Kentucky football: Five things to know about the Ball State Cardinals

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Kentucky opens the 2023 football season on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023, at Kroger Field against Ball State. The SEC Network has the noon telecast. Five things to know about the Ball State Cardinals.

1. Ball State’s head coach once coached Drew Brees

Mike Neu enters his eighth season as head coach of his alma mater. The MAC Most Valuable Player as Ball State’s quarterback in 1993, Neu is 33-48 as the head coach in Muncie, Indiana. He’s 20-34 in conference play. He’s posted just one winning season with the Cardinals, a 7-1 record in the COVID season of 2020. Included was a 34-13 drubbing of San Jose State in the Arizona Bowl.

An Indianapolis native, Neu played in the CFL and the Arena League before coaching in both. Tulane hired Neu as quarterbacks coach in 2013. Two years later, Sean Payton brought Neu to New Orleans to coach quarterback Drew Brees. The result: Brees was 456-of-659 (69.2 percent) for 4,952 yards with 33 touchdowns and 17 interceptions in 1994; 428-of-627 (68.3 percent) for 4,870 yards and 32 touchdowns with 11 picks in 2015. The Saints were 7-9 each season.

Ball State hired Neu the next year. The Cardinals were 6-18 with a 1-15 MAC mark his first two years. They improved to 4-8/3-5 in 2018 and 5-7/4-4 in 2019. They haven’t capitalized on the 2020 season, however. BSU was 6-7/4-4 with a 51-20 loss to Georgia State in the Camellia Bowl in 2021. The Cards lost their final three games to finish 5-7 last season.

Athlon picked Ball State to finish fifth in the MAC West this season. Phil Steele was more optimistic. He picked the Cardinals to finish fourth.

2. Ball State experienced tough luck in 2022

Ball State went 5-7 last season, but four of those losses were one-score games. The Cardinals held a lead or were tied after three quarters in all four of those defeats.

Neu’s team led Western Michigan 23-21 after three quarters before losing 37-30. It led Eastern Michigan 16-10 after three quarters before losing 20-16. It was tied 21-21 with Toledo after three quarters before losing 28-21. In the season finale, it led Miami (Ohio) 17-6 after three quarters before losing 18-17.

The Miami loss was a killer, and not just because it knocked the Cardinals out of a bowl game. Miami scored with 6:12 left in the game to cut the Ball State lead to 17-12. The RedHawks failed on a two-point conversion.

Then Ball State’s Carson Steele was stopped for no gain on a fourth-and-1 from his own 47-yard line with 3:05 remaining. Six plays later, Miami quarterback Miles Marshall hit Aveon Smith with a 34-yard touchdown pass for what turned out to be the winning score. The RedHawks intercepted a Ball State pass with 53 seconds remaining to seal the deal.

Steele led the MAC with 1,556 yards rushing last season for the Cardinals. He has since transferred to UCLA. The good news: Kent State running back Marquez Cooper transferred to Ball State. He rushed for 1,331 yards in 2022.

Ball State starting quarterback Layne Hatcher is playing for his fourth school and entering his sixth year of college football.
Ball State starting quarterback Layne Hatcher is playing for his fourth school and entering his sixth year of college football.

3. Ball State starts a well-traveled quarterback

Entering his sixth year of college football, Layne Hatcher beat out freshman Kadin Semonza to win the Ball State starting quarterback job. Semonza is expected to play Saturday, but Hatcher is the starter.

The 6-foot, 210-pound Little Rock, Arkansas, native began his college career as a walk-on at Alabama. After one season, he transferred to Arkansas State. He threw for 27 touchdowns in 2019, then for 19 touchdowns with just two interceptions in 2020. After completing 201 of 341 passes for 2,423 yards and 19 touchdowns with 13 interceptions for the Red Wolves in 2021, Hatcher was on the move again.

He landed at Texas State, where he completed 275 of 442 passes for 2,653 yards and 19 touchdowns with 10 interceptions. He is now fifth among active FBS quarterbacks in passing yards with 10,080 and third in touchdowns with 84.

At Ball State, Hatcher succeeds John Paddock, who transferred to Illinois. Hatcher isn’t a running threat. The Cardinals could use redshirt sophomore quarterback Kiael Kelly in a run-game package.

Hatcher has new targets. Ty Robinson transferred to Ball State from Colorado. Ahmad Edwards transferred to BSU from Jacksonville State.

Mike Neu is entering his eighth season as head coach at Ball State.
Mike Neu is entering his eighth season as head coach at Ball State.

4. Ball State’s strength is defense

Talking to Kentucky players and coaches, the Wildcats believe the Cardinals have a strong front seven. UK is especially impressed by Ball State’s linebackers.

Super senior Clayton Coll made 110 tackles last season, including seven for loss. Linebacker Cole Pearce had 14 tackles for loss and 85 tackles a year ago. He’s a former walk-on from the Cincinnati area. Redshirt junior Sidney Houston made 67 tackles and seven tackles for loss last season. He’s a former Division II transfer.

Defensive coordinator Tyler Stockton has been at Ball State since 2019. He played at Notre Dame, earning time as a defensive lineman. The Linwood, New Jersey, native — UK quarterback Devin Leary is from about 40 miles away in Sicklerville, New Jersey — coached at UConn and Western Illinois before joining Neu in Muncie.

In national stats, Ball State was 70th in scoring defense and 83rd in total defense a season ago.

Ball State football roster for 2023

5. Ball State no strangers to the SEC

This is the second straight season Ball State has opened at the home of an SEC team. The Cardinals lost at Tennessee 59-10 in the 2022 season opener. The visitors trailed 38-0 at halftime.

In fact, Saturday will mark the fifth time since 1998 the Cardinals have opened at an SEC foe. Bill Lynch’s 1-10 team lost 38-20 at South Carolina in 1998. His 5-6 team lost 40-19 at Florida in 2000. His 5-6 team lost 30-0 at Auburn in 2001.

One week later, on Sept. 8, 2001, Ball State and Kentucky met on the football field for the first and only time. UK won 28-20 at then Commonwealth Stadium. Kentucky quarterback Shane Boyd completed 15 of 22 passes for 215 yards and two scores. Chad Scott rushed for 110 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries. Derek Abney caught five passes for 84 yards and a TD. Derek Smith caught five passes for 58 yards and a TD.

Neu is 0-8 against Power Five teams at Ball State:

Lost 30-20 at Indiana on Sept. 10, 2016

Lost 24-21 at Illinois on Sept. 2, 2017

Lost 24-16 at Notre Dame on Sept. 8, 2018

Lost 38-10 at Indiana on Sept. 15, 2018

Lost 34-24 vs. Indiana on Aug. 31, 2019

Lost 34-23 at North Carolina State on Sept. 21, 2019

Lost 44-13 at Penn State on Sept. 11, 2021

Lost 59-10 at Tennessee on Sept. 1, 2022

Ball State’s last Power Five win was 48-27 at Virginia on Oct. 5, 2013. The Cardinals outscored the Cavaliers 31-10 in the second half.

Kentucky’s last loss to a MAC team came on Oct. 2, 2004, when the Cats lost 28-16 at home to Ohio University. Rich Brooks was the UK coach of a 2-9 team. Two years later, Brooks had the Wildcats in the first of five consecutive bowl games, the fifth coming under his successor, Joker Phillips.

By the way, Ball State travels to face another SEC team, two-time national champion Georgia, next Saturday.

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