Following his team's heart-breaking 24-21 loss at Illinois to open the 2017 football season, second-year Ball State coach Mike Neu said the defeat was “a lesson for our young players, in that we have to learn how to finish the game.”
Last week must have been a helluva classroom session by Neu and his coaching staff, as the Cardinals did everything well over the final 16 minutes of play against UAB Saturday, as opposed to doing everything poorly during that stretch against Illinois.
The Cardinals (1-1) played tremendous football late against the Blazers - in all three phases - to prevail 51-31 in front of 11,555 fans at Schuemann Stadium in Muncie, and for a week, it seems as if the Ball State program just may be putting its closing issues behind it.
Over the past two seasons, the Ball State followers have grown accustomed to watching the Cardinals collapse late in games. Of the program's eight defeats a year ago, Ball State had a legitimate opportunity to win five of them if not for self-inflicted wounds, much like what happened in the at Champaign. So when the Blazers completed a six-play, 55-yard scoring drive late in the third quarter to pull to within 31-24, there wasn't a member of the Cardinal Nation that didn't feel queasy.
“They were doing a good job with (offensive) tempo,” Neu said following the win of UAB's fast-paced offense. “They had us a little bit off-balance.”
The Blazers didn't have difficulty moving the ball against the Cardinal defense, as they racked up over 500 yards of offense, but the difference between a UAB rally and what actually transpired, a Ball State rout, was that the Cardinals were – for a change - opportunistic and executed well when the pressure was the highest.
Following the Blazers' score, the angst that permeated Schuemann Stadium proved short-lived, as sophomore speedster Malik Dunner tore off a 93-yard kick-off return for a score to stretch the Cardinals' margin to 38-24.
“We spend a significant amount of time during the course of practice drilling special teams,” Neu explained.
And that wasn't the only magnificent play executed by the unit.
Against Illinois, the Cardinals allowed a huge fourth quarter punt return, which ultimately led to the winning score, while against UAB, Dunner's play was later followed by a forced fumble and recovery generated by true freshman linebacker David Rueth on a kick-off.
“These young men,” Neu said, “they all come here and all they think about is offense or all they think about is defense. They don't typically realize how significant, and how much of an impact, special teams make in determining the outcome of every game.”
Mixed in between the special team highlights was a phenomenal defensive stop by redshirt junior linebacker Jeremiah Jackson on a UAB fourth-and-one to squelch a threat and a methodical 9-play, 34-yard scoring drive that put Ball State ahead 45-24, essentially snuffing out any hopes that the Blazers had.
The late-game performance had to be pleasing to the Ball State fan base, which has endured three consecutive losing seasons. Neu spoke of the importance in building confidence not just within his players, but also with the fans.
“We've got to play well to make the fans want to come back,” Neu said. “The guys know that is the challenge that they accept. We accept it as a staff. We want to play well. We want our fans to come back, because they mean everything to us.”
With performances such as Saturday's there is hope that perhaps the Cardinals are turning the corner back to respectability.
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