The Neu Era is here.
Friday night the Ball State University Fighting Football Cardinals will take the field at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta to kick off their 2016 season against the Georgia State Panthers. Out is former Ball State head coach Pete Lembo, now working an assistant’s gig at Maryland. In is former Ball State quarterback, Mike Neu, tasked with leading the Cardinals back to Mid-American Conference relevancy. Neu was MAC Offensive Player of the Year in 1993, and the Ball State job is his first as a head coach.
The cupboard’s not empty for Neu, as there’s plenty of returning offensive weapons. Sophomore Riley Neal will line up under center, after a promising freshman campaign in Muncie. Last season Neal took over for quarterback Jack Milas at halftime of a loss at Texas A&M and two weeks later earned the starting spot for the rest of the year. Unlike a season ago, there’s no quarterback controversy at Ball State after Neal showed that in the air and on the ground he can be a top MAC quarterback. His freshman year peaked with a 393-yard 4-touchdown performance against Northern Illinois on October 10th.
That said, Ball State’s top offensive asset on Friday, and perhaps all season, will be junior running back Darian Green. Yeah, I said it. The Cardinals return their top three running backs from a season ago, led by Green who was tops in the MAC, averaging better than 121 all purpose yards per contest. Expect sophomore James Gilbert and senior Teddy Williamson to see significant work as well.
The wide receiver corps will be led by senior KeVonn Mabon who has the stuff to be All-MAC First Team this season. Mabon enters this season 10th on the Ball State all-time receiving list, with 1,890 career receiving yards. Corey Lacanaria and Jordan Hogue are going to haul in plenty of catches as well.
There’s certainly plenty of talent on the defensive side of the ball, even if it’s an entirely new crew on the sidelines. All four defensive coaches are new to Ball State, including Tim Daoust who has served as assistant head coach at Syracuse for the past three seasons. He’ll have a pair of 2015 All-MAC First Team selections to work with on Friday. Senior defensive lineman Joshua Posely led the team with 9 tackles for a loss last season and senior team captain Sean Wiggins was first on the team with 48 solo tackles. Expect defensive back Martez Hester to make some noise. He was the only Cardinal to start all 12 games on defensive a year ago. Zack Ryan will start at middle linebacker on Friday. He’s Ball State’s active leader in career starts and tackles.
The Cardinals should want this one bad after Georgia State embarrassed Ball State in Muncie last year. The first ever meeting between these two schools ended with a 31-19 Panthers victory in a game that was never as close as the score indicates.
Nick Arbuckle, the Georgia State quarterback who shredded the Cardinals for 412 yards through the air in that win, has graduated. His replacement is Emiere Scaife, and while Scaife may be inexperienced, he’s got some help. Targets Penny Hart and Robert Davis combined for 198 receiving yards against Ball State last year and over 2,000 yards for the season. If Scaife struggles getting the ball to Hart and Davis, it will mean an increased workload, early and often for Glenn Smith and Kyler Neal in the backfield.
Despite the question marks all over the field, Ball State’s offense is better than Georgia State’s defense. The Cardinals should be able to put up points. Watch out for senior linebacker Kaleb Ringer, though. This guy plays sideline to sideline and creates chaos all over the field. Outside of Ringer however, the operative word is “potential,” and Georgia State has plenty of it. I guess the same could be said for Ball State. Fine, I’m biased.
This is a critically important game for both teams. Georgia State is still in FBS infancy, but took huge strides forward last season after a 1-23 start following the move from FCS. The 2015 Panthers made a bowl game and have the same goal for 2016. Ball State got fat on delicious success early in the Pete Lembo era before the wheels came off last season. Cardinals fans grew accustomed to bowl games and competitive contests against Power Five schools. While designs on a bowl game may be unrealistic for Ball State fans at this point, they’ll be looking for Neu to take a big step toward recovering the glory of the Keith Wenning/Willie Snead era.
Ball State and Georgia State kickoff from the Georgia Dome in Atlanta Friday evening. Game time is scheduled for 7 p.m. ET.