FOR MID-AMERICAN CONFERENCE Media Day, Ball State head football coach Mike Neu wore a suit and sat at a plastic folding table inside the concourse of Detroit’s Ford Field. It was mid-July, he was fresh off a contract extension, and he served as the media-day darling. Throughout the three-hour public relations barnstorm, he was escorted from one on-camera appearance to the next. By the end, as other coaches and sports information directors were packing up, reporters still lined up at Neu’s table, delaying his leave.
“I don’t mind,” Neu said. “I remember coming to these when no one came to talk to me.”
Now entering his sixth season at the helm of his alma mater, Neu has raised expectations in Muncie after a 7-1 record in 2020. This included another trip to Ford Field seven months prior for a 38-28 MAC Championship Game victory over Buffalo, claiming Ball State’s first conference crown since 1996. A few weeks later, they defeated No. 22 San José State in the Arizona Bowl. After the season, Associated Press voters ranked the Cardinals No. 23 in the final poll, a major feat considering Ball State had never finished a season in the top-25 or won a bowl game.
At MAC Media Day, each team was also allowed to bring two players. Sitting with Neu was sixth-year quarterback Drew Plitt, a second-team All-MAC performer in 2020, and linebacker Brandon Martin, an Indianapolis native and the reigning conference co-defensive player of the year.
“If there was enough room to bring 15 more, we’d have 15 more sitting here,” Neu said, “because we are a player-led team.”
Ordinarily, such blatant coach speak would come across as hyperbole. To a degree, it still may, but the depth of experience and leadership the Cardinals return in 2020 warrants embellished recognition. From last year’s roster, 20 starters return and 16 are “Super Seniors” entering their fifth or sixth year of college football as graduate students.
While most players returned due to internal factors—a genuine love for Ball State and a desire to improve their NFL stock—a few external motivators were present. Much of the conference had written off Ball State’s 2020 MAC Championship as COVID-19 induced, advocating that if the season had started on time with a normal fall camp and a full slate of games, a program besides Ball State would have been crowned champion.
“They think last year was a fluke,” Plitt says.
From a coach’s perspective, the disrespect is gold—obvious bulletin board material if the players weren’t already hyper-aware of it. This coincides with limited esteem in preseason polls. In the USA Today Coaches Poll, Ball State received just five votes, 13 fewer than the San José State program the Cardinals dismantled on Dec. 31.
Oddly, the Ball State coaching staff also has found solace in the majority of the roster knowing what it’s like to be a loser and won’t take last season’s success for granted. In Neu’s first four seasons at the helm, Ball State finished with a sub .500 record, including 2-10 in 2017.
NEU GREW UP in Indianapolis, attending Perry Meridian High School before four seasons at Ball State, leading the program to a 1993 MAC Championship as the team’s quarterback and the conference offensive player of the year. After going unselected in the 1994 NFL Draft, he bounced around the Canadian and Arena football leagues for a couple of seasons as a player. In 1998, he officially embarked on his coaching career with stints in the AFL, college, and the NFL. For more than a decade prior to his current position, Neu and his family lived in New Orleans, where at various points he worked with the VooDoo (AFL), Tulane University, and the Saints as both a scout and quarterback coach, guiding former Purdue signal-caller Drew Brees.
When Neu accepted the Ball State gig in 2016, he was excited to acquaint his wife and kids to his own childhood traditions, most notably the Indianapolis Motor Speedway—they’re “Indy 500 junkies now.” But that’s also when it dawned on him how far removed he was from his football roots.
“For a long time, I wasn’t close to Indiana high school football,” Neu says. “I always heard about Louisiana high school football and Texas high school football. When I came back here, it was evident right out of the gate how good the football was and how awesome the state of Indiana is. When kids come out of high school here, it’s amazing how close they are to playing at the college level. Recruiting the state of Indiana has been big for us and a large chunk of our team is made up of kids from the state.”
On the 2021 roster, 49 out of 117 Ball State players hail from Indiana. No other Football Bowl Subdivision team has more. Indiana is a close second with 43 actual Hoosiers, followed by Purdue’s 35. Notre Dame’s 10 lags well behind the rest, half of which are walk-ons.
