There weren’t many people in the silver bleachers at Scheumann Stadium for Ball State’s first home game of October. It was cold, windy and rainy, and that’s not even mentioning the fact that the home team was 1-5 going into their contest against the defending conference champion Toledo Rockets.
And yet, a small village came to support one man in particular.
Kiael Kelly, a Tampa, Florida, native, moved to Muncie three years ago hoping to earn a spot as the starting quarterback for Ball State. After redshirting in his first year, Kelly only saw action in one game his second year.
Heading into the 2023 season, Kelly felt the time was finally his to start under center.
“Ever since I started playing quarterback, I always wanted to play at the highest level,” Kelly said.
However, his hopes were altered when graduate student transfer Layne Hatcher earned the week one spot at quarterback. Then, one week later, it was freshman Kadin Semonza.
Kelly saw action in each of the first six games of the season, but never as a starter at quarterback. In fact, he lined up as a running back/wide receiver at times.
Following the Cardinals’ week six loss to Eastern Michigan, head coach Mike Neu said it was time to pick one quarterback and ride with them consistently. A guy to establish a new identity for Ball State’s offense.
That guy was Kelly.
The redshirt sophomore said he found out he earned the starting spot this week last Monday. When he was walking down from the second floor stairs of the Ron and Joan Venderly Football Team Center to the main floor afterward, tears started to build in his eyes.
He thought about his family back in Tampa and the sacrifices not just he, but they have made to help him get to this point.
“It didn’t start the way I wanted it to go or the way I expected it to go, and it was kind of eating at me for a while,” Kelly said. “But they always stay by my side, so finally getting the news to start, they were excited.”
Kelly’s mother, his younger brother, his “second mom”, his girlfriend, his girlfriend’s sister, a cousin and more loved ones represent that aforementioned small village, and they represent those he thought of with teary eyes.
Despite the tender anecdote, Neu defined Ball State’s newest QB1 as a “competitor”. He praised Kelly for his leadership and decision making in his first-ever start, even if it came in a 13-6 loss to Toledo.
In fact, Kelly finished with a career-high 98 rushing yards on 18 attempts.
“I take pride in knowing that there's not a lot of quarterbacks like myself,” he said. “We sometimes miss our spark, and I like to bring in a spark to the team.”
The “dynamic playmaker”, as Neu likes to call Kelly, only attempted a pass 16 times with little success. That said, Neu doesn’t expect to ask much of Kelly through the air early into his starting tenure.
The Florida native said his action at three different positions this season has helped him build stronger relationships within each position group, not just in the quarterback room. In fact, he lives with redshirt freshman running back Rico Barfield.
The two have dreamed about making big plays together since they first kindled a friendship through the program, and it looked like one such moment presented itself late in the fourth quarter. On the Ball State 22-yd line, down seven points with just over a minute left in the game, the Cardinals needed a quick score to extend or win the game.
Barfield found himself wide open down the right sideline, and when Kelly made the read and threw a perfect spiral, all that was in front of Barfield was empty turf. However, what should have been a 78-yard touchdown resulted in a drop from the running back acting as receiver.
Despite the critical error, Neu said he doesn’t feel the result of this contest falls solely on one play. In fact, what he focused more on was how the Cardinals rallied around Barfield after the fact, likening the atmosphere surrounding the program to that of a family.
“[This is] a group of men that are hurting but know that the only way to get through is to stay by each other’s side,” Neu said. “I'm proud of the effort, I'm proud of the fight, I'm proud of everything I've heard from every man on that sideline.”
The eighth-year head coach also felt Ball State took a step in the right direction in the loss, as he noted Ball State held the 6-1 Rockets to the fewest points they've scored all season.
Sidney Houston Jr., who forced a fumble for the Cardinals’ first turnover since week four, said he has been impressed with the Cardinals’ ability to stay positive throughout the lackluster season. Even after Ball State’s fourth straight loss, Houston Jr. said teammates were high-fiving each other in the hallway afterward and speaking words of encouragement to each other.
However, the senior recognized the spot the Cardinals find themselves in sitting at 1-6 with just five games remaining.
“Everybody is disappointed in this team,” Houston Jr. said. “We beat ourselves every week.”
The Cardinals, who are winless in Mid-American Conference play, must win out in order to earn bowl eligibility. With a 4-3 Central Michigan up next, things won’t get any easier in Ball State’s attempt to keep fighting for its goals.
“We want to get to a bowl, and we want to get to a championship, so we got to play out every game and every down like it’s a championship,” Houston Jr. said.
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