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Column: Ball State needs to pull the plug on 2017

To write that a football team that just got annihilated 55-3 was thisclose to having a very solid season may seem ludicrous, but in the case of Ball State, that is precisely where the Cardinals were not that long ago.

Ball State outplayed Illinois – on the road, no less – in its season opener and if the Cardinals would not have been decimated by injuries, a victory at Western Kentucky recently would have been very possible. However, the Cardinals collapsed late in both of those eventual defeats and now have to some how find a way to move past the aforementioned embarrassing performance at Western Michigan, a game in which the Broncos could have named the score.

“It was the toughest loss that we’ve had here since I’ve been here,” second-year coach Mike Neu told News-Sentinel.com Monday.

The debacle in Kalamazoo last Saturday may have been the “toughest loss” that Neu’s guys have endured, but it won’t be the last, especially if there is truth to the report regarding the health of Ball State quarterback Riley Neal.

On Monday, Muncie radio host Doug Zaleski (The Doug Zaleski Show, WXFN 102.9 FM, 1340 AM) reported that Neal has suffered a fractured tibia in his leg and is out 4 to 6 weeks. If that is indeed the case, then there is no sugarcoating that the 2017 season is awash for this program.

“I had a long team meeting with our guys,” Neu said, “just to tell them that we have to stay the course here.”

Neu has to maintain that positive attitude. As the leader of the program, he has no option but to remain upbeat in the face of severe adversity. But as a columnist, I have the luxury of being brutally honest and I simply can’t envision this team winning a single game without Neal guiding the offense.

It isn’t that Neal is that phenomenal of a player, but he is significantly better than fifth-year senior Jack Milas, who struggled somewhat against Western Kentucky and tremendously against Western Michigan.

In the former game, Milas’ late interception cost the Cardinals a chance at winning and against the Broncos, the entire Ball State offense was anemic, so this is not placing blame solely on Milas in any way.

After fumbling the opening kickoff, which was returned for a Western Michigan score, the Ball State offense had seven offensive series in the first half. During the 30 minutes of football, the Cardinals punted six times, as well as missed a field goal.

In six of those series, the offense couldn’t manage a first down, let alone a scoring threat, in four of the drives.

“One thing you challenge your football team with,” Neu explained, “is let’s make sure that there is no finger pointing going on. Everybody has a hand in what happened the other night.”

That is true. The Cardinals’ demise isn’t entirely Milas’ fault. He is just at the wrong place, in the wrong position, and most definitely at the wrong time.

Ball State isn’t just missing Neal to an injury, it also has to play without its best offensive lineman (Vinnie Palazetti) and its most productive player (running back James Gilbert).

Neu expressed some hope that Palazetti could return this week, but every other injured Cardinal is being described as “week to week.”

“We’ve got some challenges that we’re dealing with right now,” Neu said. “We’re trying to overcome them.”

All of this terrible luck is too bad because the Ball State program showed momentum under Neu, who won’t be viewed very positively by people that half-heartedly follow the program.

The Cardinals were actually very competitive in their 4-8 season a year ago and followed that up with a strong recruiting effort.

Ball State could have been unbeaten heading up to Western Michigan, but instead is going to struggle until Neal returns – if he returns – which he shouldn’t.

Being optimistic, the “four week” mark would bring him back possibly for the Central Michigan game (Oct. 21) at Schuemann Stadium, but more than likely the Oct. 26 game vs. Toledo. However, a loss in both of those games could put the Cardinals at 2-6, meaning they would have to run the table to be bowl eligible. With following games at Eastern Michigan and Northern Illinois, that ain’t happening.

If the postseason isn’t a realistic option, then Ball State needs to seek a medical redshirt for Neal and have him sit out the rest of this season and just endure the frustration of finishing 2-10.

“We just have to be positive here and attack every day with a great attitude,” Neu said, “and then we’ll get where we want to go.”

Where the Ball State fans “want to go” right now is to 2018 as quickly as possible.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of News-Sentinel.com. Email Tom Davis at Tdavis@news-sentinel.com.

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