BY MASON PLUMMER | Lead Writer | Ball State Sports Link
Coming off of a 2019 season which saw the Cardinals finish 5-7 overall (4-4 MAC), Ball State looks to continue improving this season with a great amount of returning talent and senior leaders to lean on in this shortened six-game season.
Head Coach Mike Neu returns for his fifth season at the helm for Ball State, where he sports a 15-33 record, aiming to improve this season.
“There’s been a lot of emotions since way back in August when the announcement was initially made that we were going to postpone the season,” Neu said. “I credit our 22 seniors for doing a good job of keeping everyone together. Obviously it’s been a long time leading up to this point. Now that we are here, I’m proud of the last 6-to-7-to-8 days where things have really started to come together.”
The sidelines will look different for Neu in 2020, during the offseason he promoted former running backs coach and recruiting coordinator Kevin Lynch to offensive coordinator and promoted former co-defensive coordinator and inside linebackers coach Tyler Stockton to defensive coordinator.
Lynch is entering his fifth season on the Ball State coaching staff and has extensive plans for the Ball State offense, which ranked No.1 in total offense and scoring in the MAC last season.
The new offensive coordinator turns to his seniors on the team to shoulder the load of the production. Quarterback Drew Plitt, running back Caleb Huntley and wide receiver Justin Hall all return for the Cardinals.
“Things are going great,” Plitt said. “Flying around, having fun and excited to be back out on the field. Everyone is chomping at the bit to play a game. The competition we have amongst each other is on another level this year. It’s one of those things that I look at. That’s the team we need to be.”
Plitt had an impressive 2019 season, throwing for nearly 3,000 yards, 24 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
The 6-foot-2, 217-pounder out of Loveland, Ohio, was named the Ball State Co-Offensive Player of the Season (with Huntley) last year while leading the Cardinals to a MAC-best 34.8 points per game and 463 yards per game.
Hall, Plitt’s favorite target, aims to add to his tremendous career so far at Ball State in 2020. Last season, Hall led Ball State in receptions per game (5.1) and in receiving yards per game (57.0), while finishing second on the team with eight touchdowns.
The former ESPN Freshman All-American was named to the 2019 All-MAC First Team last season after tallying 871 yards from scrimmage for the Cardinals.
Star running back Huntley will be the one getting it done on the ground for Ball State again this season. The three-year starter will again be the lead man in the backfield, coming off of a spectacular season in 2019.
Last year, Huntley rushed for 1275 yards and 12 touchdowns en route to earning All-MAC Second Team honors. The Georgia native ranked third in the MAC in rushing yards per game in 2019 (106.2) and currently sits at ninth on Ball State’s all-time rushing chart with 2,465 yards.
On the defensive side of the ball, newly-crowned defensive coordinator Stockton is looking to capitalize on the talent he has at his disposal in this 2020 team.
Stockton began his career as a graduate assistant at Connecticut (2014-15) and also coached at Western Illinois (2016-18) before joining Ball State for the 2019 season.
Last season as the co-defensive coordinator and inside linebackers coach, the Ball State defense forced 24 turnovers, good for 10th nationally and were the most forced by BSU since 2014.
Similar to Lynch, Stockton will also have a solid base of veteran leaders on the defense to rely on in his first season as the lone defensive coordinator. Stockton will have made some necessary changes in the offseason, as the defense allowed 425 yards and 31 points per game.
The defense did lead the MAC in takeaways, but will need an improved pass rush to be able to meet that mark again.
The secondary, possibly the strongest position group on the team, forced nearly all of the turnovers last season. Senior safety Bryce Cosby finished fourth on the squad with 78 tackles and ranked second on the team with five pass break-ups.
“I felt last year, I knew what we had and what we had in the locker room,” Cosby said. “We missed out on an opportunity last season to say the least. It definitely built a fire in me. The only goal for us as a team is Detroit.”
Junior cornerback Amechi Uzodinma had five interceptions and his partner, the other corner, senior Antonio Phillips generated four from the other side.
Phillips is widely regarded as one of the best players in the country as he was recently named to both the Chuck Bednarik and Bronco Nagurski watch lists for the 2020 season.
