Following the very first day of training camp last month, I stood outside the Fisher Football Training Complex in Muncie interviewing Ball State junior quarterback Riley Neal and he explained to me that the overall mantra of not just that day's session, but the entire off-season, was “To finish everything we do.”
Neal detailed how the Cardinal players “finished” every play in that first practice by running hard for extra yardage, even after the play was whistled dead. It was a mindset that had been adopted in wake of a frustrating 4-8 season last year and was being emphasized in every aspect of the Cardinals' training.
It hasn't worked. Yet.
Ball State dropped its season-opening game Saturday at Illinois 24-21 and the defeat unfolded in many of the same manners that those from a year ago had.
The Cardinals are 0-1 right now and it has nothing to do with them playing on the road, playing a Big Ten team, or even not being as good as Illinois. It has everything to do with Ball State not being capable of playing good, disciplined football in the game's most critical moments.
Lost in the frustration of the 2016 season was the fact that Ball State had fourth quarter opportunities to pull out victories in five of those eight defeats. The Cardinals were a lot closer to 9-3 than almost anyone outside the Fisher Complex realizes. However, despite nine months of focusing on the issue, the dilemma hasn't been resolved and second-year coach Mike Neu was absolutely correct in his assessment afterwards.
“There's plenty of blame to go around,” Neu said in a release after the defeat.
Neu is accurate in that the “blame” was shared by poor play in all three aspects.
“We have to be able to finish on the road against a Big Ten opponent,” Neu continued, “and we weren't able to do that.”
Here is where I'll disagree with Neu; he needs to forget the “Big Ten opponent” stuff. Ball State has to be able to “finish,” period. Against anyone.
Neither Neu nor Neal are into moral victories, so they are not going to accept pats on the back for playing a competitive game against a favored, Power 5 team on the road.
And I'm certainly not going to offer any.
Ball State should have won the game.
Ball State outplayed Illinois on both sides of the ball.
Ball State just couldn't execute when the pressure was highest. Just like last year.
With just over five minutes remaining in the game, Illinois was driving to score and take the lead when true freshman safety Bruce Cosby made up for an earlier pass interference call by picking off a tipped Illini pass.
Neal had guided the Cardinals on a pair of magnificent offensive series in the third quarter, but with the game hanging in the balance, Ball State went three-and-out and ran off the clock a meager 1:38.
The special teams did their part to blow this game by allowing Illinois' Mike Dudek the opportunity to return the ensuing punt 52 yards, and then the Cardinal defense gave up a 25-yard pass as part of a four-play, 35-yard Illinois scoring drive, which ultimately won the game for the home team.
There indeed was “plenty of blame to go around.”
Despite the egregious play, Ball State still had enough time to rally and Neal opened the next offensive series in breathtaking fashion.
He hooked up with his Yorktown High School teammate Riley Miller for a pair catches and then eluded the Illini pass rush to scamper for a 10-yard pick up and a first down that exhibited just how special this guy can be when he is playing well.
THIS was the Ball State program that all the coaches and athletes had been envisioning since last November.
But the Cardinals reverted back to themselves and Neal took a horrendous 13-yard loss on a sack (inexcusable for a player with his experience), which was followed two plays later by redshirt freshman offensive linemen Kaleb Slaven being called for holding. That error put kicker Morgan Hagee in the terrible position of having to attempt a career-long 54-yard kick (which subsequently got blocked).
“We had positive things happen for us today,” Neu said. “But again, it comes down to us being able to finish when we have an opportunity.”
So Neu continues beating the drum with the message, we'll see if Ball State finally hears him next Saturday against UAB at Schuemann Stadium (3 p.m., ESPN3).
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Tom Davis at Tdavis@news-sentinel.com.
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