Ball State coach Mike Neu earned the first win of his tenure against Georgia State on Sept. 2, 2016. This afternoon, he'll face Georgia State again with another first in mind: Back-to-back bowl victories.
The Cardinals earned the only bowl win in program history in 2020's Arizona Bowl against San Jose State. They'll try to duplicate the feat in Montgomery, Alabama, today when they take on the Panthers in the Camellia Bowl, the only college football game scheduled for Christmas.
“Getting to back-to-back bowl games can continue to take your program to another level,” Neu said. “That's what we're trying get done. ... It's another step in the right direction for us and we have to keep building on that.”
The Cardinals (6-6) almost didn't get here. After entering the 2021 season with high expectations following a 7-1 record and a Mid-American Conference championship a season earlier, Ball State skidded to a 1-3 start, including a loss to Toledo to open MAC play.
For a team laden with veterans, it was a dicey moment.
“The expectations we had this year were so high, so (the start of the season) was definitely tough,” said linebacker Christian Albright, a native of Georgia, none of whose Division I college teams offered him a scholarship. “Coach Neu just kept preaching to us to keep working and keep grinding.
“We can either put our heads down and fold and finish 1-11, that was a real possibility, or keep working and get back on track like we know we can.”
Ball State chose the latter route and won five of its next eight games, including a 20-3 victory over Buffalo in the regular-season finale to reach bowl eligibility. But the Cardinals still were not sure they'd get invited to a bowl game.
When Neu learned they had been chosen to play in the created Camellia Bowl, he donned the Charlie Cardinal mascot costume before entering a team meeting and then rolled a football into the middle of the room, indicating the Cardinals would get to play again. A raucous celebration erupted at the gesture.
Ball State will take on the Panthers (7-5) of the Sun Belt Conference, a program in its 12th season of existence and ninth year at the FBS level. Georgia State played a schedule that included four ranked opponents – compared with only one for Ball State – and beat then-No. 22 Coastal Carolina 42-40 on Nov. 13. It also nearly toppled then-No. 23 Auburn, which it led 24-12 at halftime before falling 34-24.
The Panthers are among the top rushing teams in the country, picking up 224.5 yards per game on the ground. Running backs Tucker Gregg and Jamayest Williams each have more than 800 rushing yards and scored nine touchdowns apiece, and quarterback Darrin Grainger added 500 ground yards of his own. Panthers left guard Shamarious Gilmore, whom Albright will often be matched up against, is a five-time All-Sun Belt performer.
After coming so close to missing a bowl this season, the Cardinals are trying to enjoy the moment and send out program fixtures Albright, quarterback Drew Plitt, running back Justin Hall, linebacker Jaylin Thomas, safety Bryce Cosby and offensive lineman Curtis Blackwell, a Norwell graduate and five-year starter, with one final victory.
“It's a lot of fun, I'm excited to be around everybody,” Plitt said of the bowl experience. “Just spending some time, last moments together before going off and figuring out what I'm going to do with the rest of my life. I'm just trying to enjoy it, not think about it too much. I might start tearing up after the game, but it is a wild moment, last one in college.”
Ball State vs. Georgia State
When: 2:30 p.m. today
Where: Cramton Bowl, Montgomery, Ala.
Records: Ball State (6-6), Georgia State (7-5)