Far from the cold Christmas afternoon in Muncie, Ball State was suiting up for one last game of the season.
With warmups complete and ankles taped, the pyrotechnics were in place for the 2021 Camellia Bowl in Montgomery, Alabama.
A sea of black and red stormed the field to applause. Players threw their hands in the air and stomped their feet as the emotion of the moment began to boil.
The Cardinals endured a fluctuant season that paled in comparison to a historic 2020 run in which they captured the program’s first Mid-American Conference (MAC) title since 1996 and won the first bowl game in Ball State Football history. The bar for the future had been raised but, at points throughout the season, it looked too high.
For the final 60 minutes of the season, however, none of that mattered.
The Cardinals’ mantra for 2021 was to “Run it back” following the previous year’s success. But as head coach Mike Neu said following the Cardinals’ 51-20 loss against Georgia State in the Camellia Bowl, success is hard to replicate.
“Every year is a new year,” Neu said. “Just because you're good at something a year ago doesn't automatically guarantee that you'll be good at it again. You just have to start the process all over.”
The Cardinals started the process over with a 31-21 win over Western Illinois Sept. 2 but proceeded to lose three consecutive games and fell to 1-3.
“It's not easy to repeat, especially in the conference that we're in as far as the conference championship,” fifth-year safety Bryce Cosby said. “We were well aware of that. At the beginning of the season, we got off to a really slow start. We didn't really walk out of non-conference [games] the way we planned to or wanted to, so it was just an uphill battle from there.”
Ball State faced Penn State and Wyoming in their final two non-conference games, losing both 44-13 and 45-12, respectively, before opening their MAC campaign with a low-scoring 22-12 loss to Toledo.
After turning the season around with wins over West Point, Western Michigan and Eastern Michigan, fifth-year quarterback Drew Plitt said surviving the slow start was a victory in itself.
“A 1-3 start and then coming back to go 3-1 in our next four games [was] just being able to overcome adversity,” Plitt said. “Then, finishing off 2-3 [and] 2-2 in the regular season … it was an up-and-down year. There was a lot we can look at as positives and a lot we can look at as negatives.”
A 4-4 MAC record was not enough for the Cardinals to earn their second consecutive trip to the MAC Championship, but a 20-3 win against Buffalo in the regular-season finale Nov. 23 was enough to cross off one season goal: record a second consecutive bowl game appearance.
However, in Montgomery, Ball State failed to win back-to-back bowl games, losing by 31 points to Georgia State. In wake of the loss, sustaining program success was the topic of discussion, but Cosby said he felt the program was still moving forward despite a disappointing finish to the season.
“I definitely think it was a step in the right direction,” Cosby said. “Being a competitor, I feel like me, personally, and as a team, we could have done more. But it’s over and done now.”
After Georgia State quarterback Darren Grainger scrambled for a 34-yard touchdown, the Cardinals found themselves down by three touchdowns with seven minutes left in the third quarter. Neu gathered his sideline and coached them through the moment, telling his players to play for their pride during the season’s final minutes.
“The only thing I know, in my life, is just to continue to compete,” Neu said. “Even though the scoreboard wasn't in our favor at that time, I just encouraged the guys, ‘Man, your pride is at stake here — just compete. Compete and give it everything you got for the last 15 minutes that we have.’ I just challenged the guys to make sure they gave it everything they got until that clock hit zero.”
Reflecting on the highs and lows during his time in the cardinal and white, Plitt said it was important for the program to expect a lot from themselves and welcome the pressure of sustained success.
“We embraced those expectations,” Plitt said. “We wanted them. We wanted to go back-to-back. If anything, we just put the pressure on ourselves to do it, and we didn't execute.”
Plitt said the Cardinals’ performance in 2020 set a standard for the program and hopes future teams will develop high expectations based on their accomplishments that season.
“It's the expectation of getting back to what we were last year — win a MAC championship, go to a bowl game and win that,” Plitt said. “Guys are going to embrace it — that’s the motto. That's the motivation of our team, being able to be with the top dogs and stay there.”
Contact Daniel Kehn with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @daniel_kehn.