“I’m probably going to cry on Saturday,” Cole Pearce said.
Five days before Ball State football’s final contest of the 2023 campaign, the redshirt senior linebacker was already starting to take in some of his “lasts” at Ball State.
His last normal practice Wednesday morning.
His last weight training Wednesday afternoon.
His last walkthrough Thursday morning.
His last ‘Fast Friday.’
His last overnight stay at a local hotel with his teammates and coaches Friday night.
His last coaches meeting.
His last film session.
His last player meeting.
His last Cardinal Walk two hours before kickoff.
Once he met family members from Ohio, Wisconsin and more on the field just moments before kickoff against Miami (OH), he was running out of “lasts” to experience.
Over the course of the next sixty minutes, he experienced his last collegiate football game.
Although Ball State was down 14-12 at halftime, the Cardinals held the advantage on each side of the ball with 238 offensive yards, 15 first downs compared to the Redhawks’ seven and having possession for 18:50 of the first 30 minutes. In all of these categories, Ball State finished the game ahead by significant margins.
Miami (OH) remained in the lead for most of the second half, but the Cardinals’ defense remained routinely resilient down the stretch. As the Redhawks looked to be closing in on another score that would have put them up two possessions at the time, redshirt freshman defensive back Jordan Coleman came up with his first interception of the season.
On offense, redshirt sophomore Kiael Kelly followed that up with his longest rush of the season, a 55-yarder to set Ball State up in the red zone. While Ball State didn’t end up finding the end zone, freshman kicker Jackson Courville nailed his third field goal of the game to cut Miami’s lead to just two.
Less than 30 seconds later, Pearce came up with yet another “last.” The last interception of his career – potentially the most significant.
However, the next “last” Pearce experienced wasn’t one he’d like to remember. His last loss.
While Ball State was set up in the red zone following the interception, Kelly’s rushing touchdown was called back due to a holding penalty on junior left tackle Corey Stewart.
Out came Courville for his fourth field goal attempt of the game with a chance to win it for Ball State. But it was not to be, as the Miami defense blocked the kick and sealed the 17-15 victory.
“You go from the highest of highs to the immediate lowest of lows,” head coach Mike Neu said. “That's part of football and part of life. We're all gonna be there for each other through thick and thin.”
Once time ran out, Pearce finally cried. He cried for 15 minutes, needing to be held up both physically and emotionally by his teammates.
An hour after the conclusion of the game, Pearce was still wearing his gloves, wrist tape, full uniform, pads and cleats. He didn’t come alone, bringing his cousins Ethan, Asher and Noah from Wisconsin with him.
He reflected on his time in Muncie, initially coming to the program as a walk-on more than five years ago, and working his way up to one of Ball State's nine "Tough Cardinals" and a team captain.
“This whole weird week has been bittersweet,” Pearce said. “I'm so proud of this whole entire team for sticking with it this whole entire year. Obviously it wasn't what we wanted, but we hit rock bottom and the guys stuck together and they bounced back.”
Although the defense took a major blow with the loss of senior linebacker Clayton Coll in the first game of the season, Pearce, who finished with a team-leading seven tackles and a tackle for loss against the Redhawks, said he did all he could this season to continue to inspire the defense.
Neu called the unit the “strength of the team,” and the statistics back that up, as Ball State finished the season as the second ranked total defense in the Mid-American Conference (MAC).
Conversely, Ball State’s offense finished the season ranked ninth in the MAC. While the Cardinals outgained Miami, two costly interceptions from Kelly led to 10 of the Redhawks 17 points.
Kelly has been open about his mental process when it comes to turnovers, shouldering much of the blame in losses against Bowling Green and Toledo in which he had turnovers. Finishing the season with six turnovers in six starts, Kelly said over the offseason he’ll focus much of his time on improving his passing attack.
“I want to get this narrative out of here that I can’t throw the ball,” Kelly said.
For Kelly to improve in the offseason, Neu said he wants to see the quarterback work on his footwork, above all else. As a former Ball State gunslinger himself, Neu seemed willing to work personally with Kelly in his development, though he didn’t seem comfortable committing fully to Kelly as the starter for next season.
While he finished with just 91 passing yards and a touchdown, Kelly had his most rushing yards in a game this season with 136. Joining him was redshirt junior running back Marquez Cooper, who also had 136 rushing yards against the Redhawks and passed the 1,000 yard mark on the season for the third time in his career.
However, Cooper was visibly frustrated after the two-point loss, shaking his head at the podium as he addressed the media.
“We wanted to go out with a win for our seniors,” Cooper said. “This was a rivalry game for the Red Bird [Trophy], so watching them take it to their locker room is a hard feeling.”
Although Ball State hasn’t defeated Miami since 2019, Cooper thought the Cardinals had the game won after Pearce’s interception, making it even harder when they were unable to capitalize due to the blocked kick.
“That just seemed like a movie,” Cooper said. “We made [Courville] do too much work offensively. We put him out there too many times today, quite honestly.”
Neu now sits at 37-56 after eight seasons at Ball State, and while no one knows whether or not this was his final game as head coach of the Cardinals, it’s certainly a possibility after two straight losing seasons and seven total. He addressed those on social media calling for his dismissal, saying he tries his best not to worry about what he can’t control.
Just like he has after every loss this season, Neu took the blame for the Cardinals’ loss to the Redhawks; he took the blame for the program’s worst season since 2018.
Despite all the outside noise, Neu’s mind was on the 25 Cardinals who took the field with their families for perhaps the final time. While some seniors may choose to use a final year of eligibility to come back, those like Pearce, outside linebacker Sidney Houston, defensive back Tyler ‘Red’ Potts and others are done for good.
Neu fought back tears, pausing for nearly 10 seconds to collect his emotions when reflecting on the time he spent with those 25 men – some of which he’s spent more than half his time as head coach with.
“When their parents drop them off here or their significant other or their coach drops them off here to begin their journey, I always make the promise to them that they're going to be a better man by the time [they] pick them up,” Neu said. “I feel like we've raised some well-rounded young men.
“There are some guys down there that are difference makers and they're going to do well for themselves in whatever community they end up putting their feet in and wherever they end up living or with whatever is next for them.”