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2016 Hustle Belt Preseason Preview: Ball State Cardinals

Neu Coach, Neu Staff (Sort of), Neu Day

NCAA Football: Ball State at Northwestern
As Neal goes, so goes the Cardinals
Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

Life has been hard for a Ball State fan over the last few years. There’s been a slow slide from ten wins to five wins to three wins. The defensive points allowed has gone up like pretty much every BSU’s fans’ blood pressure that has watched this team while the offensive points scored has gone down like a drunk freshman. The head coach openly flirted with almost every job that came open within shouting distance of a P5 east coast league, didn’t make a ton of friends in the athletic department or the administration, and then left to be an assistant coach at Maryland. MARYLAND! I used to work there. You chose poorly, Coach Lembo.

But despite all that, this collective slide that has enveloped the program, hope springs eternal as the prodigal son returns home and I’m not talking about Jason Whitlock. Is a former player who was the MAC Offensive Player of the Year and someone who bleeds Cardinal and White someone you might be interested in leading your football program? If so, then let me introduce you to Mike Neu, the man who wears the headset and sits in the big boy chair in Muncie now.

I’m a big believer in risk versus reward. Matt Damon told me in Rounders (the greatest poker movie ever made, mind you) that you can’t lose what you don’t put in the middle, but you can’t win much either. With Neu, it’s a risk. Only one year as a collegiate coach (QB coach, Tulane) with an extensive background in the Arena Football League and the NFL. So, sure, it’s a non-traditional hire, but dammit, he’s a Cardinal and that’s good enough for me. Besides, Pete Lembo had the “typical resume” and that got us losses to Indiana State and Georgia State, no MAC Championships, and two bowl losses. So in all reality, if it stays the same at least we have a “BSU Guy” at the helm. And is there really all that much difference between the AFL and peak MACtion? There’s that weird receiver guy that gets to start running before the play starts, but we can work on that.

Five Players to Know:

Riley Neal: Riley “The Real Deal” Neal comes into his sophomore season with more experience, a firm grip on the starting job, a full offseason behind him, and high expectations. His nickname (trademark pending) is “The Real Deal”. It isn’t “The Average Deal”, “The OK Deal”, or “Skippy”. It’s “The Real Deal” and I’m looking forward to both his realness and his dealness. Maybe even his Neal-ness. His freshman season was by most measures successful in everything but record, throwing 16 TDs to only 6 INTs, passing for over 2200 yards and rushing for nearly 500, and that was after not starting until the fourth game. There is hopeful optimism around the program as fans believe that Joey Lynch will hopefully cut it loose in the playcalling and with Mike Neu over the program there is more development in the QBs than any other area. The Cardinals don’t need Neal to be Keith Wenning or Nate Davis. I’d settle for a Joey Lynch-esque season and thankfully, there’s no one better to tutor young Mr. Neal than the Delta Dreamboat, Joey Lynch himself.

Sean Wiggins: BSU is losing 2015’s leading tackler Ben Ingle, but as Sean Wiggins goes, so goes the defense in 2016. The 1st Team All-MAC selection last season is going to shoulder a heavy burden this season to try and get the yards per game under 518, which happened to be the worst total ever for the school. Some fans would say, “Hey, it can’t get much worse!”. Oh, but it can. It definitely can. Let’s hope it doesn’t because that would be very much not enjoyable.

KeVonn Mabon: Back before I came over to the Belt, my former Cardinal-centric site championed one Jordan Williams as the end-all be-all greatest thing since Briggs Orsbon. JW is gone, and KeVonn Mabon gets his turn as WR1. He’s a different kind of receiver, more speed and hands, less physical and tall, but his skill at the position is unquestioned. Last year Mabon put up 745 yards and 2 TDs. In my mind, a good metric for this season is receiving yards in the neighborhood of 1100 and at least 8 scores. Those numbers get hit and things will be fine with the offense.

