannot enjoy a win for a long amount of time because it is going to take another full week of preparation to even get a shot to perhaps enjoy the next one.
Neu is focused on looking forward and continuing to get better as the season goes on by attacking each day and making sure the Cardinals are getting better. When describing what type of opponent Georgia Southern is, Neu summed it up quickly.
“An excellent football team. Georgia Southern is coming from a conference that is very similar to the MAC (Mid-American Conference),” Neu said. “It is super competitive from top to bottom in the Sun Belt, no different than the MAC.”
The Eagles have a lot of explosive, dynamic players in their offense, forcing their opponent’s defense to cover the entire field.
To be a good football team, Neu said it all starts with the front seven for the defense. He said he feels strongly about the group's talent and depth as well.
“It is going to be a good challenge for us, so we will get it done on Saturday,” Sape said.
Going forward, Sape believes the defense will need to improve their tackling abilities, recalling Ball State’s struggles with that against the Eagles last season.
Neu said Georgia Southern’s receiving core is going to be challenging to stop. He said the defense is going to have to focus on defending everyone because they do not just have one player to rely on. In fact, the Eagles have five wide receivers with double-digit receptions.
“We have got to wreak havoc in the backfield,” Sape said. “Whenever you are disturbing them in the backfield, it is hard to run and pass the ball. We are going to give them everything we got, [and] we have to limit the explosive plays to help our DBs out.”
Flipping the sides of the ball, the offense will have yet another challenge with the Eagles this weekend. Neu said Georgia Southern did a great job of bringing guys in (like transfers) to help the defense since the last time the two sides squared off.
He said they are very fast and physical just from seeing them on tape, just like those explosive playmakers on offense.
For the Cardinals, everything offensively starts with establishing the run. The ‘establisher’ at running back is Cooper.
Looking back, Neu said he was sure Cooper had to be frustrated with the first two weeks with yards being so hard to come by. With his 27 rushing attempts, he only had 41 yards in the first two weeks. Even with things being tough, he said Cooper was able to be patient and continue to keep putting in the work on the practice field.
After rushing for 177 yards, Cooper said it was nice to see his hard work pay off against the Sycamores.
“I’ve always been doubted because of size,” Cooper said. “I take pride in the little things, we teach that in the running back room. I just want to show everybody that I’m not just a gadget back, I’m a back that can play every single down.”
On every rush, Cooper’s goal is to get to the “third level.” The first level is the defensive line, the second is the linebackers and the third is the safeties.
“When I see the third level, it is just one more guy I have to make miss and I can do my thing,” Cooper said. “That is my favorite part, when I am able to do that, there are some long runs ahead.”
Of course, the fourth level is the end zone, somewhere Cooper has only been once this season.
According to DraftKings, the Cardinals open as 6.5-point favorites against the Eagles, with the over/under set at 59.5 points. Coming off of a 15,000-plus crowd on Family Weekend against Indiana State, Neu echoed the importance of having fans in the stands.
“We need that, our guys feed off of that,” Neu said.
Sape agreed, saying the crowd’s energy during games is a huge driver for the Cardinals. He said to know that people are out there giving it their all to support the team is great to see.
“We need to pack the Schue,” Sape said.
To sum it up, Neu perhaps said it best; The last game before MAC play begins is a big one.
“This is going to be a big-time challenge for us,” Neu said.