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On Layne Hatcher’s Instagram, a photo can be found of the former Alabama quarterback celebrating the Crimson Tide’s Orange Bowl victory at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami. In the midst of the celebration, Hatcher held up a local newspaper proclaiming victory as he stood between former Alabama offensive lineman and current New England Patriots starting quarterback Mac Jones.
Although Hatcher never saw in-game action during his lone, redshirt season in Tuscaloosa, he was fully immersed in the day-to-day of one of college football’s most prestigious programs. To him, being in the same quarterback group as three future NFL starters, including Jones, Dolphins starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and Eagles Pro Bowl quarterback Jalen Hurts, was just another day.
Five years later, he is a leader for the Cardinals in their charge against the No. 1 team in the country. But given his experience, facing back-to-back national champion Georgia is just another game.
“I think once you see that side of it, that they're just normal guys who go through the same struggles and feelings as everybody else, it helps a lot,” Hatcher said.
The senior put an end to any speculation of a Power Five opponent approaching games against mid-major opponents as a “warm-up,” saying Alabama approached every foe the same in their preparation and training, no matter if it was the Citadel or Oklahoma. Having played against three ranked non-Power Five opponents and four Power Five programs during his combined time at Arkansas State and Texas State, including a victory over the Big-12’s Kansas State in 2020 with the Red Wolves, he developed a mindset to thrive during high-pressure situations.
In fact, he said he prefers to be uncomfortable when under center.
“We’re all human,” Hatcher said. “So as long as you don’t let it get bigger than it really is, I think you’re going to be in a good spot.”
Hatcher realized it’s not easy to have that mindset the first time going up against a Power Five program, but with experience, it becomes less and less of a big deal.
Cole Pearce can attest to that.
The senior linebacker reflected on how his role with Ball State has changed over his four previous seasons with the program, evolving from a special teams player to a rotational player to a constant starter. Along with that progression, Pearce said he went from being uncomfortable under the bright lights to approaching big games like a regular Saturday.
“It's just a trial and error thing, [and you] learn from lessons throughout the season and throughout your past experiences and just go from there,” Pearce said.
Pearce said many young Cardinal players have approached him ahead of these Power Five contests, asking for advice on how to approach the game and how to get in a neutral mindset. Having played against the B1GTEN’s Penn State and the Southeastern Conference’s (SEC) Tennessee, he has a lot of advice to give.
As does junior center Ethan Crowe, who played those same Power Five opponents Pearce squared up against. The 2022 All-Mid-American Conference (MAC) Second Team honoree claimed football is football no matter how you match up, but he recognized the physicality Power Five opponents bring.
“Those guys are at those Power Five schools for a reason, and they're gonna bring a fight for sure,” Crowe said. “You're going against someone who's possibly a first round [NFL] draft pick on those guys’ teams.”
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Pearce thought back to Ball State’s 59-10 loss against the Volunteers in week one of the 2022 season, calling Tennessee’s offense the most explosive he’s ever gone up against. With two SEC programs going up against the Cardinals in weeks one and two this season, Pearce spoke on the caliber of opponents Ball State is facing.
“Some say it's the best conference in college football,” Pearce said. “That inspires me to get something out of this game to see how the best players really do it. I like the big atmosphere.”
Junior running back Marquez Cooper not only has experience squaring off against multiple Power Five opponents, including the B1GTEN’s Iowa and Maryland and the SEC’s Texas A&M in 2021, but he knows what it’s like to walk into Sanford Stadium in Athens.
“You’re playing against the best of the best, so it’s not going to be like anything you’ve ever seen,” Cooper said.
The Kent State transfer rushed for 90 yards and one touchdown against Georgia last season, and should provide another level head to Ball State’s offense against the Bulldogs. While Cooper has faced multiple Power Five programs in the same season, most of the Cardinal roster hasn’t.
When asked how this stiff competition can prepare Ball State for MAC play and set the Cardinals up for success late in the season, Pearce found himself wondering the same thing.
“It’s going to be very interesting to see how we adapt to that and how that affects the rest of the season,” Pearce said. “But to be completely honest, I don't know how that's gonna go, and we'll just have to wait and see.”
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