In the second quarter of Ball State football’s home opener against Indiana State, Rico Barfield swung to the left of freshman quarterback Kadin Semonza on a screen route.
After grabbing the pigskin with one hand and securing it with the other, the redshirt sophomore running back took off for a 16-yard touchdown.
“I really can't explain the feeling. This is something I always dreamed of when I first started playing football,” Barfield said. “It was always a goal of mine to play at this level.”
In just his sixth-ever collegiate game, Barfield finished with 64 total yards and two total touchdowns. Barfield said as he and his siblings grew up playing sports, his mother, Larria Miller, often worked double shifts to provide for the family. He works as hard as Larria does because she showed him how.
Although it was Family Weekend, the St. Louis native said his family couldn’t be at the game against Indiana State, but he knew they were watching from home.
“That's motivation for me,” Barfield said. “Not being able to see my mom in the stands, but to have her voice in my head [saying], ‘You got this,’ I just feel her with me every step of the way.”
Family is something Ball State football is built on. Head coach Mike Neu even sported a red and black rubber band on his wrist that read “family.”
Alumni, friends and, of course, family, greeted the Cardinals off their team buses as they walked toward the locker room decked out in all black travel sweats nearly two hours before kickoff. Barfield said the reception Ball State received was a “wow moment.”
This tradition, halted for the past three seasons due to COVID-19, is something only a select few Cardinals have experienced, redshirt senior Jack Sape being one of them.
“That's a really good feeling, walking down and seeing my parents, [and] giving them a big hug before the game,” Sape said. “I love that stuff.”
The veteran defensive lineman said his parents come to every game, supporting him by wearing his signature ‘94’ across their backs. He spoke on the sacrifices they’ve made for him to reach the level he’s at today.
His parents, along with 15,052 others, filled Scheumann Stadium to witness an interstate matchup between Indiana State and Ball State as each side looked for its first victory of the 2023 campaign. Neu ensured the support shown from the red and white was no small factor in the Cardinals’ 45-7 victory.
“Ball State can be special, Ball State can be great, but it takes everybody,” Neu said. “It can't just be the program, it can't just be the athletic department, it takes everybody. We need our community here.”
As soon as the clock hit zero, a swarm of Cardinals sprinted toward the Indiana State sideline to retrieve the Blue Key Victory Bell, the prize awarded to the winner of each game between Ball State and the Sycamores. However, that wasn’t the only hardware running back Marquez Cooper earned.
When the redshirt junior walked into the post-game press conference, wearing his full pads, he carried his helmet in one hand and a large trophy titled “Hero of the Battle” including a bald eagle perched atop a United States flag, in the other. Cooper said it was given to him by a number of Army ROTC members following his 177-rushing-yard performance.
Cooper said when they handed him the trophy, they bonded over the similarities between the military and football as it pertains to teamwork. With Cooper rushing for the second-most yards of his career, he helped the Cardinals ground game earn 288 total yards.
“I was definitely feeling it today,” Cooper said. “I still left a lot of money on the table, which I plan on collecting next week, but it was just a great day.”
Cooper, a Kent State transfer, had only ever played in Muncie going against Ball State. Even with the game’s significance in mind, he was overwhelmed by the amount of Cardinal fans in attendance.
“When you make a big run, you hear those screams and the noises, you know you’re doin’ something right,” Cooper said. “It just made me turn up even more.”
Cooper said it’s moments like that that make football so meaningful and fun for him.
With this being Ball State’s first win of the season following two beatings courtesy of the Southeastern Conference (SEC)’s best, Cooper said the atmosphere in the locker room afterward was “electrifying.” While many Cardinals were still beaming with the pride of victory, Ball State’s man under center remained focused on the next opponent.
“It’s a little sigh of relief,” Semonza said. “It’s like, ‘Okay, we got one, now let's roll.’”
This is the freshman’s second consecutive start at quarterback, and his three and a half quarters of play were the most he’s seen so far this season. Neu said although Semonza has started the last two games at quarterback for the Cardinals, he’s still taking it week-by-week when it comes to naming a consistent starter.
After a 137-yard, two-touchdown performance, all signs seem to continue to point towards the California native.
“He did a good job of bouncing back a couple times today when he had some adversity,” Neu said. “Just got to keep growing his confidence.”
Despite Semonza’s effective start and the dominant rushing performance, Neu said junior wide receiver Ty Robinson will be out for a “few weeks” with a thumb injury sustained against No. 1 Georgia. Robinson sported a heavy wrap on his left hand/wrist on the sideline against Indiana State.
Additionally, redshirt sophomore tight end Brady Hunt missed his third consecutive game, but Neu said things are trending up for him. With many young Cardinals developing chemistry with one another and key players beginning to emerge, Neu wants to continue to build a dynamic offense.
On the other side of the ball, the Cardinals finally achieved their goal.
After talking about the importance of winning the turnover battle during the preseason, and losing such margin in each of their losses to start the season, the Cardinals won that battle 3-1 against Indiana State. Among the three forced turnovers, redshirt senior defensive back Tyler ‘Red’ Potts grabbed his second interception of the season, while junior linebacker Keionté Newson returned a forced fumble by redshirt senior Loren Strickland for a touchdown.
Neu said the defense’s ability to focus on the details during practice leading up to game time is why they were successful against the Sycamores. As a leader for the defense, Sape said winning the turnover margin is fulfilling for the defense and makes grueling practices throughout the week all worth it.
“You gotta out-physical the other guy in front of you,” Sape said. “When you’re younger, you're a little more timid, but when you get older, you realize you're in control and it's all about your effort.”
Although he’s won seven of eight season openers as a head coach, Neu said the feeling in the locker room following the Cardinals’ 38-point victory never gets old. Once all 15,054 fans cleared out of the bleachers and players retreated to the locker room, the former Ball State gunslinger made his way back out to the turf.
Instead of his traditional pullover, black hat and sweatpants, the eighth-year head coach sported a sleek black suit. As he walked from one end zone to the other, he pumped his fist in the air and smiled.