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Ball State vs. Illinois State 2013: Game Preview

The Cardinals and their explosive offense kick off their season Thursday against a formidable Illinois State team. Can Keith Wenning and company start the season off with a bang, or will the questions on the O-line and defensively leave BSU fans worried by the end?

Joshua S. Kelly-US PRESSWIRE

Let’s party like it’s 2008.

That’s the buzz around the Muncie campus for the Ball State faithful, as this year’s Cardinals look to carry the momentum from a 9-4 (6-2) campaign a season ago. Last season saw the Cardinals run off six straight wins the second half of the season, including a nationally televised win at then #22 ranked Toledo, before falling to Central Florida in the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl. The Cardinals return the most offensive firepower since their historic 12-2 season of 2008.

Ball State’s explosive offense will be led by senior quarterback Keith Wenning. Wenning was at the helm for an offense a year ago that racked up over 450 yards a game, second in the conference to Northern Illinois. Wenning was impressive, throwing for over 3,000 yards and 24 TDs against 10 interceptions. Wenning underwent minor arthroscopic surgery on his left knee August 3rd, though Coach Pete Lembo expects him to be ready to go Thursday. Wenning enters this season with career totals of 7,254 yards and 57 touchdowns at BSU, good for second place in school history. 2013 could see team records topple in Muncie.

Joining Wenning in the backfield will be the two-headed monster of Jahwan Edwards and Horactio Banks. Combining for over 2,000 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2012, expect Edwards to be the feature back. The explosiveness Banks showed last year means there should be plenty of carries to go around this season.

The receiving corps is equally as scary. Junior wide out Willie Snead, whose 1148 yards and 9 touchdowns led the team a year ago, will again be near the top of the conference this year. Senior receiver and Muncie product Jamill Smith will be a fantastic second option for Wenning, as will senior tight end Zane Fakes, named to this season’s Mackey watch list for the top tight end in the country.

The Cardinals must improve on defense, particularly against an offense as dynamic as Illinois State’s. The Ball State defense of 2012 gave of 32 points and 462 yards of offense. While the Cardinals will score points in buckets, weeknight MACtion shootouts will eventually require a defense to step up to rack up wins. Corners Quintin Cooper, Eric Patterson, and Jeffery Garrett will need to lead this defense and ISU’s offense should be a good first test. The loss of leading tackler Travis Freeman, also means the Cardinals will need a greater contribution from junior defensive end Nick Miles, BSU’s leading returning tackler not playing in the secondary.

The Cardinals kick off this season with the Illinois State Redbirds. Illinois State is a formidable FCS opponent who spent the entire 2012 season ranked playing in the Missouri Valley Football Conference won by eventual national champion North Dakota State. Like Ball State, ISU was able to score in bunches a year ago, averaging over 30 points per contest, including scoring over 50 points on two occasions. How very MACtionlike.

Leading the Redbird offense will be Jared Barnett. Barnett is an Iowa State transfer who won the starting job after a strong showing in the spring. The junior is no stranger to the national spotlight, as he led the Cyclones to victories over ranked foes Oklahoma State and Texas Tech in the last two seasons. Last year Barnett played in seven games and started three, tallying 624 yards and 6 TDs through the air, while adding 130 yards on the ground.

The class of the Redbird backfield will be Cameron Hunt. Mostly playing behind Darrelynn Dunn last year, the ISU senior tallied 340 yards and a pair of scores. Hunt will split carries with senior Jonathon Miller. Miller was impressive early in the year, rushing for 81 yards on 9 carries against Eastern Michigan before suffering a season ending knee injury against Southern Illinois on October 6th.

With the departure of Tyrone Walker, ISU’s receiving corps has been considerably depleted. Catching most passes this year will be junior Lechein Neblett, who racked up 667 yards and 5 TDs last year as the second option in the passing game. ISU will need production from elsewhere, as returning receivers other than Neblett totaled just 4 yards on 2 catches last season.

Like Ball State, ISU struggled on the defensive side of the football last year, yielding more than 26 points per game. The 2013 defense will be led by senior defensive lineman Colton Underwood, last year’s second leading tackler. The secondary will look for new leadership following the graduation of defensive back Ben Ericksen whose 7 picks led the team a year ago.

Thursday night the sun will set on majestic Delaware County, and as we move closer to the end of summer and into thrill of college football season, we are conscious of two things in Muncie, Indiana. Next year there will be no Keith Wenning, next year there may very well be no Pete Lembo. This year is the perfect storm of athleticism, innovation, and wily genius that could lead to a historic season for the Cardinals. Many will point to the MAC preseason rankings, rankings that did not pick BSU to win the MAC West. The same thing occurred in 2008. We’ll see if further comparisons can be drawn after Thursday night. The Cardinal defense must show up, and this game could serve as an excellent test readying Ball State for frenzied MAC play. If not, it could be another "First to Fifty Thursday."

Chirp, Chirp friends.