BY NICK LAWLER | Ball State Sports Link
When the dust settled in Detroit Dec. 18, the Cardinals fulfilled their season-long mantra, and the senior class completed the regular season they came to Ball State to have.
Redshirt senior offensive lineman Anthony Todd recalled his coach’s words as the season’s successes piled up.
“The thing about Coach Neu is, he always said, ‘just believe in me and I’ll get you there,'” Todd said. “I still tell him after every win that I’m still here because of [him].”
The Cardinals approached the game with a winning attitude — and the season for that matter — despite entering as 13-point underdogs, and it paid off.
“We know we’re a good team,” Todd said. “So we tell ourselves that if we go in and prepare, we can beat anybody. People were calling the Buffalo game an upset, and we kind of just laughed at that.”
After completing a so-called “upset” of No. 23 Buffalo in the MAC Championship, the Cardinals have started to receive national attention for their success, ranking 30th in the Coaches Poll and 31st in the AP Poll.
“We were on a mission to get ourselves to Detroit, and that was such a great feeling when that clock hit zero,” Ball State head coach Mike Neu said. “To have that celebration with our team in the locker room was special. We’ve worked hard for this. Our next goal that lies ahead is to win the first bowl game in the history of our program.”
Being the first MAC Championship since 1986 for Ball State, many of the players hadn’t had a chance to play in such a pivotal game before.
Sophomore cornerback Nic Jones even jokingly exclaimed he hadn’t been in a championship game of any kind since middle school, where he lost.
However, junior receiver Yo’Heinz Tyler said that nerves were nowhere to be seen in Detroit, and practice was the reason why.
“There’s no nerves,” Tyler said. “We just go and practice every day, practice hard against each other. So, going into the MAC Championship, everything was familiar to us and we were just able to go out and compete.”
The next task on the list? New Year’s Eve at The Offerpad Arizona Bowl.
Ball State is traveling to Arizona for its first bowl game since 2014 where it lost to Arkansas State, 23-20. That loss extended Ball State’s bowl game record to 0-7.
Not only will Thursday mark Ball State’s first appearance in the Arizona Bowl, but it will also be the first time a team from the MAC has ever been a part of this bowl game, which normally features teams from Conference USA and the Mountain West Conference.
In other words, Ball State will make history the second they step on the field. However, this team has its sights set on making Cardinals’ history in another way when the clock hits zero.
If Ball State walks away victorious Thursday, it will mark the team’s first successful bowl game in the school’s history and cap off one of the best seasons that Ball State has ever had.
Jones believes the team’s trust in each other to stay focused is behind this season’s success.
“It’s a level of focus that isn’t scripted, ” Jones said. “It’s not something we have to drill into each other every day. Everybody knows what’s at stake every time we go out to play. We feel like half the job is done and we look forward to taking on the challenges.”
While it will certainly be a challenge, a win over No. 19 San Jose State would be the Cardinals’ second straight victory over a ranked opponent, which certainly should be enough to land Ball State into the Top 25 in the polls for the first time all season.
While the season is not over yet, Todd acknowledged how much it has meant to him thus far.
“As soon as that clock struck zero and we went out and got our hats and they gave us the trophy, I knew right then and there that this is why I went to Ball State five years ago, ” Todd said. “I don’t want to say it was a blessing because I feel like we worked for it, we earned it.”
The game plan for San Jose State is nothing Ball State has not faced before. The Spartans have struggled to run the ball consistently and have a habit of becoming one-dimensional on offense.
“Last year we were at home watching people play bowl games, we were at home watching conference championships,” running back Tye Evans said. “This was the year of, ‘Hey, we’re not doing that anymore. We don’t want to go home early and sit and watch people play football. We want to continue to play football as long as we can.'”
If Ball State’s secondary can prevent big plays and continue to make pivotal stops as they have all season, the Cardinals will make history.