Darnell Smith: Darnell Smith is a large man in a critical position (DT) who missed all of 2015 with an injury sustained in training camp. Is it a coincidence that opposing offenses rushed for over five yards per carry? No, it is not. It is not a coincidence at all. Smith is back this year and anchors a defensive line that on paper should be a strength. On paper. That’s an important qualifier. 2014 saw Smith awarded a 3rd team All-MAC selection and that performance and then some is what’s needed for the defense to have any hope. (Correction: BSU alum and national voice Jason Whitlock and The Star Press’s Dakota Crawford pointed out that Darnell Smith is no longer with the program after graduating in the spring. Having said that, he’s still a large man and still in a critical position, just in the private sector. Carry on.)

Josh Posley: Sure, I screwed the pooch with Darnell Smith above. But like any good Cardinal, we soldier on undaunted. And it just so happens that there’s someone else on the defensive line that is set to wreak havoc on opposing offenses in a little over two weeks. Posley is a transfer from Cincinnati and the former Bearcat had himself quite a first year in Cardinal and White in 2015, landing himself a 1st Team All-MAC selection at the conclusion of a season that saw him lead the team in tackles for loss and QB hurries, and was second in QB sacks. It’s not tracked but he was also the deliverer of several “Wow!” type of moments, including a first quarter sack at A&M that announced his presence with authority as a new face on the Ball State defense. FACTOID ALERT: Though a Cincy transfer, Posley is originally from right down the road in Indianapolis and is an alum of Warren Central High School, home of one Jason Whitlock. So if this football thing doesn’t work out, there is likely a talkshow in his future. Get the hot takes ready.

Kyle Schmidt: Let’s not forget that Ball State is known as Punter U, at least unofficially. Brad Maynard, anyone? In all honesty, given the potential of the offense to not hit their stride right away and the defense needing marked improvement from 2015, field position may be the difference between a close win and a close loss. Having a punter capable of flipping the field and pinning an opposing team deep may give just enough breathing room to pull the proverbial Cardinal fat from the MAC fire.

Four Games Not to Miss:

Sept. 2 at Georgia State: The biggest question about Ball State, at least to me, is whether or not the offensive dip over the last couple of years was more about personnel or coaching. On the one hand, offensive coordinator Joey Lynch replaced Rich Skrosky and had to muddle through the Ozzie Mann/Jack Milas/Riley Neal situation and the results suffered. On the other, Lynch has been around the program long enough that consistency was a bit more expected. Now Pete Lembo is gone, Joey Lynch remains, and Riley Neal is the clear cut QB1 with a year’s worth of experience. New head coach Mike Neu, like Lynch, was a former Cardinal signal caller, so let’s see what kind of offense is in store for the 2016 edition of Ball State.

Sept 10 at Indiana: Indiana fans hate Ball State and Ball State fans feel about the same towards the Hoosiers. The worst of the IU faithful will feign indifference and superiority over their in-state counterpart, but that argument doesn’t hold much water when Ball State has won three straight. Lembo was successful in his opener against Indiana, and as a native Hoosier, you know Mike Neu wants this one bad.

Oct 1 vs Northern Illinois: The Cardinals’ first MAC contest is against the one program that Ball State has had the most problems with, thanks largely in part to NIU’s consistent string of high performing teams and true reloading rather than rebuilding. This isn’t a game to watch for a potential upset, as in all honesty this will likely be an NIU victory. The value in this game is that it serves as a measuring stick for how far the Cards have progressed under Mike Neu and company and more importantly, just how much further there is to go.

Nov 8 vs. Eastern Michigan: I’m an optimist by nature, but even with my Cardinal-tinted glasses, it is easy to see a possible scenario where this game determines who finishes last in the MAC West. As much as I don’t want that to be the case, it’s reality, barring some significant deviation from expected results from both these squads.

