Ball State finds lightning in a quarterback with Riley Neal

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Lightning delayed the start of last Saturday’s Ball State-Florida Atlantic game in Boca Raton for an hour, and there were two 30-minute stoppages once play began. The second came just before the Cardinals, down 27-24, regained possession with 5:33 left.

Lightning then struck again, at least in a metaphorical sense, when quarterback Riley Neal ran two yards for a touchdown with 1:47 to play, giving his team a 31-27 victory.

In all the game lasted over four hours and ended after 11 p.m.

SATURDAY ON ASN: Northern Illinois at Ball State, 3:30 p.m. ET (click logo for local listings)

“It was a little different, but we’ve kind of dealt with some other delays, going through (preseason) camp,” Neal said, adding that Doug Ehinger, the offensive graduate assistant, has a saying: “Just deal with it.”

“There’s going to be adversity and whatnot,” Neal said. “So it really wasn’t a big problem to us.”

The Cards have dealt with losing, dropping eight of their last nine a year ago to finish 3-9. They have dealt with a coaching change, former New Orleans Saints quarterbacks coach Mike Neu, once a star QB at BSU, having taken over this season for Pete Lembo. Lembo left last December to become the assistant head coach and special-teams coordinator at Maryland.

Yet Ball State is 3-1 heading into a MAC opener against Northern Illinois (0-4) Saturday on ASN.

And in Neal, a 6-6, 220-pound sophomore, the Cards appear to have a QB capable of dealing with just about anything.

He became the regular four games into the 2015 season, throwing for 2,276 yards, sixth-most by a true freshman in the FBS, but also starting all nine games in that season-ending 1-8 stretch.

So no, neither the lightning nor the score was likely to faze him last Saturday. BSU retreated to its locker room during the delay, and he huddled with offensive coordinator Joey Lynch.

“We kind of talked about our plans for the next drive,” Neal said. “Went over that, and basically went out there and did what we just talked about.”

The result was a 10-play, 70-yard march. Neal clicked on four of five throws to account for 45 of those yards, setting up his decisive TD run. In all he went 23-for-37 for 252 yards and two touchdowns, and rushed 14 times for 74 yards and two scores, to become MAC Male Scholar Athlete of the Week.

“I think it’s all about who’s going to come out with the most energy and enthusiasm, coming out of those rain delays,” he said. “I thought we did pretty well with that.”

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Neal, who this season has clicked on 60% of his passes for 851 yards and five touchdowns (with four interceptions), has hit the ground running before. Coming out of Yorktown (Ind.) High School, he spurned Central Michigan and Illinois State in favor of making the eight-mile trek to Ball State’s campus in Muncie. In so doing he followed in the footsteps of his dad, Jesse, and his Uncle Jay, both of whom played at the school.

Riley’s first career interception didn’t come until his 144th attempt, and he threw only six picks all last season. Besides his prodigious yardage total, he completed 58.3% of his throws, 16 for touchdowns, and rushed for 399 yards.

This year, he said, “I definitely think (the game has) slowed down a little bit for me.”

He nonetheless was picked off three times in the first two games, a victory over Georgia State and a loss to Indiana. He shrugged that off — just deal with it, right? hitting his first 16 passes in a 41-14 victory over Eastern Kentucky.

“I didn’t really realize we completed that many in a row,” said Neal, who finished the day 28 of 39 for 238 yards and two TDs, “but I think it’s just a credit to our receivers and our linemen. They were open and there was no pressure, so I just did what I was supposed to do.”

Which is all Neu was looking for.

“We just encouraged Riley that he didn’t have to win the game by himself,” Neu, who played in the CFL and AFL after his career at BSU (1990-93), told reporters after that game.

“I’ll take whatever he wants to throw on my shoulders,” Neal said, “but I don’t think it was necessarily like, ‘You’re doing too much.’ I think it was more along the lines of, ‘Just play football instead of trying to think too deep about everything.’”

One thing is certain: He thinks he can deal with … well, anything. And so far, he has. They all have.


Above: Photo courtesy Justin Casterline
Middle: Photo courtesy Thom Baur

Gordie Jones

Gordie Jones is a freelance writer based in Lititz, Pa. Follow him on Twitter at @gordonwjones