BY ANDREW WILLET | Ball State Sports Link
After Ball State finished its season with seven straight wins, including two wins over Top 25 opponents that resulted in a MAC Championship and the first ever bowl win in Ball State history, it was about time Ball State football got the respect it deserves.
The final AP Poll was released Jan. 11 and the Cardinals finished at No. 23 in the nation.
The 2020 Cardinals had a season full of accomplishments and accolades even during a year full of hardships and uncertainties.
Despite every circumstance a pandemic shortened season could offer, this football team went on to be the best team in Ball State history, led by 22 seniors and head coach, Mike Neu.
This success did not happen overnight, however. The success story of this year’s Cardinals goes back to the hiring of a former Ball State, Canadian Football League and Arena Football quarterback and longtime coach from college to Arena Football to the NFL back in 2016.
Neu, the former MAC MVP and Offensive Player of the Year at Ball State, signed on to lead the Cardinals in 2016, but it wasn’t always pretty, especially when this year’s seniors were freshman.
“To think back to 2017, I hate to think of that year, but it was really ugly for us,” Neu said. “We had a lot of lopsided losses, but we continued to preach positivity and hard work and these young men stayed the course. They committed to doing things the right way and it shows hard work pays off. There are no shortcuts to success and if you believe it, then you can accomplish anything you want.”
Hard work would pay off, as Ball State followed its 2017 campaign where it finished 2-10 with a 4-8 season in 2018 and a record of 5-7 a year ago. Those tough years, and especially last season, helped the Cardinals realize their potential and light a fire under them.
“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.’”
The Cardinals knew the direction they had to go after last season: Detroit or Bust:
“I felt last year, I knew what we had and what we had in the locker room,” senior safety, Bryce 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.”
But of course, 2020 had to happen. The team was restricted by COVID-19 protocols and the season was cut short to only conference games. That didn’t stop the Cardinals drive in the offseason one bit, as 2020 MAC Defensive Player of the Year, Brandon Martin said, “Win the Wait.”
“In order to reach our end goal of winning a MAC championship, whenever that time may be, whether that be in the spring, whether that be in the fall at the end of the day, the goal is still the same,” Martin said. “The timeline very well may be different, but the goal is still going to be the same. We still want to be MAC Champions when everything is said and done.”
The Cardinals had their goals and mantras set after winning the wait: “Detroit or Bust.” But their path to a MAC Championship was not perfect, and actually began on a sour note, as the Cardinals blew a close game late at Miami to start their season.
Aware of how important each game in a shortened season would be led to Ball State handling business the next few games after the gut wrenching early season loss.
“We are in the winner’s bracket and we know how critical it is to be there during a shortened season,” Neu said. “All of these games matter and the MAC West is a great division, really competitive from top to bottom. All you can ask for is a chance to control your own destiny and we have that.”
And control their own destiny they would, picking off four straight wins and putting them in a position to advance to the MAC Championship against Western Michigan.
“For our guys, it is a confidence thing,” Neu said. “I think that is one thing that we have worked on is building confidence. We had that tough loss early on but our confidence has built since then. When you win a game like this on the road, our guys believe that we have what it takes to be a championship-level football team.”
The Cardinals could have thrown in the towel and been a Bust, but they didn’t lose focus after their opening night, as they beat Western Michigan despite a wild final play to extend their winning streak to five and win the MAC West to get the chance to go to Detroit.
“We got ourselves behind early in the game, but I give so much credit to my team,” Neu said. “Nobody on our sidelines panicked when we were down. We hung together and kept battling and fighting. They earned a ticket to Detroit. Our ultimate goal is not to win the MAC West. Our ultimate goal is to win the MAC Championship.”
Neu said it best, he was proud of his 22 seniors who stuck it out, but this was not their final goal.
“My hat is off to the seniors for staying in there during those tough years, and we all saw the same thing in each other and we knew that we could have a moment like this,” Neu said. “It’s a great accomplishment right now, but it’s not our ultimate goal.”
The Cardinals ultimate objective was to be MAC Champions, but to do that they would have to beat a Buffalo team ranked 23rd at the time.
“The [Buffalo] team we were facing led the country in scoring and led the country in rushing. They’ve got a running back that’s up for the Heisman and ran for 1,000 yards in five games,” Neu said.
Ball State would have to continue to do so without their ground and pound, 2019 MAC Second-Team running back, and potential NFL Draft Pick in the spring, Caleb Huntley, and Neu knew the defense would have to step up.
