Sidney Houston Jr. still remembers the heartbreak that came with the last game of the season in 2022. He still remembers the tears he shed after the Cardinals lost by one-point to finish the season with just five wins and no bowl eligibility.
Just like last season, Ball State football will take on Miami (OH) in the final game of the season. However, this year’s contest won’t be promoted as a battle for a bowl, it’s simply about winning the Red Bird Rivalry trophy. If the Cardinals do so, they’ll finish the season 3-0 in trophy games, having won the RedKey Victory Bell from Indiana State and the Bronze Stalk against Northern Illinois.
“We got a chance to do something that’s never been done here,” Houston said. “This has definitely been one of those games we’ve been anticipating and couldn't wait to play because we know what's at stake.”
Despite Ball State finishing the season with a losing record regardless of the result against the Redhawks and Miami already having clinched its division, Houston said he wants to put a blemish on the Redhawks record while earning revenge for last season’s 18-17 loss.
Additionally, when Houston puts on his pads and helmet, it’ll be the last time he does so at the collegiate level. He expressed his gratitude for his teammates helping him learn how to public speak, how to be a leader for his teammates and how to be a better man off the field throughout his two seasons at Ball State.
“No matter what the circumstances are, we got to have each other,” Houston said. “Everybody counted us out. It’s us against the world and it just feels like nobody believes we can do it until they see it.”
With those factors in mind, Houston said this may be the most motivated he’s ever been heading into a game.
To help stay even keel before a highly-emotional game like this one, Houston said he fires up his XBOX360 and plays as Ball State on NCAA Football 09, even going so far as to create the Cardinals’ true roster on the game and visualize the squad’s success through a video game. What can’t be simulated on an XBOX, however, is the physicality of a real game.
“We know them, they know us, and they’re gonna be coming in here with all hands on deck,” Mike Neu said. “It's gonna be a physical, physical, physical football game.”
Ball State’s eighth-year head coach recognized the threat Miami poses on defense, particularly against the run. The Redhawks rank third in the Mid-American Conference (MAC) in rushing yards allowed per game with 118.5.
Cooper said in order for him to have success against Miami, he’ll have to trust his eyes and the offensive line ahead of him more than ever. After Ball State’s recent 300-yard rushing attack against Kent State, Neu credited the offensive line just as much as those rushing the ball.
“Our team is gonna go the way those guys go,” Neu said. “They’ve taken that to heart and they’ve just gotten better each and every week.”
With just 93 yards to go before reaching his goal of 1,000 yards on the season, Cooper agreed.
“I owe it to them to get 1,000 yards because it's not just mine; it's theirs too, and they should be able to brag about that,” Cooper said.
However, he knows what the opponent brings to the table, having played against the Redhawks during his time at Kent State before transferring to Muncie. The redshirt junior said it’s easy for him to stay locked in for every snap because he knows there’s a chance for him to get the ball each time he takes the field for a run-heavy offense.
Despite Miami’s stout rush defense, Ball State ranks second in the MAC with 117.5 rushing yards allowed per game.
Houston said he’s able to quickly distinguish between a rush or pass play because of how much time he dedicates to film study. In that aspect, he feels equally comfortable rushing the passer or tackling a running back in the back field, something backed up by Houston’s team-leading sack and tackle for loss total.
“Nobody’s gonna run the ball on us, regardless of who it is,” Houston said. “If teams can’t get the run game going, I feel like we have a way better chance of keeping them on their toes.”
While Houston is playing his last college football game against Miami, Cooper said he’s already looking forward to taking the field for another season next year.
“My time at Ball State has been a fun roller coaster,” Cooper said. “It’s been big time and I just want to keep getting better and better.”
The Cardinals and Redhawks square off Saturday, Nov. 25 at Noon in Muncie, Indiana, just two days after Thanksgiving. Despite the holiday, Neu said the Cardinals will still practice Thursday morning just like normal.
While some players will still be able to spend Thursday evening with family, some far from home won’t get the chance to travel home for the holiday. Instead, the football program will host a team Thanksgiving-style dinner Wednesday night.
It’s only fitting that the Red Bird Rivalry will be decided just two days after Turkey Day.