Sturgis native Drake Miller has an opportunity to make history tonight with his Ball State University football brethren. Searching for their first postseason victory, the Cardinals (10-2) take on Arkansas State (7-5) in the GoDaddy Bowl in Mobile, Ala.
The final appetizer before Monday’s BCS National Championship game, Ball State steps on a national stage for a 9 p.m. contest on ESPN. With an 0-6 record in bowl games, including last year’s 38-17 loss to Central Florida in the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl, Ball State hopes its high-flying offense will be enough for the first 11-win season in program history.
Miller, a 6-foot-4, 289-pound redshirt freshman, has played a major role in the Cardinals’ success this season, splitting time with starter Steve Bell at right tackle. The BSU big men paved the way for senior quarterback Keith Wenning to post nearly 4,000 passing yards (sixth-best nationally) and 34 touchdowns.
“It has been a good experience,” Miller, who also has a host of duties on special teams, told joeinsider.com. “I’m still learning, trying to take it all in and just get better. I feel like with all the game experience I’m an improved player.”
Ball State offensive line coach Nick Tabacca agrees.
“I’ve seen him improve a lot,” Tabacca said. “He’s a very coachable kid. He’s a kid that we traveled last year but didn’t play for us. With a year of learning the system and a year on the travel squad, which is a tribute to him, and throughout spring ball and fall camp, he just kept getting better.
“He didn’t play a lot over the first couple games, but he steadily improved throughout the first couple weeks of the season and kind of forced us into getting him into the rotation. He hasn’t started this year, but it has been equally split time with another good, young tackle we have.”
Tabacca wanted to have a true rotation at tackle by the fourth game of the year, which is what he got. With injuries inevitable, he wanted to prepare Miller for full-time duty if needed. As it turned out, the Cardinals got through the 2013 campaign pretty clean.
“We stayed decently healthy, so the way I look at is we have three starting tackles. He has forced us to find ways to get him on the field more. That’s a tribute to how he has practiced every day and gotten better. Offensive line, there’s no question, along with quarterback, is the toughest position to come in and play early. He really bought into our techniques, got better and is a big part of what we’re doing this year.”
This past year marked the third time the Cardinals, which arrived in Mobile on Jan. 1, produced 10 wins. Miller, along with the rest of the O-linemen, was crucial in a second-place finish behind Northern Illinois in the Mid-American Conference West Division at 7-1. Ball State averaged 40.1 points per game — best in the MAC and 11th in the country — and 333.2 passing yards per outing, which was also the most in the league and ranked ninth nationally.
Combined with 153.1 rushing yards per game, BSU logged 486.3 yards of total offense each week (second in the MAC). But a bowl win over Arkansas State, which claimed its third straight Sun Belt crown, would trump all of that.
“Very proud,” Miller said of 10 victories. “We have worked hard for it. It just shows how much we’ve worked and how far this team has come since we started. I’m just happy to be a part of it. But [a bowl win] is something that has never been done before. To help my team get that first bowl win would be a blessing.”
No matter tonight’s outcome, the ceiling is high for the Sturgis product.
“You give him a role, and he’s like, ‘Yes, sir; whatever it takes to help the program,’” Tabacca said of Miller. “You can’t have enough of those. He’s only going to get better and I think he has a bright future.”