Neu also cultivated a staff with an admiration for Muncie and strong connections to the state. Of the 11 coaches, six played college football in Indiana—a rarity for a nomadic profession within a nationwide sport. In addition to Neu, the staff includes two other Ball State alums in defensive line coach Keith McKenzie and run game coordinator and offensive line coach Colin Johnson. Defensive coordinator Tyler Stockton is a former Notre Dame defensive lineman from 2009–13. On the offensive side of the ball, running backs coach Joey Hecklinski played five seasons at Marian University, whereas offensive coordinator Kevin Lynch was an all-conference wide receiver at nearby Franklin College.
For Lynch, Indiana football is in his blood. His father, Bill Lynch worked in athletics for 42 years, coaching football at an Indiana college for all but four of them. This included multiple stints at his alma mater Butler, Indiana, Ball State, and Depauw. The younger Lynch has followed a similar trajectory, coaching at Indiana and the University of Indianapolis prior to Ball State. When he joined the Cardinals staff in 2016, his older brother, Joey Lynch, was the offensive coordinator until leaving for Colorado State in 2020. Shortly after, Kevin was promoted to the position.
“I love being in Muncie, and I love Ball State,” Lynch says. “I’m from Muncie, so this is home to me.”
Johnson and Hecklinski have also spent the entirety or the vast majority of their coaching careers in the state of Indiana.
OF THE 20 returning starters, 10 were 2020 ALL-MAC selections.
Wide receiver & kickoff return specialist Justin Hall
Inside linebacker Brandon Martin
Outside linebacker Anthony Ekpe
Safety Bryce Cosby
Quarterback Drew Plitt
Right guard Curtis Blackwell
Outside linebacker Christian Albright
Punter Nathan Snyder
Wide receiver Yo’Heinz Tyler
Inside linebacker Jaylin Thomas
Based on talent and experience alone, the Ball State offense should improve upon its 34.2 points per game in 2020, the 25th best mark in the FBS. But the defense is primed to ascend well beyond its showing last fall, a sore spot at times.
After a season as the co-defensive coordinator in 2019, Stockton took sole possession of the defense in 2020 and brought in a new defense. Only, with spring ball and fall camp essentially canceled due to the pandemic, much of the basic structure was taught over Zoom. This put the defense behind. In Ball State’s first three games of the season, the Cardinals allowed an abysmal 31.3 points per game. This included giving up 38 points to Miami in Ball State’s lone loss to open the season.
But by season’s end, the players began to pick up the new system and hit their stride. Heading into the MAC Championship game against Buffalo, the Bulls were averaging 51.8 points per game. Ball State instead held them to 28. That was followed up by allowing just 13 points against an undefeated San José State, a season-low for the Spartans. “Towards the end, we understood the scheme, what the defense was designed to do and was able to execute it,” Coach McKenzie says. Now with 10 starters returning and a full offseason, the assumption is that the Cardinals defense will pick up where it left off.
Due to a minor adjustment, the offensive line could be much improved this fall. While inconsistent at times last season, all five starting offensive linemen return in 2021. In 2020, Coach Johnson’s major offseason challenge was replacing right tackle Danny Pinter, a fifth-round pick by the Indianapolis Colts in the 2020 draft. Due in part to the pandemic, Johnson decided to kick veteran right guard Curtis Blackwell out to tackle. This allowed underclassman Joseph Boggs to be protected on the interior of the offensive line but ultimately made both players less comfortable
“In a sense, I feel like I over-thought it,” Johnson says. “Curtis is naturally a better offensive guard. That’s what he’s tailor-made for. Moving those guys back is really getting them into their more natural positions, and I think it’s only going to make our offensive line that much better.”
There are also a handful of offseason additions to the program, including a well-regarded 2021 high school recruiting class and a $15 million indoor practice facility next to Ball State’s Scheumann Stadium.
By bus, it’s a 238-mile drive from there to Ford Field. It’s a trip that involves crossing the northwest corner of Ohio and going through Toledo. Ball State will begin the 2021 season unranked, opening the season at home against Western Illinois on Thursday, September 2. But given how situated the program is, it’s “Detroit or Bust” for the Cardinals once again as they attempt to run it back. If not, Neu’s return trip to Ford Field might not be until next summer’s MAC Media Days, only he could go back to being ignored.