BY JACK KIZER | Ball State Sports Link
Before scoping out Ball State Football’s next opponent, it’s worth re-visiting what exactly happened last Saturday. Without going in to an abundance of detail, the Cardinals hung tough on the biggest stage in college football.
No. 8 Notre Dame 24-Ball State 16. With a 34.5-point line going in to the game, the score was one of the biggest surprises of the weekend.
So, what now?
Ball State’s expectations have been heightened significantly after competing in South Bend. The key contributors are back and better than ever to go with the young players who are now primary pieces after being thrust into the fire last year.
In the words of Mike Neu, “winning is hard.” The wins may not come easy, but they’re certainly up for grabs…and oh how sweet would a win be for Ball State down south in Hoosier country?
Indiana marks the second straight Power 5 in-state opponent on the Cardinals’ non-conference schedule and an opportunity for Ball State to show last week wasn’t a fluke.
Here’s the keys for Cards to not just compete but pull off the upset:
Establish the Run, Eliminate IU’s
Despite not having much offensive success against Notre Dame, Ball State still out-rushed the Irish 169-117, led by James Gilbert’s 73 yards. The ground game will be just as important if not more vital to the Cardinals’ offense against Indiana.
The Hoosiers have allowed only 263 passing yards through two games and boast the most-improved defense in the country since current head coach Tom Allen’s arrival on staff in 2016. Yards through the air won’t come easy, but fortunately for Ball State, they boast a running back trio as good as any in the Mid-American Conference:
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On the flip side, Indiana’s run-game has been strong for years. Paired with a consistently stout offensive-line, the program has produced NFL running backs Tevin Coleman (Falcons) and Jordan Howard (Bears).
2018 features a new potential star, true-freshman Stevie Scott. Scott rushed for 204 yards and one touchdown on 31 carries last week versus Virginia. The monsoon that moved through Indiana contributed to his total carries, but expect Scott to receive plenty of chances again Saturday.
The Ball State front-seven, led by a 29-tackle performance amongst the four starting linebackers, shut down a Notre Dame rushing attack which is the Irish’s strong suit. A similar performance will be necessary against IU.
Let’s be honest, Riley Neal will be a key in every game he plays.
His numbers at Notre Dame (23-50, 180yds, 1 TD, 2 int) look lackluster on the surface, but it was a solid effort from the Redshirt-Junior.
Notre Dame is one of the top defenses in the nation and one of Neal’s two interceptions was a ball that ricocheted off of the hands of an open receiver.
He played tough and made good decisions for the most part in front of 77,000 spectators. The playbook was also more conservative against the Irish defense. The leash will be loosened this weekend.
Big throws out of the play-action and protecting the football are going to be a pivotal part of Neal’s operation.
Sustain Drives, Punch-It-In
Winning time of possession certainly helps in an upset effort.
Ball State held on to the ball for 34 minutes against Notre Dame, while the Irish only had 26 minutes with the football.
Despite winning the T.O.P battle, the Cardinals still had missed opportunities to extend drives. Keeping the ball out of the hands of the IU offense will help the Cardinals dictate the pace and shorten the game. But when Ball State reaches the red zone, mistakes cannot be made.
This wasn’t a problem for the Cards last week as they went 3-for-3 inside the 20. Touchdowns, however, did not come the way Mike Neu planned, and Ball State’s offense had to settle for field goals. The defense wouldn’t object to some margin for error and touchdowns would certainly help that cause.
Bring the Pressure
Three interceptions. Four sacks. 10 tackles for loss.
Those stats pretty much explain how good the Ball State pass rush was against quarterback Brandon Wimbush and Notre Dame.
The switch over the off-season to a 3-4 defense under 2nd year defensive coordinator David Elson has payed dividends thus far. Jaylin Thomas, Jacob White, Ray Wilborn, and Christian Albright all experienced a lot of freedom from their linebacker spots to make plays in the run and pass game.
Wimbush seemed to be scrambling and confused throughout the game, and the Cardinals hope to cause the same effect on Redshirt-Sophomore Indiana Quarterback Peyton Ramsey.
Ramsey has thrown for just over 300 yards through two games, including five touchdowns and two interceptions. Saturday’s contest is just the 12th game played for Ramsey in his career. Making him uncomfortable could result in similar numbers for the Ball State defense when the game finishes.
Embrace History…Kind Of
Ball State has won three out of the last four meetings with IU, including three in a row (2008, 2011, 2012).
The most recent meeting, however, saw the Cream and Crimson come out on top in 2016.
After falling behind 30-0, Ball State rallied in the fourth quarter, but fell short 30-20. Riley Neal is a better quarterback though, and Mike Neu is now in his third season with a team on the rise.
The aura surrounding this game is different than two seasons ago.
Looking at the match-up from a broader scope, Ball State hasn’t fared well against Big Ten opponents the last four seasons.
2017: Illinois 24, Ball State 21
2016: Indiana 30, Ball State 20
2015: #17 Northwestern 24, Ball State 19
2014: Iowa 17, Ball State 13
The 0-4 in the win-loss column doesn’t look great, but average margin of victory is encouraging (5.5 points). Ball State has been close, but not good enough to get over the hump.
But every season is a new chapter, and the Cardinals have a golden opportunity to continue to write a different narrative against Indiana this weekend.
Ball State and IU kickoff at 12pm. Sports Link Digital begins coverage at 11:20 with the Pre-Game Rush, followed by the full broadcast.
Listen to Alex Thomas, Jack Kizer and Jarin Matheny bring you all the action on Sports Link Digital: mixlr.com/bsusportslink