Ball State will enter unchartered territory for its program when it plays in the Arizona Bowl on New Year’s Eve against San Jose State.
The Cardinals (6-1) have never played in the state and they rarely play this far away from their Muncie, Ind., home against West Coast competition.
“The first thing when we found out yesterday (about playing in the Arizona Bowl) we saw that it was 76 degrees in Tucson,” Ball State coach Mike Neu said Monday during a ZOOM press conference. “The first thing we have to communicate with our young men is hydration. That starts now.
“I know it sounds weird but on Dec. 21 here back home it’s cold and we have to do a great job of preparing our bodies because we’ll be in the elements that we have not been in for a long time.”
It was cloudy and windy with a high of 44 degrees at Muncie on Monday, which prompted Neu to say: “I wish there was a way we can practice with some heaters on but we’ll figure that out and we’ll be ready to go.”
The only Pac-12 school Ball State has played in its history is Washington State with the 1994 game at Martin Stadium at Pullman, Wash. The Cardinals, a Mid-American Conference team, competed well against the Cougars, losing 16-14, as Reuben Mayes rushed for 201 yards with Jim Walden as coach.
The only time Ball State has ventured into California was to play in the 1989 Cal Raisin Bowl in which the Cardinals lost 27-6 to Fresno State at the Bulldogs’ stadium in Fresno.
Neu was the starting quarterback in the 1993 Las Vegas Bowl when the Cardinals lost to Utah State 42-33, although he generated a late comeback try with 16 fourth-quarter points.
The game against the Mountain West champion Spartans (7-0) is the Cardinals’ eighth bowl game overall. They are 0-7 in bowls with a loss to Arkansas State in the GoDaddy Bowl following the 2013 season as the most recent setback.
“It’s going to be battle. Great team, they’ve done a tremendous job,” Neu said of San Jose State. “It’s a great challenge. Our guys are chomping at the bit. Obviously, we haven’t won a bowl game.
“So it’s another tremendous challenge that this group has to be so focused to try to make sure we take advantage of our opportunity.”
Although Neu said he has never been to Tucson, he shares a background with two individuals who are well-known here.
Tucson sports mogul Mike Feder was the executive director of the Arena Football League’s New Orleans VooDoo in 2004 when Neu started his coaching career. They worked together in 2004 and 2005.
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“He’s a great guy,” said Feder, who also worked with Ball State director of operations Byron Ellis when they were both part of the New Orleans Saints’ business office from 2001 to 2005.
“Old home week,” Feder mentioned. “I’m going to be a liaison with the Ball State team.”
Arizona offensive line coach Kyle DeVan had the same role on Neu’s staff at Ball State. DeVan, a former Oregon State and NFL lineman, became Arizona’s offensive line coach in 2019.
“I still maintain a close relationship with him and we communicate on a regular basis,” Neu said. “He’s bragged about how awesome Tucson is so I’m really looking forward to coming out and enjoy having this experience and this opportunity.”
DeVan became an offensive line assistant with the Saints in 2015 after his NFL career concluded and Neu was the quarterback coach working with Drew Brees at the time.
“(DeVan) and I really grew close during our time together in New Orleans,” Neu said. “When I became the head coach at Ball State (in 2016), he was my first phone call to get him up here. He’s one of my best friends, a great friend in the coaching profession.
“I think the world of him. He’s such a bright guy and has a great future ahead of him.”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.