“I’m an old quarterback, but defense wins championships every time,” Neu said. “I’ve been on a team that won a championship because of the defense, and it does not bother me at all to say that. So our guys know that you need championship-level defense.”
The Cardinals would again have to do so on the arm of redshirt senior and 2020 All-MAC Second-Team quarterback, Drew Plitt, and an impressive defense to back him up.
“I would take our defense over anyone’s,” Neu said. “Whenever we need a big play we get it from our defense. I am so proud of these guys and their performance.”
From the MAC Defensive Player of the Year, Brandon Martin, to the incredible defensive backfield of the Cardinals, the defense stepped up big time.
“I thought last week and this week we showed some great championship defense when we needed it.”
They answered the question of whether or not the defense could stay up with the offense this year, and boy did they as the Cardinals delivered on their promise: winning Ball State’s first MAC Championship since 1996.
“It sure sounds great, it’s music to my ears to hear that Ball State is the 2020 MAC Champions,” Neu said. “It’s been 24 years. I am so proud of our guys, what happened to us in the second half is what we are as a football team.”
Ball State won the matchup 38-28, after taking the brunt of Buffalo’s offense in the first quarter allowing 14 points, the defense held them to 14 to finish the game including huge stops late and an interception by 2019 All-MAC First-Team and 2020 All-MAC Second Team cornerback, Antonio Phillips, to end a Bulls drive and never allow them within 10 points.
“I’m so proud of our football team and the effort that’s been put in week in and week out,” Neu said. “It’s high-character men doing things the right way. We got here because of hard work. We embraced the underdog role, and we came out with a purpose. We wanted to seize the moment, and we’ve done that.”
They won the wait, survived the pandemic-stricken season, an opening season loss. Neu silenced critics and ended questions, and Detroit or Bust? There would be “No Bust.”
“We have another game left, we aren’t done yet,” Plitt said. “We have to go out and get another ‘W’ like we do each week. We are going to enjoy this and celebrate. This is a huge accomplishment for us and Ball State in general.”
But the Ball State team knew the job was not done, and coaches knew as well, as the Cardinals would have the opportunity to go Bowling for just the eighth time in school history and the first time since 2013.
“We were on a mission to get ourselves to Detroit, and that was such a great feeling when that clock hit zero,” 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.”
The Cardinals went bowling on New Year’s Eve in the Offerpad Arizona Bowl against San Jose State who was ranked 19th at the time.
“We knew we had the opportunity to do something special here. We bought in as a team,” Cosby said. “We could’ve gotten complacent after the conference championship win, but the coaches did a great job keeping us locked in. We came out and executed. I love these guys, and I’m proud of the way we played.”
They crushed their opponent from the very beginning, outscoring them 27-0 in the first quarter and never looking back. Ball State dominated every phase of the game, offensively with over 200 yards passing and 185 yards rushing for 402 yards of total offense as well as a pick-6 to start the game by Antonio Phillips and limiting the Spartans to just 13 points.
“All season we kept saying, ‘The job’s not finished.’ Well, the job is now finished,” Neu said. “We are so excited to bring a bowl win back to Muncie.”
With the win in the Arizona Bowl, Ball State had won ors seventh straight game and knocked off two ranked opponents to achieve their goal of a MAC Championship and the first Bowl win in Ball State History.
The 2020 Cardinals achieved more than any team in school history, and arguably the best Ball State Football team of all time.
So it was just about right that Ball State receive some recognition on the last AP Poll of the season, finishing at No. 23.
It was the first time Ball State had ever finished a season nationally ranked at the FBS level, finishing 23rd in the final College Football AP Poll, above the two previously unbeaten teams they took down, #24 San Jose State and #25 Buffalo.
It was also the first time since 2003 the MAC would be represented twice in the final polls of the season.
The Ball State Cardinals certainly have a lot to be proud of sitting at No. 23 in the Nation, and fortunately for Ball State fans, a lot to look forward to due to the NCAA’s extension of a year of eligibility because of the pandemic.
Returning players include Drew Plitt, Brandon Martin, 2019 All-MAC Second-Team, AJ Uzodinma II, 2017 All-MAC Second-Team, 2018 All-MAC Third-Team, and All-MAC First Team in 2019 and 2020, Justin Hall, along with many more.
Ball State kicks off its 2021 season against Western Illinois in Muncie Sept. 2.