From the opening coin toss, the tone was set for a tense game at Scheumann Stadium. Homecoming festivities aside, Ball State football has its back against the wall for the remainder of the season as one more loss knocks the Cardinals out of contention for bowl eligibility.
When Central Michigan won the toss and elected to receive, Ball State felt challenged.
“It was like a slap in the face from them,” Sidney Houston Jr. said. “This is our house [and] we have to protect it.”
The Chippewas returned the opening kickoff past the midfield mark, putting themselves in good position to back up their suggestion that Ball State couldn’t stop them. After eight plays for 23 yards, the Cardinals held Central Michigan to a field goal.
On the following possession for Ball State, the Cardinals put together what head coach Mike Neu called the best offensive drive of the season. 7 plays and 75 yards later, redshirt sophomore quarterback Kiael Kelly rushed for the first touchdown of his collegiate career.
“I've been waiting on that first one for a while,” Kelly said.
Ball State’s co-offensive coordinator and tight ends coach Jared Elliott told the Cardinals before they ran out of the tunnel onto the turf, ‘enough is enough.’ Kelly said the Cardinals wanted to come out and “punch somebody in the mouth.”
The Cardinals never faced third down on the opening drive.
After relatively lifeless offense from each side following the opening drive scores, redshirt junior running back Marquez Cooper broke free for a 39-yard rush early in the second quarter, his longest rush as a Cardinal. Cooper said Elliott’s pregame speech to the red and white stuck with him leading into the tone-setting first drive.
The first half was perhaps the best half of football Ball State put together in Mid-American Conference (MAC) play so far this season. Cooper had 102 yards on the ground, more than the entire Chippewas offense at 96. He finished the day with 162 yards.
Ball State had a 10-3 lead coming out of the break and added seven more after Cooper rushed in for his second touchdown of the season. He said two touchdowns through eight games isn’t enough, and the feeling that came with finding the end zone is one that he plans to use to drive him in the final four contests.
While Ball State never relinquished the lead earned after its opening offensive drive, Central Michigan was never fully out of contention. In fact, the Chippewas had a chance to send the game to overtime or win it in the final moments of play.
However, when Central Michigan faced 4th and 13 on the opposing 49-yard line with 16 seconds remaining, redshirt sophomore quarterback Jase Bauer’s pass fell incomplete, sealing a 24-17 victory for Ball State. That’s just one example of the countless times the Cardinals’ defense came up big in clutch spots, something Houston Jr. credited to the red zone and crunch time situations simulated in practice.
He said once he gets in those moments when it counts, he feels calm under pressure.
“If you could see the strain on some of those guys’ faces when they're rushing the passer and trying to get off his mark, knowing they're givin’ it everything they got,” Neu said.
Houston Jr. picked up two sacks against the Chippewas after a week without one. While he now has 5.5 sacks on the season, he said he felt like he came up when the Cardinals needed him most against Central Michigan.
“It just felt good to know that the guys can count on me,” Houston Jr. said.
The victory was not only Ball State’s first FBS win since Nov. 1, 2022 when the Cardinals defeated Kent State 27-20, but it’s the Cardinals’ first win on homecoming since beating Toledo 52-14 in 2019.
As the win sunk in, Houston Jr. said he teared up in the locker room, basking in being able to celebrate victory for the first time in over a month. What made it even more special for not only the senior outside linebacker, but everyone in the program, was being able to celebrate alongside alumni.
“I wish I could describe the feeling in the locker room…That's why you do it, it's why I do it,” Neu said. “That is special. Special, special, special.
“All the hard work that you put into it, for the end result to be us almost tearing the ceiling off the locker room with how loud the fight song is. That's what it's all about.”
Cooper said even though this is his first year at Ball State, he has a relationship with a number of the former players who came back to Muncie to support today. He stays in touch with them through playing NBA2k on PlayStation and formed a relationship with them through playing against them at Kent State.
“Seeing the blood, sweat and tears they put in for this team and this program, it's good to celebrate with those guys,” Cooper said.
During the Cardinals’ four-game losing streak, Neu, Houston Jr. and others in the program said Ball State needed to find its confidence again in order to build towards success. Houston Jr. said even though the Cardinals lost 13-6 to MAC-leader Toledo (7-1, 4-0 MAC) last week, keeping the contest close gave the Cardinals confidence heading into their matchup against the Chippewas.
Neu said he feels like the Cardinals have found their identity on offense under the direction of Kelly after struggling to do so throughout the first six games of the season.
“He's a great facilitator of the offense, a great point guard in that way,” Neu said. “He's just going to make the right decision, and the defense is gonna respect him at all times. It's one of those, where you got them back on their heels.”
With four games left and one loss away from bowl contention elimination, Kelly described Ball State’s approach to the rest of the season as “do or die.” Neu compared the approach the Cardinals have to have the rest of the season is akin to playing pick-up basketball.
If your team loses, you have to sit out until you’re able to come back in. The winning team stays on the court until it loses.
“Everything we want is on the table right now,” Houston Jr. said.
The Cardinals (2-6, 1-3 MAC) have 10 days off before their next game, a ‘Midweek MACtion” contest against Bowling Green (4-4, 2-2 MAC) Wednesday, Nov. 1 at a time yet to be announced. Neu said while the Cardinals will still dedicate time toward scouting and recruitment during this “mini-bye week”, he’s going to take a moment to bask in victory.
“I’m gonna sleep better,” Neu said, exhaling. “I’ll hug my wife and thank her for tolerating me these past few weeks.”