After the first two games of the season, Ball State football is 0-2 with a combined 89-17 deficit. Granted, the Cardinals have arguably had the toughest opening two weeks of a season in program history, but the red and white find themselves at a crossroads moving forward.
With two non-conference games left on their schedule before Mid-American Conference (MAC) play takes the last eight games of the season, Ball State has to have a winning record in the final 10 games of its season in order to qualify for a bowl game, a feat not accomplished in 2022 when the Cardinals started 0-2 as well. The first of the last two non-conference opponents comes this Saturday when Ball State hosts Indiana State.
Despite the adversity faced against Southeastern Conference (SEC) opponents Kentucky and No. 1 Georgia, the Cardinals haven’t lost the confidence and hunger they had in training camp.
“One day at a time, one step at a time. That's the motto, that's the standard here,” Qian Magwood said.
That’s how the redshirt sophomore wide receiver said Ball State has kept a level head despite major setbacks in the first two weeks. Head coach Mike Neu said he’s been proud of the determination and accountability displayed on the sidelines when things went wrong.
The eighth-year head coach said his biggest takeaway from the first two games of the season is the Cardinals’ refusal to give up. As a former player, Neu said it isn’t all that hard to leave losses in the past when the atmosphere around a program is as hungry as it is at Ball State.
“I've seen the highest highs and [lowest] lows the first two weeks,” Magwood said. “Knowing that we won't waver, we’ve got a good group.”
Magwood perhaps personifies the program’s mentality more than any other, constantly receiving praise for his hard work in training camp leading up to week one. Once gameday in Lexington came, Magwood was named one of three starting wide receivers for Ball State after only seeing action at the collegiate level twice before.
“I’m still in the moment with everything,” Magwood said. “It's been good going to battle with my guys every week.”
Through two games, Magwood has nine receptions for 70 yards, good for the second most receptions and third most yards among Cardinal receivers. With Ball State cycling through three different quarterbacks throughout both games, Magwood has caught five passes from redshirt senior Layne Hatcher and four from freshman Kadin Semonza.
While Hatcher started week one and Semonza started week two, both quarterbacks, as well as redshirt sophomore Kiael Kelly, have received snaps at quarterback in both games. Magwood said even though any of three different men could be under center for the Cardinals in the span of one game, that doesn’t change his in-game rhythm.
Neu said he still isn’t sure who the starter will be in the Cardinals’ upcoming home opener against Indiana State and may continue to run with all three at different points.
“If it's a formula that we feel like is best for us in order to get a win at the end of the week, then we'll continue moving forward with that,” Neu said.
So far, Semonza leads Ball State with 220 passing yards and one passing touchdown. However, his three interceptions against Georgia raise the issue of turnovers.
Throughout the preseason, Neu said the key to success for the Cardinals is winning the turnover battle, but have failed to do so in each of the first two games.
“We work on it every day in practice,” Neu said. “It all comes down to decision-making. We'll move forward but I don't anticipate that becoming a problem.”
Ball State turned the ball over twice against Kentucky compared to the Wildcats’ one, and three times against the Bulldogs compared to their one. While the Cardinals’ defense has two interceptions under their respective belts, junior Keionté Newson said they aren’t meeting their goal of three per game.
After graduate student linebacker Clayton Coll went down with a serious ankle injury early in the Cardinals’ loss to Kentucky in week one, Newson was asked to move to linebacker from his original spot of safety. Newson said the transition has been a challenge more so from a vocal standpoint rather than a physical one. From all accounts, Coll was the biggest leader on the Cardinals’ defense, and without him, Newson has had to step up in that regard.
“I have some really big shoes to fill because Stock’s standard doesn't change,” Newson said. [I’m] very much so trying to fill that void because we need that voice on this team.”
‘Stock’, or defensive coordinator Tyler Stockton, has been a big source of encouragement during Newson’s switch, always looking to push him on the field and be a source of support off the field.
“[We have a] father/son relationship… Well, really not father/son because he’s not that old,” Newson laughed. “Let’s say big brother, he's really a big brother.”
Another mentor who has helped Newson adjust to his new role is Coll’s best friend, senior Cole Pearce. In 2022, ‘40’, as Newson likes to call Pearce, beat him out for a starting linebacker spot, but now the two are now competing alongside each other at the position. Redshirt sophomore Joey Stemler also looked to be a key component of Ball State’s linebacker core moving forward, but went down with an injury in Athens.
Neu said Stemler had an appointment for an MRI Sept. 11 that showed there was no structural damage in his knee, and his status for the Cardinals’ matchup against the Sycamores remains unknown.
Although Newson said it’s difficult at times to flip the switch between his ‘goofy’ personality off the field and the intense leader he said the Cardinals need on defense, Newson has been able to do so given the circumstances. Newson said the biggest lesson he’s learned over the first two weeks of the season is Ball State’s defense is better than the box scores suggest. The Cardinals shut out Georgia in the first quarter,, and were beating Kentucky 7-3 after the first quarter in week one.
While Newson has taken away a lot of positives throughout the first two games, he recognized one quarter performances aren’t enough.
“Regardless of where that ball is, like if the offense fumbles at the one-yard line, we got to go out [and] stop [the opponent] regardless of adversity,” Newson said.
Things went south for Ball State after strong first quarters in each contest, allowing a combined 51 points in the second quarter (31 to Georgia and 20 to Kentucky) so far this season. Multiple times, Neu stressed the Cardinals have to put together a full game of high-level execution in order to have success going forward.
“You gotta have a consistent week of practice to believe that we're going to be consistent on the football field for four quarters,” Neu said. “Adversity is going to happen, [but] you got to battle through that. Our guys will get that done.”
Magwood said the biggest area of improvement for Ball State’s offense is staying on the field longer. He brought up the Cardinals’ consistent three and out drives and said Ball State is looking to piece together more first downs to eventually score.
Tight end Brady Hunt and running back Vaughn Pemberton have missed most of the 2023 season with leg injuries, and remain day-to-day heading into Ball State’s Family Weekend matchup. Per Ball State personnel, Pemberton could progress enough throughout the week to play against Indiana State, but Hunt seeing game action remains unlikely for now.
Additionally, graduate student offensive lineman Jon Mucciolo exited against Georgia with an injury, received an MRI Sept. 11 and has been limited in practice so far this week.
While Ball State isn’t approaching their opponent any differently than their previous SEC foes, Indiana State’s defense seems to be more forgiving than that of Kentucky or Georgia. Like the Cardinals, the Sycamores have gotten off to an 0-2 start this season as well. Eastern Illinois pitched a 27-0 shutout in week one, and Indiana State fell 41-7 to Indiana in week two.
Redshirt sophomore Cade Chambers was set to lead the Sycamores into 2023 following his Missouri Valley Conference freshman of the year 2022 campaign. He has missed the first two games of this season with an injury, and junior Gavin Screws and sophomore Evan Olaes have taken over under center.
Chambers’ status for this weekend’s contest remains unclear.
Reiterating the hungry atmosphere surrounding the Cardinals after two brutal losses, Magwood said this game against Indiana State is ‘“personal.” And not just because the Blue Key Liberty Bell is on the line.