BY MICK TIDROW & JOHN GORDON | Ball State Sports Link
It has been 284 days since Ball State Football last raced out on the field for game day.
Now, the wait comes to a close in Illinois. The Cardinal and White are set to take on the Fighting Illini for just the second time in team history.
Ball State has won seven consecutive season openers dating back to 2010. However, the Cardinals have only played one true road game in that stretch and that came last year at Georgia State. Ball State won by a score of 31-21.
Since 2010, the Cardinals have played seven games against Big Ten opponents. Ball State has faced Indiana (thrice), Iowa (twice), Northwestern, and Purdue in that time frame. The Cardinals won against Indiana in 2011 and 2012. Ball State lost to No. 17 Northwestern in 2015, 24-19.
In the lone meeting between Saturday’s two teams, Illinois escaped with a 28-17 victory in 2007.
1. Wide Receiver Development
With a mixture of veterans and youth injected into the lineup, the Cardinals return a bundle of receivers from a year ago. Jordan Hogue, Devin Reece, and Corey Lacanaria are returning starters from last year’s team. Riley Miller, who was recently awarded a scholarship, enters his redshirt sophomore season. Mix in freshman Justin Hall, and the receiver core has blossomed into a potential strength for the Cardinals. Miller contributes this season for the first time after spending the first two seasons of his collegiate career learning the offense. Conjoining with Riley Neal at Yorktown High School in his prep career, the two have a chance to reconnect this year with Miller slated to be a starter.
2. Balanced Running Attack
There are many things to love about the Cardinals running game this season.
The team returns two of its top rushers from a year ago, including junior James Gilbert who was placed on the Maxwell Award Watch List before the season.
Malik Dunner figures to see an expanded role this year in his sophomore season after averaging just over six yards per carry last year.
Gilbert finished with over 1,300 yards to pace the offense while Neal added almost 700 yards and eight touchdowns to the attack.
While senior Darian Green will take a redshirt season due to injury, freshman Caleb Huntley has established himself as a candidate to take over the third spot in the running attack.
3. Defensive Backs on a Mission
It is a season of heavy turnover in the defensive backfield for the Cardinals. Losing both of its starting safeties from a season ago, Ball State turns to its youth. Veterans Marc Walton, a team captain this year, and Josh Miller man the cornerback positions, while newcomers Bryce Cosby and Brett Anderson both get a chance to prove their designation as freshman starters. Cosby enters from Louisville, Kentucky after tallying 14 interceptions in his prep career. The pedigree and talent runs in the family as his father Donald played collegiate football at Louisville.
4. Year Two of Coach Neu
After a 4-8 season in year one of Head Coach Mike Neu’s tenure at his alma mater, the Cardinals position themselves in prime position to make the year two jump. While Ball State has many fresh faces this season, the team brings back heavy coaching experience under Neu. The list includes offensive coordinator Joey Lynch, who is now in his fifth season calling the plays for the offense. Under Neu’s direction a year ago, the Cardinals committed the third-least amount of penalties in the nation, trailing just Connecticut and Navy while holding a tie with Northwestern. With a return of many players, the Cardinals look to have another disciplined team in 2017.
There are plenty of mouth-watering smells at the tailgate, plenty of sounds from the band, and plenty to see on the field Saturday. However, there are three things to keep an eye on:
1. Rushing into Week One
Although Illinois is in the Big Ten, James Gilbert has every reason to be licking his chops on Saturday.
Last year, Gilbert ranked 22nd in nation with 1,332 yards. Illinois was kind to running backs last year, ranking 111th nationally in rushing yards allowed per game (240). Look for Gilbert to pick up right where he left off. Fortunately, Ball State returns three offensive linemen this year. Team captain and left guard, Vinnie Palazeti, is one of four players who started every game in 2016.
Gilbert might also have an added threat on the ground with quarterback, Riley Neal, who rushed for a career-high 96 yards in last year’s season finale against Miami. Neal, who has developed as a pocket quarterback with the teachings of Mike Neu, should not be overlooked on the ground.
2. The Coaching Backgrounds
Here are two coaches in their second year with a lot to prove. Mike Neu and Lovie Smith both made the transition from the NFL into their current roles. This won’t be the first time these two face-off on opposite sidelines, as both were coaches in the NFC South. Neu was the quarterbacks coach for the New Orleans Saints in 2014 and 2015, while Smith was at the helm of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for those two years.
Mike Neu brings in the fourth best recruiting class in the MAC. He and receivers coach, Alex Bailey, are faced with the task of grooming a talented WR class. While offensive weapons such as Gilbert and Neal are on the field, many young names will be called in from the sideline at some point this season.
As for Saturday, Neu aims for his first Big Ten win as a head coach.
Smith has a tall order ahead when it comes to rebuilding the Illinois football program. They haven’t had a winning season since 2011 when Ron Zook was the head coach. The last time Illinois had five consecutive losing seasons, Zook was able to spring them to a 9-4 record and a Rose Bowl appearance the following year.
However, Smith’s recent recruiting class ranks only 10th in the Big Ten, according to 247Sports. That doesn’t give Illini fans much confidence, but it’s better than Smith’s first year recruiting in 2016 when that class ranked 13th in the conference.
Saturday’s game will surely have more pressure on Smith than Neu. If this young Cardinals team steals a victory in Champaign, expect the press to bring the flames.
3. Is Dudek still the Dude?
Perhaps the biggest storyline for Illinois is the highly anticipated comeback of Mike Dudek. During his freshman campaign in 2014, Dudek didn’t take long to draw comparisons to NFL receiver, Wes Welker.
Dudek became just the fourth player in school history to record over 200 yards in a game when Illinois hosted Purdue. He broke the freshman school record for single-season receiving yards (1,038) and receptions (76). The 5’11 receiver was named a Freshman All-American after leading the Big Ten in receptions and receiving yards during conference action.
Since then, Dudek has torn his ACL twice, but is now ready to go. It’s tough to live up to that kind of freshman season even if Dudek remained healthy. But after plagued with two years of injury, fans wonder if they’ll ever get the same energetic receiver who can weave through defenses. The first glimpse will come Saturday.