LEXINGTON, KY.– Following Ball State’s 30-point loss to Kentucky, Mike Neu sat down behind a white, collapsible table in a small room underneath the bleachers at Kroger Field. With a MacBook in front of him, he demonstrated the attitude of ‘business as usual.’
One game into his eighth season as head coach of the Cardinals, Neu answered questions from the media. He even occasionally presented a smile, which slightly crinkled his nose, branded with a scar.
But today, his smile looked more like a grimace. It was apparent something was wrong.
About five minutes later, one man’s name was mentioned and Neu couldn’t hold the facade any longer.
“Clayton Coll…” Neu said, fighting back tears. “...has meant everything to our program.”
A little more than 28 minutes into the first game of the graduate student linebacker’s fifth season donning the red, white and black, Coll made his fourth tackle of the game. As he brought down Kentucky sophomore wide receiver Barion Brown, Coll didn’t get back up.
He laid on his back, in pain, near the 29-yard line. Coll was quickly surrounded by Ball State personnel and his left leg was put in a protective air splint a short time later.
As he was helped onto a green John Deere Gator and carted off the field, members of the Cardinals’ defense came to offer their condolences for the seemingly serious injury. Emotion overtook Coll’s face as he wiped away a mix of tears and sweat.
Ball State not only lost 44-14 to Kentucky, but they lost someone who quarterback Kadin Semonza called the “voice of the team.” After the fact, Neu spoke about Coll’s academic standing and what he brings to Ball State in the form of his leadership.
Cole Pearce, his best friend, didn’t say much at all.
“I love that man to death,” Pearce said. “I really don’t want to talk about it.”
Pearce and Coll have not only been teammates in Ball State’s linebacker core for four years but roommates during that entire time as well. Pearce, a senior, called Coll his brother.
While Neu couldn’t comment on the extent of Coll or redshirt sophomore RB Vaughn Pemberton’s injuries, he said the Cardinals’ medical staff should have a better idea on Monday. Despite the grim look of things, Neu said he’s praying for good news.
“You think about a young man who does things the right way on the field and off the field, you talk about handling business and being a champion in everything you do in life,” Neu said. “It stinks to see a young man taken off the field like that.”
Earlier in the second quarter, sophomore tight end Tanner Koziol was taken off the field as well. Almost as soon as Koziol collected his third reception of the game, he was rocked by sophomore linebacker Alex Afari Jr., who knocked the ball out of his hands as Koziol’s head slammed on the turf.
Senior defensive back Jalen Geiger may have recovered the fumble and returned it for a touchdown, but the eyes of Cardinal fans were on Koziol. Neu said the tight end was thoroughly tested through Ball State’s concussion protocol immediately afterward, and he returned to the second half.
“I feel good,” Koziol said afterward. “It was more of a shock than anything.”
Koziol led Ball State with eight receptions and picked up 66 yards along with them. His normal companion at tight end, redshirt sophomore Brady Hunt, was never in consideration to suit up against Kentucky after missing a week of practice and sporting a boot on the sideline.
Although he was heavily factored into the Cardinals’ offense in 2022, his role increased two-fold against the Wildcats, something Koziol said he took in stride.
“Play for Brady,” Koziol said. “He’s my brother. I know it kills him not being out there, and it kills me not being out there with him.”
Despite the dark cloud of injury hanging over the heads of the Cardinals, Semonza provided a ray of hope for the future of Ball State. While graduate student Layne Hatcher started the game under center, Semonza took almost every snap under center in the second half.
In the true freshman’s first taste of college football, he finished 15-for-21 with 165 yards and a touchdown.
“It was surreal,” Semonza said. “I’ve been praying and dreaming about stuff like this since I can remember. I’ve been playing football since I was four years old.”
Despite naming Hatcher as the week one starter more than a month in advance, Neu said in the middle of the week leading up to this contest, he was split 50/50 on who should earn QB1 reps. Although the Texas State transfer scored the first touchdown of Ball State’s season in the first quarter, Neu ultimately went with Semonza at halftime and stuck with it.
The California product demonstrated poise under pressure most notably when he changed the route for junior wide receiver Ty Robinson from a go route to a fade with a simple hand signal. Neu said that play, in particular, took “guts.”
“It was routine,” Semonza said.
Semonza said he’s able to be confident enough to change plays on the fly and lead the offense against a Southeastern Conference (SEC) opponent through the trust he’s built with his teammates. Part of that chemistry, Semonza said, came with his high school graduating coming a semester early, allowing him to work with the Ball State system since January.
Koziol said he and Semonza developed their chemistry through golfing at the Player’s Club in Yorktown, Indiana, “a ton” together over the summer. Though he hasn’t even known him a full calendar year, Koziol is already calling Semonza his brother.
“It’s really fun to rally around that kid,” Koziol said.
No matter if it was Hatcher or Semonza taking the majority of snaps at quarterback for the Cardinals, redshirt sophomore Kiael Kelly found himself in the mix the entire game. Leading up to week one, Neu called Kelly a “dynamic playmaker” and hinted at the quarterback’s involvement as a passer, a receiver and a running back.
“You gain an extra runner, with his skill set,” Neu said of Kelly. “He’s a weapon.”
While some of Kelly’s involvement was questionable at times, particularly his use in the red zone, Koziol said Ball State’s ability to utilize three different quarterbacks in a single game gives the Cardinals “a little bit of everything.”
With the back-to-back national champion University of Georgia next up on their schedule, Neu said he’ll watch the film from the Cardinals’ loss to Kentucky on the bus ride back to Muncie and again tomorrow to further assess who will be QB1 against the Bulldogs Sept. 9 in Athens.
“The good thing is that we don’t have to come to that decision anytime soon,” Neu said.
On the other side of the ball, the Cardinals not only lost a game in Lexington but the leader of their defense. Pearce, who finished with four tackles, said a lot of those in Ball State’s defense will need to step up in Coll’s absence, both on and off the field.
“I think we reacted to adversity in a really good way,” Pearce said. “Of course, when Clayton got hurt, we were playing for him.”
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