'Tough times don't last; tough people do:' Ball State football ready to move on from a disappointing 2023 season

Junior linebacker Keionte Newson scores a touchdown against Indiana State Sept. 16 at Scheumann Stadiium. Newson had eight total tackles in the game. Mya Cataline, DN
Junior linebacker Keionte Newson scores a touchdown against Indiana State Sept. 16 at Scheumann Stadiium. Newson had eight total tackles in the game. Mya Cataline, DN

Ball State University’s Director of Athletics Jeff Mitchell met with Mike Neu as soon as he could following the conclusion of the 2023 season. After the Cardinals lost a one-possession game to Miami (OH) to finish their season 4-8, Mitchell gave Neu the next day off and scheduled a meeting for the morning of Monday, Nov. 27 to mull over the season. 

Despite finishing with the worst record since 2018 and only recording one winning season during his eight-year tenure, Mitchell decided to keep Ball State football’s head coach for a ninth season. 

“I think it would have been too disruptive to the program to make a change,” Mitchell said. “I think that we've got to examine what football is at Ball State and where we want to be going forward.”

Neu still has two years left on his contract, and Mitchell said although Neu’s buyout would have been an estimated $750,000, it would have cost the athletics department roughly two million dollars to fire Neu.

Headlining Mitchell’s rationale behind keeping Neu as the Cardinals head coach was his confidence in Neu’s ability to work with him in improving two key aspects of Ball State football’s potential future success.

Scheduling and Name, Image and Likeness (NIL).

“I'm a proponent for student athletes to benefit from their name, image and likeness; I am not a proponent of the pay for play model,” Mitchell said. “We're competing against other places where it may not be so pure, but we're going to do things in the way in which we are loyal to our values.” 

Mitchell said the difficulty of Ball State’s non-conference schedule was one of his concerns when he took the director of athletics position at Ball State. He acknowledged opening up the season with likely two or three losses puts the program in a tough spot to earn bowl eligibility with six wins.

Mitchell said Ball State will not play Army next season as originally scheduled. The Cardinals are still scheduled to take on Miami (FL), James Madison and Missouri State. Mitchell said the fourth non-conference opponent is to be determined.

However, Ball State football did make a major change to its personnel, as news broke Wednesday, Nov. 27 that Neu relieved Kevin Lynch of his play calling duties after three seasons as co-offensive coordinator. It remains unclear whether or not Lynch will return to the Cardinals in any capacity, but he has been in the program for the entirety of Neu's eight-year tenure.

While it wasn’t his decision, Mitchell did say he wants to be clued in on who the next play caller for Ball State will be. 

“I think we have to be better on offense,” Mitchell said.


Redshirt sophmore quarterback Kiael Kelly runs for a touchdown against Kent State Nov. 18 at Scheumann Stadium. Kelly had 2 rushing touchdowns. Andrew Berger, DN

The numbers speak for themselves. Mitchell is right.

Since Lynch took over playcalling duties in 2021, Ball State’s offense has finished eighth or ninth in the Mid-American Conference (MAC) in each of the past three seasons. The Cardinals went through a self-proclaimed identity crisis through the first six games of the 2023 season, giving three different quarterbacks playing time under center while dealing with significant injuries to standout redshirt sophomore tight end Brady Hunt and junior wide receiver Ty Robinson. While the Cardinals ultimately decided to ride with redshirt sophomore quarterback Kiael Kelly for the final six games of the season, Ball State still finished with the ninth-ranked offense in the MAC.

However, Kelly’s 724 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns are the most by a Ball State quarterback in more than a decade. Redshirt junior Marquez Cooper also finished with 1,043 rushing yards in his first year at Ball State, the third consecutive year he has crossed the 1,000-yard threshold. 

While Ball State finished with the third best rushing offense in the conference, its passing offense was ranked last. Despite using three different quarterbacks, the triple threat of Kelly, graduate student Layne Hatcher and redshirt freshman Kadin Semonza only combined for 1,639 passing yards and nine passing touchdowns. 

Despite the struggles, four members of the Cardinals’ offense made an all-conference team. Junior offensive lineman Corey Stewart was named to the All-MAC First Team, Cooper made the All-MAC Second Team, and sophomore tight end Tanner Koziol and redshirt senior offensive lineman Damon Kaylor made the All-MAC Third Team.

Despite the struggles through the air, Ball State found more success with Kelly under center than any other quarterback, going 3-3 in the six games the Florida native started. However, Neu didn’t provide any indication that he would fully commit to Kelly as the starting quarterback going into the 2024 season. 


