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2017 Week 1 Preview: Ball State Cardinals at Illinois Fighting Illini

Can the Cardinals walk out of Illinois with a big payday and a big win?

Western Michigan v Ball State Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

I remember a little while ago when I was a student at Ball State and it seemed like payday body bag games littered the schedule week in and week out. The price of supporting an athletic program on a shoestring budget in the late 90s/early 00s was watching as the likes of Clemson, Florida, Kansas State, and countless others bodied the Cardinals week in and week out. It was not tons of fun.

So each non-conference game on the road against a P5 program gives me a bit of pause. The fact that Saturday’s game against the Illinois Fighting Illini is against a B1G opponent not named “Indiana” gives me even more. The Cards have won three of the last four against the Hoosiers, but this is not an in-state rivalry game and this opposing coach isn’t Kevin Wilson. Since 2010, Ball State is 2-4 against Big Ten schools, but have kept it competitive for all but one. Barring a 45-0 loss against Iowa in 2010, Ball State has played won a pair of games against Indiana (27-20 in 2011, 41-39 in 2012) and came close against then No. 17 ranked Northwestern (19-24) in 2015. Cardinals’ fans hope that trend continues Sunday against the Illini.

When Ball State has the ball. . .
As the Ball State Cardinals offense goes so goes the season. Riley Neal and James Gilbert lead an offense that should (at least early on) be reliant on the run given Neal’s mobility, Gilbert’s track record of rushing success (that landed him on the Maxwell Award watch list), and a veteran offensive line. The question marks for the offense is the receiving corps. Gone are KeVonn Mabon (graduation) and Damon Hazelton (transfer) and their 85 receptions and 1,477 yards. If that seems like a lot, it should. It was roughly half of the offense last year.

Illinois’ defense is a strong unit and typical Big Ten in terms of depth. the weakest point of the defense may be the front seven, and Gilbert and Neal should have an opportunity to rattle off productive runs assuming the offensive line can hold. The Illini secondary is solid and with a new batch of receivers for the Cardinals in more important roles, it’s an unknown. Let’s also not ignore the fact that Illinois’ head coach is Lovie Smith, the same Lovie Smith who made an NFL career on being a defensive-minded coach capable of scheming to shut down the highest powered football teams in the land.

When Illinois has the ball. . .
Normally, a MAC on B1G mactchup is most visibly disparate in the MAC defensive unit. The gap shouldn’t be as large as usual in this one however, as Illinois has a young offense and a new quarterback. Their running backs are talented and capable of gashing the Cardinals defense, though, so the BSU line has got to have penetration and disruption in the backfield to at minimum disrupt the run game. The Cardinals have struggled with option attacks in the past, as do most teams, but QB Chayce Crouch and the running back duo of Kendrick Foster and Reggie Corbin run it well. That could be a problem for three new BSU linebackers.

That same disruption has to carry over to the passing game as well. These talented and experienced defensive line has to create their own chaos to the pass rush and push up front to disrupt the timing and force Crouch into poor decisions. Do that and the new linebacking unit may be able to play through the sure to happen busted coverages and blown assignments that comes with being new.

Game Notes. . .
A Ball State Win:

  • Would be Ball State’s first victory over a Big Ten foe since defeating Indiana in 2012.
  • Be Ball State’s eighth straight win in a season opener.
  • Snap Ball State’s five game losing streak dating back to last fall.

Prediction. . .
I think if people give Mike Neu enough time to get his culture, players, and philosophy installed full-tilt in Muncie, he’ll make them a consistent winner. He’s not quite there yet, and this year’s squad has talent but not a lot of experience. If the Cardinals can get out early and score quickly, Illinois may have problems catching up as the game goes on. If like so many times before, Ball State lets the moment, the atmosphere, and the environment wrap them up, this one could get out of hand. I’ll call for a competitive game but one where Illinois capitalizes on a young defensive middle and runs over and around the Cardinals. Ball State will leave with $900,000 for the contest and likely an 0-1 record.

Illinois 31
Ball State 27