When you get knocked down, what do you do? If you’re Ball State football coach Mike Neu, ’94, and his players, the answer’s easy: you get back up with a vengeance.
“There’s not one person associated with our football team that isn’t chomping at the bit to get back on the field,” he said. “We can’t start the 2018 season soon enough.”
In 2017, Coach Neu’s Cardinals started off 2-1 and then lost the next nine games, a turn of events that eventually made a huge dent in the team’s self-confidence.
Rebounding from injuries
“We don’t make excuses,” he said. “That’s not the way life is. But at the same time, it’s also fair to say that I don’t know if I’ve ever seen so many injuries to a football team than we had last year.”
How bad was it? On the offensive side of the ball, eight of the 11 starters in the opener missed at least one game. And after starting quarterback Riley Neal sustained a season-ending leg injury in the Cardinals’ third game of the year, a 28-13 win over Tennessee Tech, no fewer than three other quarterbacks saw playing time due to injuries over the remainder of the season.
“We ended up having to play a lot of younger guys who, quite honestly, might not have been ready,” Neu said. “But they gained experience, so there’s always a silver lining in just about anything.”
The good news for 2018 is that the Cardinals have healed and emerged from Spring practice in good shape. Both starting quarterback Riley Neal and stellar running back James Gilbert received medical redshirts last season and retain two more years of eligibility.
Ball State will return nine starters on offense and seven on defense, with both sides of the ball seeing some big changes.
On offense, Neu will now call the plays himself, a duty formally handled by offensive coordinator Joey Lynch, ’07.
“This change isn’t a reflection on Joey,” Neu said. “I have always intended to eventually call the plays since I’d done that prior to coming here, but I wanted to get things settled-in first.
“After two years, I’m ready to assume that role and our fans will see a more wide-open attack with more no-huddle and an emphasis on keeping the opposing defense on its heels.”
Speaking of defense, the Cardinals will switch from a 4-3 alignment to a 3-4 in 2018.
“When we brought on defensive coordinator David Elson last year, his background was essentially with the 3-4 set,” Neu said. “But since we had four senior starters on the defensive line at the start of last year, we both felt it was in the best interests of the team to stay with the 4-3 one more season.”
When the Cardinals broke Spring camp in April, some 85 players were on the initial roster, an increase from about 67 the year prior.
“We had a lot of players graduate the year before, so our numbers were down a bit,” Neu explained. “But we have a lot of kids back this year, and that makes for better competition at just about every position.”
A highlight of the 2018 Ball State schedule will be an historic trip to South Bend for a Saturday, September 8, game against Notre Dame. This will be the first time the two programs have met on the football field.
“We try hard to not look ahead on our schedule, but yes, the trip to Notre Dame is something everyone is excited about,” Neu said. “We are planning to go up a day early and soak it all in. It’s a great opportunity for our kids and our program, and, heck, we might have ‘Rudy’ playing on the bus for the drive up.”
In May, football coach Mike Neu and his players greeted a new teammate: 9-year-old Dominick Landreth. A third-grader at Yorktown Elementary, Dom was born with mitochondrial disease, for which he receives treatments each month. With family present, he officially signed a letter of intent, put on a jersey with the number of his favorite Cardinal (No. 15, QB Riley Neal, also of Yorktown), and was shown his locker. Coach Neu predicted that with Dom’s “mental toughness and his fight,” he would make a positive impact on his players.