Following Ball State football’s 34-3 win over Kent State, Marquez Cooper couldn’t wipe the smile off his face. And it wasn’t just because he rushed for 140 yards and a touchdown against his former team.
His partner, Madison, and their son, Madden, were there to see him do it. They were even there to watch him speak to the media afterwards.
“Every down, every snap is for him,” Cooper said. “I love him.”
Cooper’s 140 yards nearly made up for half of Ball State’s total of 300 rushing yards against the Golden Flashes, the most by the red and white since 2020. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Kiael Kelly added 88 yards and two touchdowns to that total, and redshirt sophomore running back Vaughn Pemberton rushed for a season-high 61 yards and a touchdown.
While Ball State’s rushing attack shone on offense, the Cardinals’ defense had a historic day. Their 97 total yards allowed was the least allowed by a Mid-American Conference (MAC) team in 2023, and is the lowest allowed by Ball State since at least 2000.
Senior outside linebacker Sidney Houston Jr. played a big role in the Cardinals’ defensive dominance, recording two and a half sacks and four tackles for loss.
Houston said he felt like Ball State (4-7, 3-4 MAC) was playing “complimentary football” against Kent State (1-10, 0-7 MAC), perhaps the most well-rounded approach of the season. Houston said he and the majority of the Cardinals he’s around felt this was the team they thought they could be during training camp. Although it has perhaps come together too late, Houston is going to enjoy it while he can.
“It was the most excitement I've seen from the guys on both sides,” Houston said. “We love each other, and we care for each other, and it’s more important about seeing each other succeed than seeing ourselves succeed.”
Speaking for the offense, Kelly agreed.
“We feed off the defense,” Kelly said. “Big plays, turnovers, tackles for loss; that boosts the offense immediately.”
Neu said the defense was able to thrive against the Golden Flashes because of the confidence the unit brings to the table every week. He said the defensive unit has had “swagger” since before the season even started, and it’s games like these that only help it grow.
The defense only allowed 44 yards from the Golden Flashes in the first half, but Ball State only picked up 118. Kelly went 2/12 for 56 yards in the first half, and only attempted two passes in the second. While he was happy with the win, Kelly seemed frustrated that he wasn’t able to provide more through the air.
“I gotta make the throw and we gotta make the catches,” Kelly said.
Although Kelly struggled through the air in the win, he didn’t turn the ball over for the first time in a start this season. He said over his time as starter, he has focused on being conscious about his decision-making and his ball security on the ground to make sure he’s executing what he practices leading up to games.
“It feels great,” Kelly said. “Just knowing that the team believes in me, especially the seniors that got four guaranteed quarters left. I don’t want to be something that holds them back.”
Neu admitted it can be hard at this point in the season to stay bought in. The program starts its day at 7:15 nearly every morning in the team room, all 115 players listening to the coaching staff before it’s even fully light outside. On top of that, the Cardinals’ chance of making a bowl game are slim to none.
“We take advantage of the opportunity we have to play the game and put that jersey on and put that helmet on,” Neu said. “There's guys in here that only have four quarters guaranteed left in their career, and we're going to finish the fight for that group of men.
“They gotta make the decision that I'm still gonna go out here and I'm gonna play the game the way it's meant to be played; I'm gonna sell out for my teammate.”
Houston spoke to that, reflecting on his time playing football, which dates back to when he was just five-years-old. Now at 22, Houston recognized that he has one more guaranteed chance to put on the pads for Ball State.
“No matter what the circumstances are, no matter what the records are, I just put it out the window and play 60 minutes,” Houston said. “This was one of my last home games and one of my last college football games, period, so why not have fun with it?”
Cooper is 93 rushing yards away from his season-long goal of gaining 1,000-plus yards, and has one more game to accomplish the feat for the third year in a row. He didn’t say whether or not Madden would be at the Nov. 25 game against Miami (OH) in Muncie, but laughed when he hinted at his son’s presence being the reason for his success.
“He came to the Indiana State game, so every time he comes to the game I have over 100 [yards],” Cooper said. “I think that might be the recipe.”