Three Ways the Season is a Success:

Finish .500 in the out of conference, at worst. Let’s go ahead and assume that the home opener against Eastern Kentucky is a win, though deep down in places I don’t want to talk about, I’m not really comfortable conceding any game as a certain W. I still remember Indiana State’s coaching staff storming out of the press box like they just won the Super Bowl, and it still sucks, so let’s not act like an FCS upset is completely out of the question. That leaves plucking one win from either Georgia State, Indiana, or Florida Atlantic, all of whom are on the road. Yeeesh. Now I know why Pete Lembo left to take an assistant coach job at the University of Maryland.

Win at least one MAC game they “shouldn’t”. Even as a Ball State alum and fan, I can say with virtual certainty and objectivity that there’s five games on the MAC slate that BSU will find themselves underdogs in, perhaps heavily so. Home games against Northern Illinois, Akron, and Western Michigan, along with road trips to Toledo and Central Michigan could easily have the Cards staring down the barrel of a sub-.500 MAC season. Win one of those games and .500 is still possible, win two and it’s darn near probable. Wouldn’t it be great to dump all over Western Michigan’s season? That would be the best. I wold love it.

Finish .500 overall with an outside shot at a bowl berth. I will give you that the schedule is brutal. Not so much because of who is on it, but where you play who is on it. With seven road games, the schedule is about as tough as it gets. At least they get NIU at home. Yay? The optimistic BSU fan will tell you that 10-2 is a virtual certainty, and that’s just because they’re allowing two flukes to not go BSU’s way. The pessimist will point to all the things that can (and in all likelihood, will) create issues and think 3 wins is the sweet spot. Ignore both the former and the latter, cruise to 6-6, and let’s celebrate, mmmkay?

Two Things to Watch Out For:

Can the defense do even the most basic of defending? The BSU defense last season was bad. Not just MAC-bad, but like, bad-bad. Giving up 36 points a game against the schedule they have is going to cause the Cardinals to have a not so great year, me chronic angina, and the fanbase to have a giant case of apathy en route what I would call an “abysmal failure”. So there’s that. To their credit, it’s a senior heavy unit that is capable. Having said that, new defensive coordinator Tim Daoust has his work cut out for him.

Can the offensive line replace pretty much everyone? From last year to this year, the offensive line has lost 107 career starts and a 3x All-MAC center. I’m not a doctor but that seems not ideal. They do return 55 career starts, so that’s something! In all seriousness, the offensive line is critical this year in giving Riley Neal the space he needs to be successful. Part of that is holding off the defensive units across the field from planting young Mr. Neal in a pile behind them, but equally important is establishing the rush to keep the defense a bit off kilter and not put a victorious performance squarely on the shoulders of a sophomore QB. Passing for 600 yards, 7 TDs, and winning by 50 is boring, and a little fascist. Spread the love, fellas.

One Bold Prediction:

The title says bold, so I’m going to go bold. Ball State builds on a dominating performance in the season opener against Georgia State to edge Indiana. After an EKU thrashing, the Cards knock off Florida Atlantic, get some celebratory Bojangles, and wrap the out of conference 4-0. From there, the Cardinal train steamrolls on, winning a close one at home to NIU, ruining CMU’s season in Mt. Pleasant, and going to Buffalo and leaving with original wings and a W. After a big homecoming win over Akron, they row PJ Fleck’s boat to a loss in the Scheu, and follow that up with a curb stomping of EMU under the Tuesday night lights. They close out with back-to-back road wins over Toledo and Miami, wrapping a 12-0 regular season on their way to a MAC Championship berth. Margot Robbie is so impressed with the Cardinals performance so far, she wants a little piece of the MACtion and who better to educate her than your friendly neighborhood Hustle Belt editor-in-chief. The Cards take the MAC Championship over Akron, accept a Playoff berth, and President-Elect Trump does the ceremonial coin flip and gives a chirp chirp on his way out of the stadium. The dream season comes to an end against Clemson, but a final ranking of #3 leaves Cardinals fans satisfied. I mean, I can’t call for a national championship. It said bold, not crazy.