#3DC Blog: Three Questions Heading Into Northwestern

Written By: Noah Reed | @NoahReed_24
Host of 3rd Down Chirp GameDay
Member of Ball State Sports Link

Jordan Williams
Jordan Williams

Ball State opened Mid-American Conference play last weekend with a 28-17 road victory at Eastern Michigan. The win marked the fourth time in Coach Lembo’s five years where Ball State has won the conference opener. The Cardinals rattled off 28 unanswered points after trailing 17-0 halfway through the second quarter.

Ball State (2-1, 1-0 MAC) struggled to get a rhythm going on either side of the ball, while Eastern Michigan (1-2, 0-1 MAC) was having success finding the end zone, especially early in the second quarter.

“To come on the road here and get a win is a nice start (to conference play),” Lembo said. “We still have a lot to fix, but we’re certainly going to take it and be happy with the result.”

The Eagles opened up a 17-0 lead with 7:23 left in the first half largely in part to Darius Jackson. The running back had two touchdown runs in a span of five minutes in the second quarter.

Enter Riley Neal.  Neal, a true freshman, never looked back. Neal was nearly flawless, completing 24 of his 28 pass attempts for a 194 yards and a score.

The entrance of Neal was a turning point for the Ball State offense. The quarterback scored on a 41-yard highlight reel scamper in which he broke six tackles one his way to his first career rushing touchdown.

On the Cardinals next possession, Neal marched his troops 94 yards down the field in just seven plays to score with less than a minute remaining in the half, which cut the EMU lead to 17-14. Neal capped off the drive with a 26-yard connection with wide receiver Jordan Williams.

Williams, who recorded five catches for 57 yards on the afternoon, bumped himself up in the record books in a couple categories.

His 57 yards on last Saturday puts his career total at 2,017 yards, which makes him the ninth wide receiver in Ball State history to have over 2,000 yards. Also, Williams’ second-quarter touchdown grab was his 17th of his career. That mark ties him for sixth all time in a career for a Cardinal.

The second half belonged to freshman running back James Gilbert. Gilbert scored the only touchdowns for either team inthe second half, marking his second time in only three career games to have multiple rushing touchdowns.

Even though Gilbert’s name was the one showing up with the scores, it was once again Darian Green shouldering most of the load for the run game.

The sophomore tallied 164 yards rushing on 25 carries. Green has led the Cardinals in rushing in each of the last two games. Between Green and Gilbert, the two have scored 10 of Ball State’s 12 touchdowns this season.

On the defensive side of things, Sean Wiggins had himself a career night.

The junior linebacker recorded his first career sack to go with two interceptions. Not only were the interceptions the first two of the season for the Cardinals, but also the first two of Wiggins’ career.

They couldn’t have come at a better time either. Wiggins intercepted passes on back-to-back possessions (Eastern Michigan’s final two possessions of the game.)

Noah’s 3 Questions Heading Into Northwestern

  1. How will Riley Neal fair in his first career start?

Okay so maybe I was wrong. Very wrong. Last week, going into the EMU game, I stated this was still Jack Milas’ team and we shouldn’t be so hard on him for having a rough week at Texas A&M. While I stand by not being too hard on him, I also said Milas should still get most of the first team reps at quarterback, and that’s where I would be wrong.

Riley Neal
Riley Neal

Riley Neal put together another great performance on the road at Eastern Michigan. As a true freshman playing in his first year of college football, he was impressive in the second half at Texas A&M, which earned him more reps the following week. After Milas only lasted two drives, Neal took over, and there was no going back.

Neal completed 24-of-28 passes, which is good for a completion percentage of 85.7%. That percentage lands him fourth for the best completion percentage in a single game. Lets not forget this was only his second career game. He hasn’t even made a start in his collegiate career!

Put that all in the past and lets look ahead now. As impressive as Neal was last Saturday, his first start of the season will take place under the lights in Evanston, Illinois at Big Ten opponent Northwestern. Typically, you think of Northwestern as a bottom of the pack Big Ten team, considering they have been 5-7 each of the last three seasons.

Not so fast…this year’s Wildcats’ team is off to an undefeated 3-0 start and currently No. 17 in the nation. Why don’t we go ahead and tack on that they’ve already beat Stanford and hold the No. 1 spot in the NCAA for scoring defense.

So now do we understand why Neal might be in for a tough night? But from everything we’ve seen the past two weeks, I think Riley is up for the task.

  1. How much success can Ball State’s run game have against NW’s defense?

It’s been no secret the Cardinals have done most of their damage on the ground this season. Through three weeks, Ball State averages nearly 250 yards per game rushing, good for 15th in the county. The past two weeks with Neal taking most of the snaps, it has been a much more balanced attack between the ground and the air, but the numbers don’t lie. Ball State has seen a lot of success going to the rush game, so why stop what has been working?

James Gilbert 2
James Gilbert breaks a tackle at Eastern Michigan.

I was able to speak with Dave Eanet, the play-by-play voice of Northwestern football on WGN Radio, and he had a lot of interesting things to say about the BSU running game vs. the Northwestern defense.

“I don’t foresee Northwestern having much trouble stopping the run game,” Eanet said. “The best way for Ball State to get their running backs involved may very well be in the short passing game.”

Eanet elaborated more saying the run defense of Northwestern has been great this year and is a large part why the Wildcats have the best scoring defense in the NCAA (5.3 PPG). Eanet also said it may be best for Neal to drop back and get quick screen passes out to his trio of running backs and let them work in the open field.

The way I look at it, why fix what’s not broken? Sure Riley Neal is very capable through the air as well as with his legs, which makes him extremely tough to stop, but the three running backs have enjoyed much success. Until defenses have an answer for them, continue to let them make the plays.


  1. Will the BSU defense that shut down EMU in the second half show up again? 

After the first two weeks of the season, Ball State’s defense was a common topic of discussion.

Behind the efforts of Sean Wiggins and cornerback Darius Conaway, who set a career high with 1.5 tackles for loss, the Cardinals defense was a different story in the second half last week. They shut out Eastern Michigan and the Eagles gained only 101 yards of total offense after the half.

Northwestern, though, will be a different monster to handle.

As good as the Ball State run game is, Northwestern’s is even better. The Wildcats average 257 yards on the ground, good for 12th in the nation. Redshirt freshman quarterback, Clayton Thorson, only throws for 109 yards per game and only one total touchdown on the year.

What does that mean? The Cardinals can sell themselves out for the run, putting as many as eight guys up in the box to stop the rushing attack. Obviously Ball State can’t allow Thorson to have open receivers all night long, but they can definitely shift their focus majorly to the ground attack of the Wildcats.

Without a doubt, Saturday night will be a huge measuring stick to see where this Ball State team stands heading into the heart of conference play.


Author: Sports Link Staff

Sports Link showcases Cardinal student-athletes’ accomplishments on the field, in the classroom and within the surrounding community. Follow @bsusportslink on all social media platforms.

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