“I hurt for our football team right now,” Mike Neu said.
As freshman kicker Jackson Courville’s 52-yard field goal attempt missed just short of the goal post and time expired, the collective heart of Ball State football sunk. The Cardinals lost yet another one-possession contest, this time 24-21 to Bowling Green in a ‘Midweek MACtion’ contest on ESPN2.
What’s more, the Cardinals’ seventh loss of the season seals their fate as ineligible for bowl game contention. Neu, Ball State’s head coach, said his message to the locker room postgame was for his players to stick by each other during the final three games of the season; to continue to fight on every down for those who are in their final season as a Cardinal.
Senior linebacker Keionté Newson said he has been fighting to stay bowl eligible for the whole team, but especially for those Neu mentioned. Those that came to mind for Newson were senior outside linebacker Sidney Houston, redshirt senior defensive back Tyler ‘Red’ Potts and graduate student defensive back Damion Charity.
“These are all my brothers,” Newson said. “I’m gonna have some of these guys in my wedding, and it just hurts that we couldn't get a championship for these boys.”
Although this was Neu’s first time coaching against the Falcons, he knew heading into the matchup that Bowling Green thrived off forcing turnovers. In the first half, the Falcons forced two fumbles out of redshirt sophomore quarterback Kiael Kelly and turned both of them into touchdowns on the subsequent drives.
Neu said the offense put the defense in a bad position in the first half thanks to those giveaways. Newson said it doesn’t matter where the offense gets the ball, the defense needs to adjust.
“They could get the ball at the one-yard line every drive, we’re not supposed to let them score,” Newson said. “It's a pride thing. You're gonna let another man knock you back and celebrate after they do it?”
Newson said the defensive line came into the season with the mentality that something had to change following a lackluster 2022. He said the linebacker core made it their mission to back up the defensive line’s goal to wreak havoc.
Newson made the switch from safety to linebacker after redshirt senior Clayton Coll went down with a season-ending ankle injury in week one, and said he has grown both as a player and as a leader in his increased role. He finished with a team-high 10 tackles with an additional two tackles for loss and a half sack against Bowling Green.
“That group of guys is a veteran group that's played a lot of football, and they're hungry,” Neu said. “They want to stay on the [field].”
After the Cardinals went into the half down 14-7, Neu said his message to the Cardinals at halftime was to stay composed and to build on what they had previously done well: run the ball and make stops on defense.
Ball State did just that, surrendering no turnovers and scoring two touchdowns in the second half as Kelly finished with 156 total yards and two touchdowns. Additionally, redshirt junior Marquez Cooper rushed for 90 yards and a touchdown, but the Cardinals’ rushing efforts didn’t prove to be enough as the red, white and black found themselves playing from behind for the majority of the contest.
Despite making a late push to score with less than two minutes remaining after holding Bowling Green to a field goal inside the red zone, Ball State fell short, as did Courville’s aforementioned kick.
Like he has after almost every loss this season, Neu said he felt there were missed opportunities for the Cardinals; ones that if they had capitalized, the result may be different.
“If you want to have a chance to win in this conference, you got to be consistent week in and week out,” Neu said. “You got to be good at the little things.”
Despite the loss and the missed opportunities, Neu said he is confident in the offense’s run-heavy, RPO-based offense with Kelly under center. Neu did admit, as did Kelly, that the two first half turnovers could have been prevented.
“It was all self-inflicted wounds,” Neu said.
Kelly took full blame for his two fumbles; he said he felt like he held back the Cardinals from playing a complete game.
“There's nothing spectacular that they did, just mental errors on my behalf,” Kelly said. “That just can't happen. It's not winning football.”
For the second season in a row, Ball State won’t be eligible for a bowl game. Unlike last season, it didn’t come down to the last game of the year.
The Cardinals still have three games left on their slate.
“We can’t tuck our heads now,” Kelly said. “Just because we can't play for a bowl game, we still got the opportunity to ruin some people’s seasons.”
In another ‘Midweek MACtion’ contest, Ball State is set to take on Northern Illinois (4-5, 3-2 MAC) Tuesday, Nov. 7 at 7 p.m. on CBS Sports Network in Dekalb, Illinois.