Senior defensive end Sidney Houston swipes past a defender against Miami Nov. 25 at Scheumann Stadium. Andrew Berger, DN

Despite finishing with one of the conference’s worst records, Ball State finished second in the MAC in total defense. Senior outside linebacker Sidney Houston Jr. was named to the All-MAC First Team, while redshirt senior linebacker Cole Pearce made the All-MAC Second Team.

Houston led the Cardinals with a career-high eight sacks and 17 tackles for loss on the season. 

Pearce came in second for the Cardinals with 78 tackles and 10 tackles for loss. 

However, junior Keionté Newson moved from defensive back to linebacker after the first game of the season saw senior linebacker Clayton Coll go down with a season-ending ankle injury. Newson ended up leading the Cardinals’ defense with 81 total tackles and tied for third with 6.5 tackles for loss.

Throughout the season, key members of the Cardinals’ defense, Neu and defensive coordinator Tyler Stockton praised Newson’s ability to quickly adapt to a new position and increased role for Ball State. In fact, Pearce was so pleased with the defense’s consistent effort, he felt that the Cardinals had the talent to make a bowl game, as they had in 2020 and 2021. 

“I know for a fact that last year's team and this year's team were just as good as those past two teams,” Pearce said. “We had some good players, we were tight, we had great chemistry, we care for each other, we love each other, but there's one or two games that slipped away – we didn't win those one possession games.”

He said he won’t use those injuries as an excuse as to why the Cardinals finished with four wins, but Coll felt like if he and a handful of other Cardinals, like Hunt and Robinson, stayed healthy throughout the season, Ball State’s record would look a lot different.

Despite finishing with its worst record since 2018 at 4-8, the Cardinals went 2-1 in trophy games, taking home the Redkey Victory Bell Trophy against Indiana State and the Bronze Stalk against Northern Illinois. Ball State failed to take the Redbird Rivalry trophy from Miami (OH).

“Trophy games, rivalry games, those are something no matter how the season is going, you can't lose,” redshirt senior defensive back Tyler ‘Red’ Potts said. 

Moving on


Senior linebacker Cole Pearce poses while being honored during pregame senior celebration Nov. 25 at Scheumann Stadium. Isabella Kemper, DN

Ball State is losing numerous key members of its defense, including Potts, Houston, Pearce, graduate student defensive lineman Mikhari Sibblis, graduate student defensive back Damion Charity and potentially others, such as Coll. 

Neu said the class of seniors leaving Ball State with the conclusion of this season has been especially difficult to say goodbye to because of the time spent with them. For many of the graduating Cardinals, Neu will have spent more than half of his tenure as head coach with them. 

He still remembers sitting in a number of their living rooms, promising their loved ones that they would leave Ball State as a better person than they came in as.

“They're turning their son over to you, for lack of a better word,” Neu said. “Not every second is going to be easy. There's going to be good days, there's going to be bad days, but if there is adversity or something doesn't go well, we're not going to turn our back on them.” 

After starting the 2023 season 1-6, Neu recognized it would have been easy for the Cardinals to throw in the towel; especially after losing bowl eligibility with a week nine loss to Bowling Green. However, he continued to preach a motto plastered on the walls of the Ron and Joan Venderly Football Team Center: ‘Tough times don’t last, tough people do.’

“The one common theme with all those guys is they attacked adversity when they had it or they attacked doubt when it was out there,” Neu said. “They just proved to themselves that they can accomplish anything they want to in their life.”

Perhaps no one embodied that mentality more during their time as a Cardinal than Pearce. Coming into the program in 2019 as a walk-on, over the course of his five seasons in the program, he eventually worked his way up to “Tough Cardinal” status during the past two seasons; one of the nine pillars of Ball State football each season.

What Pearce said he’ll remember most about his time in Muncie is the atmosphere in the Cardinals’ locker room after a win, screaming the Ball State fight song along with his teammates at the top of his lungs.

“I’d rather have 0 tackles and win than have 100 tackles and lose,” Pearce said. “When we win it’s awesome to see how happy everyone is, and that just grows these relationships with each other even closer.” 

And while Neu wasn’t able to help many of the seniors leaving Ball State football experience as much success as they would have liked during their tenure as a Cardinal, hearing his players speak positively about their experience regardless of what happens on the field is what he remembers year after year.

“I’m gonna miss the fist bumps; I’ve had a lot of fist bumps with these guys every single morning in the facility,” Neu said. “I’m gonna miss their faces as they walk by.” 

Contact Kyle Smedley with comments via email at kyle.smedley@bsu.edu or on X @KyleSmedley_.


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