Improving the pressure on the quarterback will surely be something Stockton focused on this offseason and expect the new pass rush to be spearheaded by transfer Chris Agyemang, who enters Ball State after three years at Sacred Heart.
Agyemang plays both defensive end and defensive tackle and loves wreaking havoc on the quarterback.
In 33 career games for Sacred Heart, Agyemang tallied 105 tackles, 14 sacks, 26 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
During his time in Connecticut, 41 of his career tackles and 5.5 sacks came in the 2019 season, which is when Agyemang realized he could play at a higher level and transferred to join the Cardinals.
Another focus on defense will be improving the linebacker play. Junior linebacker Brandon Martin will feel like an addition along with Agyemang to the Ball State defense. Martin missed nearly all of the 2019 season after suffering a shoulder injury in the first game of the season against Indiana.
The 6-foot-0, 232-pounder will look to fill the role of graduated star linebacker Jacob White, who was a consistent presence at linebacker for Ball State in recent years.
While the MAC season will be a shortened one, the six-game conference slate is six games more than many believed the MAC would play just a few weeks ago.
The decision to bring football back was a massive one for players and coaches alike, as this may be the most talented Cardinals football team that we have seen in some time.
The MAC season opens for Ball State with the always stingy Miami Redhawks. Coming off of an 8-6 (6-2) season in 2019, the MAC Champions will be a tough first test for Neu and company.
Miami’s offense was spectacular last season and it returns nearly all of its starters. Second-year quarterback Brett Gabbert will look to improve on a shaky freshmen season which saw him only complete 55% of his passes, but he has the weapons to do so.
The Redhawks return their top four receivers, as well as starting running back Jaylen Bester who ran for a team-high 741 yards and 14 touchdowns last year.
Next on the schedule for Ball State is Eastern Michigan, who limped to a 6-7 (3-5) finish last season. The Eagles had a solid amount of talent in 2019, but it never came together. 2020 may be a rebuilding year, as it loses four starters from a defense that was already dreadful.
Ranked 99th in the country, the Eastern Michigan defense allowed 430 yards and 31 points per game. The offense largely kept Eastern in games last season, but there are new starters at quarterback, running back, and two new wide receivers.
Northern Illinois comes to Scheumann Stadium next to face the Cardinals. NIU made some much needed changes after a 5-7 (4-4) record in 2019, including adding former South Dakota State offensive coordinator Eric Eidsness to the same position.
The Huskies traditionally are a run-first team, but Eidness prefers a wide-spread passing attack. It may take some time for his new ideas to sink in, but Eidness has a solid young core to work with and could make some noise in the MAC.
Ball State travels to Toledo to take on the Rockets in the Cardinals’ fourth game of the season. After a 6-6 (3-5) campaign last year, Toledo will look to make a run at the MAC Championship this season under fifth year head coach Jason Candle.
The Rockets are known for their high-powered offense, but the quarterback position is up for grabs at the moment. Senior Eli Peters is expected to start Week 1, while sophomore Carter Bradley will be eagerly waiting to prove he is the man for the job. The Toledo defense was rough last season, which lends itself to a shootout against Ball State, expect a shootout in this one.
The Chippewas of Central Michigan square off with Ball State Dec. 5 in Mount Pleasant. 2019 was a great year for Central Michigan, as it finished 8-6 (6-2) behind the leadership of first year head coach Jim McElwain.
Potentially the toughest game of the season for Ball State, Western Michigan comes to town for what should be a must-see game at Scheumann Stadium. The Broncos finished the year 7-6 (5-3) in 2019 and are looking for more this season under fourth-year head coach Tim Lester.
The defense is the talking point of this 2020 Chippewas team, as it returns 19 of its top 22 tacklers this season. The offense is adequate, but similar to Toledo, there are question marks at quarterback. Jett Dutley, Daniel Richardson, David Moore and Ty Brock are all in contention for the starting spot.
The offense loses starting quarterback Jon Wassink and running back LeVante Bellamy, but returns dangerous receivers that can do damage in a hurry.
It could be all-or-nothing in this game for Ball State, as it seems like a trip to Detroit to play in the MAC Championship may be on the line.