It was Nov. 13, 2018 — senior night.
Western Michigan came to Muncie as a 9.5-point favorite. Ball State had nothing left to play for but pride, and the Cardinals used that to their advantage.
They took the game into overtime. After scoring first to put the pressure on the Broncos, all they needed was a stop. Western Michigan found the end zone, but it decided to go for two — all or nothing. It was a run up the middle, but there was nowhere to go as the Cardinal defense had already blown up the line of scrimmage.
Game over. Cardinals win.
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They’ve done more of that since then, winning their first three Mid-American Conference games of 2019 — the first time the team has done so since 2013.
But that game almost a year ago, senior defensive tackle Chris Crumb said, was the turning point for Ball State Football.
“Everybody was like, ‘If we actually do this together, we can win,’” Crumb said. “Taking that feeling and rolling it into this year … That’s why it’s working. We’re not doing anything spectacular. We don’t have the biggest, fastest, most athletic guys in the MAC. We’ve just been doing what we’ve been coached to do, trusting each other and winning games.”
The difference in this season from ones in the past, head coach Mike Neu said, is about everyone buying in and gelling together as a team.
“No matter how small or how big your job is, everybody has to do their job, and they have to be committed to the team,” Neu said. “It’s all about team first. That’s what’s different about this group — that is at a great place right now.”
One player that has bought in has been senior Malik Dunner. After spending his first three seasons at running back, he was moved to wide receiver for 2019. Through the Cardinals’ first seven games of the season, he has recorded just 10 offensive touches.
Dunner, however, said he has had no problem waiting his turn for the betterment of the team.
“A lot of people look at it and say, ‘You haven’t touched the ball that much.’ In reality, I’m still on the field,” Dunner said. “When the ball does come to you, you have to capitalize on it. I feel like, in the times it has come to me, I’ve made the best of it.”
He did during Saturday’s Homecoming game against Toledo, taking his only two touches to the end zone for a combined 90 yards.
“Two touches and two touchdowns — you can’t ask for anything better than that,” Dunner said. “It was great to … take advantage of the opportunity I was given. Whenever my number’s called, I’ll always be ready.”
The defense has also stepped up, especially stopping the run. Last season, the Cardinals gave up nearly 250 rushing yards per game. So far in 2019, they’re allowing just 135.
Crumb said he knows the team’s defensive line is smaller than most opposing offensive lines, but the Cardinals’ pride and determination have propelled them to success.
“We don’t care,” Crumb said. “We’re going to punch you in the mouth, and we’re going to win. That’s just kind of how it is. We’re going to come out and face all this adversity. We’re going to come back, we’re going to win and show you what’s what.”
Ball State’s motto for the 2019 campaign is “Out the mud.” Dunner said it translates to the team having a hard time winning games in recent years. With the wins starting to add up, tying last season’s conference win total, is Ball State “Out the mud?”
“We’re not out the mud,” Neu said. “We’re taking some steps in the right direction. It’s onto the next one.”
The Cardinals’ challenge will be Ohio, who will travel to Scheumann Stadium Saturday, Oct. 26. Kickoff is at 2 p.m.
Contact Zach Piatt with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @zachpiatt13.