When Sidney Houston Jr. sacked the Eagles’ sixth-year quarterback Davis Brin with 13:04 left in the third quarter of Ball State football’s final non-conference matchup against Georgia Southern, Houston Jr. celebrated by strumming an air guitar.
Despite this being the senior outside linebacker’s signature celebration after a sack or tackle for loss, doing so when the Cardinals were down 23-0 may have seemed odd. After a failed offensive drive to start the second half, things didn’t look to be trending upwards for the Cardinals at the time.
Spoiler alert: Georgia Southern beat Ball State 40-3.
While the celebration carries an upbeat nature, Houston Jr. does it to carry on the legacy of the late Shamon Hudson.
“My best friend passed away in December 2021,” Houston Jr. said. “It used to be his celebration, so now I do it for him. It’s to show that I’m playing for him and playing for my family.”
While Houston Jr.’s family can often be found sitting together in the stands watching Sidney play, he goes the extra mile to honor a loved one who can’t be. But Houston Jr. isn’t one to dwell on the past, not even a 37-point home loss.
When head coach Mike Neu addressed the locker room immediately following the blowout loss, he told the Cardinals to each look in the mirror and decide whether they are bought into improving moving forward or not.
Houston Jr. decided he was.
So did the eight other “True Cardinals” in the Ball State football program. So did the 16 members of the Cardinals’ leadership council.
Houston Jr., along with the other members of those groups, decided to call a players-only meeting the next day. While last season was his first season at Ball State, he tried to take a backseat and lead by example. Now, Houston Jr. said he’s tried to make his voice heard more this season.
He said he was one of the few who spoke up in the meeting, and he talked to his teammates about trusting in one another. He said everyone in the program needs to focus on playing as a team and playing for each other.
“We just have to move forward as one, regardless of how we felt about Saturday,” Houston Jr. said. “It was a feeling that no one wants to feel again.”
Junior offensive lineman Ethan Crowe is a fellow True Cardinal and was among those who felt a players-only meeting was necessary. Despite his 6’5” frame, Crowe admitted his soft-spoken nature and said he didn’t speak up in the meeting. However, he took in his teammates’ words all the same.
“We have eight more weeks of football,” Crowe said. “We can not be worried about a loss.”
Neu likened the Cardinals’ mentality moving forward to turning a page, starting from scratch. Neu said whether the Cardinals would’ve gone 0-4, 4-0 or their actual record of 1-3 in non-conference play, all of that is thrown out the window for the final eight games of the regular season.
He said the final eight games of the 2023 campaign represent a brand new season as Mid-American Conference (MAC) play begins for Ball State this Saturday when the Cardinals travel to Kalamazoo to take on Western Michigan at 3:30 p.m.
Although Ball State and Western Michigan clash nearly every season, the Broncos’ Lance Taylor is in his first year as the head coach. Prior to taking over at Western Michigan, Taylor held a variety of skill position coaching jobs in the NFL and in Power-5 programs, and he was the offensive coordinator at Louisville in 2022.
Like Ball State, Western Michigan is also 1-3 at this point in the season and have lost to Power-5 programs in Syracuse and Iowa, as well as the defending MAC Champion Toledo. However, redshirt freshman running back Jalen Buckley has been a bright spot for the Broncos.
“This guy is a special player,” Neu said. “He can deliver it any way you want it. He can run through you, he can run over you, he can run around you.”
Buckley leads the MAC with 501 rushing yards and rushing yards per game with 125.25. His total yardage alone trumps the entirety of Ball State’s at 474. Although redshirt junior Marquez Cooper led a rushing attack of 288 yards against Indiana State, Crowe said establishing a consistent ground game starts with the offensive line.
After fellow offensive lineman Corey Stewart said the unit hasn’t played up to its potential so far this season, Crowe said the offensive line needs to start practicing how they would play to better prepare themselves for the intensity of real game situations. He said he feels the Cardinals have been practicing well, but need to take things to a different level to find in-game success.
“We need to cut out our mental mistakes,” Crowe said. “We need to be sound, and it needs to come natural… We are not going to accept a loss. We are going to win no matter what, and we need to practice like that.”
Among Ball State’s four one-possession losses last season, Western Michigan was one of them. Houston Jr. said he remembers the feeling of losing to the Broncos and doesn’t want to feel that way again.
Houston Jr. said stopping Buckley and the rest of the Broncos’ offense starts with the defensive line. Although Western Michigan is more dominant on the ground, Houston Jr. said there isn’t a difference in his approach to stopping the run versus going after the quarterback.
The edge rusher has a sack or a tackle for loss in every game so far this season and said getting the defense as a whole to play with more energy should result in more success.
“Having fun is a part of the game that we have to get back to,” Houston Jr. said. “These eight games really do determine the season. Everything we want is still in front of us.”
Sitting at 1-3, Ball State has to win at least five of its final eight regular season games to earn bowl eligibility. Of course, the Cardinals have hopes of returning to MAC Champion glory they last felt in 2020.
Just like always, however, those in the program are still determined to approach conference play one game at a time.
“I don’t ever want to get ahead of ourselves,” Neu said. “We can’t look at the light at the end of the tunnel; We have to focus on what’s right in front of us.”