BY MICK TIDROW | Sports Link GameDay TV Host | SL Radio on WCRD Sideline Reporter
For the first time in 2017, Ball State Football takes the field at Scheumann Stadium in game action Saturday against the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
The Cardinals come off a heartbreaking loss at Illinois in the Sept. 2 season opener. It took until two minutes left in the game for Illinois to take its first lead of the second half, eventually leading to a 24-21 victory at Memorial Stadium.
Even with the loss, there are many positives the Cardinals can take with them into the Scheu for Saturday’s home opener — a #SocialSellOut by Ball State Athletics.
An opener to remember for Anthony Winbush after a three-sack afternoon, freshman Bryce Cosby’s interception and Riley Miller with a team-high 86 receiving yards are a few performances the team can carry with them against UAB.
This is a Blazers team coming off a 38-7 victory against Alabama A&M.
Before last week, football was not played by the Blazers since the 2014 season after the university discontinued the program in 2015 and 2016 due to funding. UAB finished the 2014 season with a bowl-eligible record of 6-6, and trended upward.
However, the Blazers were forced to sit out the next two seasons while the university came to a financial agreement.
This is the first all-time meeting between the two teams. The Cardinals have won their past seven home openers, including last season’s 41-14 victory vs. Eastern Kentucky.
1. Miller Time?
After posting the most receiving yards on the roster a week ago with 86, Riley Miller asserts himself as a primary target for Riley Neal.
Against Illinois, Neal and company turned to Miller on third and fourth downs — in big situations — to make plays and he delivered. He came through with four of his seven catches on such plays.
Neal has given Miller a major vote of confidence this season.
“The faith I have in Riley is what he has proven at Ball State,” Neal said. “He was a great player for us [Yorktown] in high school, and has continued the success.”
The relationship they have built– both on and off the field — has sparked a connection at the division one level.
“Riley [Neal] and I have been best friends since grade school,” Miller said. “That relationship is different than many others. Just being able to talk to him and know what he is thinking in the game helps me know what I need to do.”
Both Miller and Neal have had plenty of time to gel together, and this could be just the beginning for the local tandem as they take the field for the first time together in front of the home crowd.
2. Here Come The Freshman
In a game where there was no shortage of big-time plays, the freshman class posted strong performances all across the board in Champaign.
Cosby recorded his first career interception in the second half, securing the ball on a dive before it hit the ground.
Receiver Justin Hall broke loose of a tackler and posted a gain of 27 yards, finishing the day with 36 total yards. First-year running back Caleb Huntley burst on to the scene in his first game, entering the game for the injured James Gilbert to run for 46 yards on eight carries.
With this performance alone, it proves this freshman class is ready for any challenge it faces, including the Illini from the Big Ten.
3. Snap The Streak
Entering Saturday’s game, Ball State has lost six straight games — but the number is deceiving.
Four of the losses have come by 10-or-less points, and three of those with just a touchdown or less separating Ball State from a victory. The Cardinals have shown the consistency to stay in games, holding a lead in the fourth quarter in five of those six games.
4. Backfield Firepower
College football sees many teams open the opposing team’s defense by running a spread offense — passing the ball many more times than the ball is handed off.
However, the Cardinals bucked the trend a season ago, rushing the ball more than they passed the rock in 10 of 12 games.
The trend did not stop Saturday in Illinois, with the offense rushing the ball 51 times compared to 34 passes from Neal.
Gilbert and Dunner return from last season’s rushing attack, but a piece who has jumped out to the coaching staff is Huntley. He showed the coaching staff why he deserves to be in the mix, averaging six yards per carry against the Fighting Illini.
With an already dangerous tandem in Gilbert and Dunner, this backfield is ramped up and ready to go.
For exclusive coverage of Ball State Football, tune in to Sports Link GameDay, presented by Stoops Buick GMC, at 2:30 p.m. on all SL social med platforms to preview the 3:05 pm kickoff. SL GameDay will also stream live at halftime and an extended postgame show.