Entering the 2021 season, Ball State’s motto was “run it back” as they aimed to win a second consecutive Mid-American Conference (MAC) championship. Against Buffalo in the final game of the season, however, the motto quickly changed to “one more game."
With only five wins going into the final game of the season, the Cardinals were vying for six regular season wins, enough to gain entry to a postseason bowl game for the second year in a row.
Securing a 20-3 victory put Ball State in the right position, but with 83 bowl eligible teams and only 41 scheduled games, there was a possibility that the Cardinals could miss out despite being eligible.
Fifth-year outside linebacker Christian Albright has been a part of the program for five years and grew as a player with the program.
With one team set to miss out on a bowl game, Albright and the Cardinals had to prepare for an event that was likely, but not guaranteed.
“We felt like we were kind of practicing for nothing because we didn't know if we were actually going to a game or not,” Albright said.
Head coach Mike Neu said the Cardinals remained optimistic while waiting to hear their future.
“We still came on the practice field knowing that we don't know for sure what our bowl assignment was and I was very proud of the guys. There's a group of guys that are definitely playing their last game or could have potentially played their last game, but they were awesome. I couldn't be prouder of a group of guys the way they handled it took it in stride.”
Ball State’s perseverance and attitude paid off when the NCAA announced Dec. 2 they were adding another bowl game to the post-season schedule, guaranteeing the Cardinals a post season matchup and the ability to play one more game.
Three days later, the Cardinals were selected to face Georgia State (7-5, 6-2 SBC) in the TaxAct Camellia Bowl Christmas Day.
The Camellia Bowl will mark the final collegiate game for more than 30 players, including fifth-year offensive lineman Curtis Blackwell. He said it was important for the players who will leave the program after the conclusion of the season to get one more game.
“We've been playing with each other for five, six years now,” Blackwell said. “We just love playing with each other. We love that camaraderie and to be able to get another opportunity is an awesome experience.”
Albright said how much it means for this group of players to be able to extend their final season one more game.
“Nobody was ready for it to be over yet,” Albright said. “Obviously the season didn't go how we wanted it to go but we really just want to go out there with our brothers one last time, have fun and dominate like we know we can.”
Growing with the program during his time at Ball State, Albright said the veteran players have set a standard for future players to follow.
“We're competing every year for the MAC championship,” Albright said. “And the guys under us that will be here next year, I know they'll keep driving that point home.”
Sharing his gratitude for the departing players, Neu looked back on how the moment will come together for the team.
“I think it's fitting to be honest with you that we're playing on Christmas Day with this group of guys that have meant so much to us, to our program, to the university, to me personally,” Neu said. “It's a fitting way for this chapter to come to an end for all of us.”
Neu reiterated that no matter the circumstances the Cardinals wanted to leave Alabama with the first back-to-back bowl game wins in program history.
“We're just focusing on taking care of business on the practice field putting a great game plan together, preparing as hard as we possibly can because we're playing a great opponent, Georgia State, and we want to go out with a win.”
The Cardinals entered the 2020 Arizona Bowl coming off a MAC Championship and defeated 19th ranked San José State. This season, the Cardinals were unable to return to the MAC championship, needing to go into the Camellia Bowl with a different mentality.
“I feel like we still know what our team's capable of even though obviously, the records weren't the same,” Albright said. “We didn't get the same accomplishments as last year. I feel like everybody still knows what this team was capable of and what we can do if we play to our standard.”
The Cardinals play Georgia State in the Camellia Bowl Dec. 25. Kickoff is 2:00 p.m. ET.
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