MUNCIE – There is no way to get around the fact that when a football team struggles, the quarterback is going to shoulder more than his share of the blame.
In the case of Ball State lumbering to a 4-8 record a year ago, sophomore quarterback Riley Neal received his share of criticism, and quite often with good reason. However, perhaps the negativity was slightly too much once you analyze his numbers.
While it is true that Neal threw twice as many interceptions (12) as he did as a freshman and with just three more passing attempts, a glance at the rest of his resume shows that he wasn't playing as poorly as many (myself included) thought.
Neal was more accurate (improving his completion percentage from 58 to 61 percent), more productive (scoring 21 touchdowns vs. 18 the year prior), and even his yards per completion improved from 5.8 to 6.4 yards per pass.
But when a team continues to lose – and often in the final minutes due to a poorly timed interception – the blame will come.
“That is to be expected,” second-year Cardinal coach Mike Neu said. “I expect that position to play at a high level all of the time.”
There were extenuating circumstances – if not excuses – for Neal's up and down performances, one of which was the fact that he injured his left (non-throwing shoulder) against Northern Illinois midway through the season and was never truly 100 percent after that.
But he is now following off-season surgery.
“He's going to bounce back,” Neu said of his quarterback. “He's worked his tail off this off-season. It's good to see him back out here at full speed and he's taking more of a leadership role.”
One of the traits of “leadership” is accountability, which Neal did so when addressing his team's perception.
At the recent Mid-American Conference Media Day, the voters projected the Cardinals as being the worst team in the league this season and Neal didn't dispute their reasoning, but he is ready to argue the validity of such a prediction.
“We didn't give (the media) any reason to be confident in us last year,” Neal said. “We didn't finish where we wanted to. If you go 4-8, there is no reason for them to not pick us last.”
The key word in his statement was “finish,” which Neal said will separate what transpired a year ago from this coming season.
In five of Ball State's seven MAC defeats in 2016, the Cardinals either led in the fourth quarter, were tied, or trailed by a mere field goal. Yet in each of those games, Ball State found a way to lose.
“We've adopted this mentality to finish everything that we do,” Neal explained.
The Cardinal players opened training camp recently and the receivers, for example, finished each run with a 10-yard sprint after each catch to emphasize finishing plays.
Not only did Ball State fail to finish winnable games last year, it struggled to finish individual drives.
The Cardinals reached the red zone more than all but two MAC programs a year ago, but finished eighth in the 12-team league in scoring percentage. Some of the problem was the four interceptions that Neal threw inside the 20-yard line.
“Those numbers don't add up,” Neal said of the first statistic. “We would drive the ball, we just didn't finish. Obviously, a lot of that falls on the quarterback.”
Neal wasn't able to attack the weight room as hard as he would have liked this off-season after having the surgery, but he has managed to gain eight extra pounds of muscle (he now weighs 225 pounds) mostly due to his simply physically maturing.
“I knew that I wanted to gain weight going into this season,” Neal explained, “but I didn't want to do it while (my arm) was in a sling. I feel good. I feel stronger.”
And he is just as fast as he has ever been, despite the weight increase.
Neal rushed for 141 more yards as a sophomore than he did as a freshman and increased his scores on the ground from two to eight.
“I feel just as fast,” Neal said. “I feel good. I really don't even feel any heavier.”
It isn't just the scales that will show a difference in Neal this season, according to Neu, his acumen has grown significantly, as well.
“He's much smarter (this year),” Neu said.
— Coach Mike Neu (@BSUCoachNeu) August 7, 2017
For more on Ball State football, follow Tom Davis on Twitter at Tom101010 and on Facebook at Thomas Davis.