Related: 'He ran so they could walk'
With a little more than seven minutes left in the second quarter of Ball State’s week one matchup against Kentucky, Tanner Koziol caught a short pass from graduate student quarterback Layne Hatcher.
Almost as soon as the sophomore tight end turned and started to run upfield, Kentucky sophomore linebacker Alex Afari Jr. laid a hit on Koziol that caused those at Kroger Field to gasp. The sound of Afari Jr. and Koziol’s helmets connecting could be heard from the top of the stadium.
The ball was knocked loose from Koziol’s hands, recovered by Wildcats senior defensive back Jalen Geiger and returned for a touchdown. Worse than that, the back of Koziol’s head slammed against the turf after the hit.
Per head coach Mike Neu, Koziol was immediately taken into the Cardinals’ medical tent and put through Ball State’s concussion protocol. Once he passed the test and was deemed healthy, Koziol played the entire second half of the Cardinals’ 44-14 loss to Kentucky.
After the game, Koziol seemed normal and even said he felt good, calling Afari Jr.’s hit “just a shock.” While Koziol is a consistent starter for Ball State, his fellow starting tight end, redshirt sophomore Brady Hunt, missed week one with an injury. Although he is now out of his walking boot, Hunt has been declared out against the Bulldogs.
Although Koziol avoided serious injury despite the hard contact, the same can’t be said for two of his teammates. Just a short time later in the second quarter, redshirt sophomore running back Vaughn Pemberton was nearly folded in half and needed help off the field with an apparent knee injury.
He didn’t return to the field and the severity of his injury is still unknown, although Neu said Pemberton will not play against Georgia and hopes his injury is a short-term one.
In perhaps the most grim scene of the day, graduate student linebacker Clayton Coll seemed to make a routine tackle near the end of the first half, but those in Lexington soon realized it was anything but. Tears were shed by Coll, Neu and more as the “voice of the team” was carted off Kroger Field with an apparent leg injury. His leg was almost immediately put in a protective air stint, and the severity of his injury is still unknown, but he remains in a walking boot and is using crutches.
And about halfway through the third quarter, graduate student defensive back Damion Charity limped off the field and into the Cardinals’ medical tent with an apparent leg issue. However, Neu said he was just dealing with cramps and should be ready to go against the Bulldogs.
Related: Big Game Purpose
Although two Ball State athletes that left with injury against Kentucky will suit up a week later, the number of players for both the Wildcats and Cardinals that left with injury felt abnormal. Perhaps it comes with the territory of playing against a Southeastern Conference (SEC) opponent; both players and coaches called it the best conference in college football.
Senior defensive back Tyler ‘Red’ Potts doesn’t think so.
“There’s a lot of bumps and bruises, but it’s a physical game,” Potts said. “It ain’t nothing that we ain’t been through before. It ain’t nothing that we ain’t felt before.”
Neither does Hatcher.
“Whatever conference you're in, from the lowest levels of college football to the highest levels of college football, everybody hits hard [and] everybody runs fast,” Hatcher said. “It’s usually gonna hurt when you get tackled [and] it's gonna feel good when you make a guy miss.”
And even after watching his best friend get carted off the field against Kentucky, neither does Cole Pearce.
“Football is football, man,” the senior linebacker said. “You’re gonna be sore every week, some weeks you’re less sore than others. I don’t really see any difference.”
Pearce thought back to Ball State’s week one matchup against the SEC’s Tennessee last season and said he doesn’t remember being more sore than normal afterward, although he did acknowledge that it was a more challenging recovery because of the total time spent on the field in the Cardinals’ 55-10 loss.
He said the recovery and preparation process for a Power-5 opponent is the same as it is for any other foe. And while the eighth-year head coach empathized with the Cardinals injured at the hands of the Wildcats, he too agreed with the sentiments shared by his players.
“Injuries are part of the game,” Neu said. “I hate to see it… but it’s also a message to our young players, ‘Be ready.’”
Who knows how many of those young players may have new roles to fill once 60 minutes of the game clock have expired at the end of Ball State’s trip to Athens.