KALAMAZOO, MICH. –– “How do we want to be remembered?” Qian Magwood asked the Cardinals.
It was halftime and Ball State was down 28-10 to Western Michigan.
It was the first Mid-American Conference (MAC) contest of the season for the Cardinals, a game those in the program approached as a new beginning following a humbling 40-3 loss to Georgia Southern a week prior.
The redshirt sophomore wide receiver said the contest against the Broncos was a game the Cardinals “needed” and didn’t want to let an 18-point deficit stop Ball State from fighting. After doing all he could to fire up the red, black and white, he helped lead the offense to a touchdown in the first drive of the second half.
Despite Magwood’s best efforts, Ball State fell to 1-4 on the season and 0-1 in MAC play with a loss to Western Michigan at Waldo Stadium.
“Let me take the heat,” head coach Mike Neu said.
After three straight games with freshman Kadin Semonza starting under center, Layne Hatcher reclaimed the role of starting quarterback for the first time since week one. Neu said the graduate student’s leadership throughout practice this week is what earned him the starting job.
“I want to be somebody that helps this team win,” Hatcher said.
While Hatcher hasn’t started since week one, he has taken snaps under center every game this season. Because of this and his constant preparation, he didn’t think it was difficult to find a rhythm against the Broncos, despite admitting to some nerves.
Those Hatcher was throwing to felt the same.
“That’s my dog,” Magwood said. “Everybody in there is my brother. That’s not phony talk, we’re a tight-knit group. I believe in everybody in that quarterback room, I believe in everybody in that tight end room [and] I believe everybody in that locker room.”
Hatcher’s preparation showed in Ball State’s first offensive drive of the game when the Cardinals put together a 10-play, 70-yard possession that resulted in a 27-yard field goal from freshman kicker Jackson Courville. This was the first time Ball State scored on its opening possession all season.
Western Michigan answered back on the next drive after Broncos redshirt freshman quarterback Treyson Bourguet found redshirt sophomore wide receiver Malique Dieudonne for a 39-yd gain through the air, Bourguet evaded pressure and connected with wide receiver junior Anthony Sambucci for an 18-yd touchdown.
To start the second quarter, Western Michigan quickly scored another touchdown to go up 14-3, and continued to build momentum when Hatcher tried to scramble out of a busted play. Broncos’ redshirt sophomore defensive end Corey Walker punched the ball out of the Cardinals quarterback’s hand and was recovered by redshirt junior linebacker Damari Roberson.
The Broncos followed up with another touchdown to go up 21-3. When it seemed like Western Michigan was running away with the game, Ball State responded on the next drive with a six-play, 73-yard drive that resulted in a touchdown, the Cardinals’ first since week three.
Just when it looked like Ball State had gained some momentum back, that’s when the penalties started to cost the Cardinals. Ball State committed eight penalties in the first half, including four flags on third downs in the second quarter.
“I think it's natural as a human being and natural as a football team to press a little bit,” Neu said. “They want it so bad. Then guys start to press, then the frustration sets in.”
One such drive was the final one of the first half, where the Cardinals had Western Michigan stopped multiple times only for pass interference and holding calls to award the Broncos first downs. Eventually, Western Michigan found the end zone to go up 28-10 heading into the second half.
Once again, the Cardinals fought back when a six-play, 75-yard drive resulted in potentially Ball State’s best play of the season. Magwood broke about seven tackles on a seemingly broken play to score a 32-yd receiving touchdown, the first of his career.
Although he said he couldn’t fully soak in the moment due to the Cardinals’ loss, he remembered what was going through his head when he took off for the score.
“Make a play,” Magwood said. “Find the end zone.”
Magwood, who finished with a career-high 110 receiving yards, felt the biggest positive the Ball State offense could take away from the loss was its response to adversity, such as the quick touchdown coming out of halftime.
“We’ve been through adversity, we've seen every brand of football, we've been up, we've been down, so now it's just time to win some games, and all it takes is one,” Magwood said.
Just like the first half, Western Michigan took the momentum right back on the next drive with a 31-yard passing touchdown. This was Bourget and junior wide receiver Anthony Sambucci’s third scoring connection of the game.
Despite looking lethargic for most of the third quarter, Ball State started off the fourth hot as Hatcher connected with redshirt senior wide receiver Ahmad Edwards for a 57-yard touchdown to cut the Broncos’ lead to 11.
Western Michigan ended up scoring another touchdown before the game reached its conclusion, sealing Ball State’s defeat at 42-24. In each of Ball State’s four losses this season, the defense has surrendered at least 40 points.
In his post-game speech, Neu encouraged the Cardinals not to give up on each other and continued to preach Ball State’s motto of “One Day at a Time.” Although the eighth-year head coach acknowledged it isn’t always easy to keep that mindset.
“Man, you preach it a lot but it's really tough,” Neu said. “It's challenging to try to get all 11 guys doing their job one play at a time. That's easier said than done.”
Up next, the Cardinals travel to Ypsilanti, Michigan, for their second MAC contest of the season against Eastern Michigan (2-3, 0-1 MAC) Oct. 6. The biggest thing Neu said Ball State needs is confidence.
“We got to weather the storm a little bit,” Neu said. “We got to not panic and try to keep believing in each other.”
After the loss to the Broncos, Neu said he talked with multiple players about combatting feelings of blaming the Cardinals’ early struggles entirely on themselves. The head coach even recognized the external pressures some may face from social media and fan backlash.
“Even though you preach, ‘Don't get caught up in it,’ it's hard because you're a human being and you read what's out there,” Neu said.
He recognized the importance of a win in establishing that confidence, but Hatcher believes much of Ball State football’s confidence can be found in establishing a strong identity moving forward. The Cardinals have to win five of their final seven games to earn bowl eligibility.
“I think it's either who the team is or who the team isn't,” Hatcher said. “I think we're a tough group.”