Ball State lit up the scoreboard in the team's first appearance in Muncie this season. Mike Neu's program shattered a six-game losing streak with a convincing 20-point win over the startup UAB Blazers program.
The Cardinals and Blazers now both stand at 1-1, but the boys in red and white proved to hold a major edge over UAB on Saturday afternoon.
Here's what we learned:
Anthony Winbush's MAC DPOY campaign is off to a great start
Winbush kicked off Week 1 with three sacks and seven tackles in Ball State's 24-21 loss at Illinois. Instead of being a one-week-show to start the year, Winbush delivered once again. The senior defensive end tallied 1.5 sacks along with three tackles for loss, adding plenty of pressure on the Blazers' quarterback A.J. Erdely behind the line of scrimmage.
Winbush is as good as jumping off the defensive line and getting to the quarterback as almost any defensive end in the nation. The senior is the leader of Ball State's defense and continues to show up week after week. Winbush possesses many similar attributes to 2016 MAC Defensive Player of the Year Tarell Basham. The Ohio product, now with the Indianapolis Colts, demonstrated similar pass rushing skills and was an absolute terror for quarterbacks and running backs when he reached the backfield.
As of Week 2, Winbush is the clear frontrunner for MAC Defensive Player of the Year in 2017, and he will earn plenty more opportunities to increase his already-monstrous sack total of 4.5.
But... Ball State's run defense is inconsistent
After Week 1's showing against Illinois, Ball State's run defense looked to be the team's strongest asset. But the unit did not replicate the performance in Muncie, allowing UAB to rack up 336 yards on the ground.
The Blazers' freshman running back Spencer Brown particularly bested the Cardinals, nearly averaging a first down on his 17 carries. He led the team with 151 yards but quarterback A.J. Erdely contributed greatly to UAB's scoring effort on the ground. The Middle Tennessee-transfer quarterback earned 77 yards on 14 carries, running it in three times for a touchdown. In the second quarter, Erdely ran it in from 41 and 18 yards out, producing several big plays against Ball State's previously-established run defense.
Ball State won this game with its offense. The struggling defense continued to allow UAB to stay within striking distance before quarterback Riley Neal led the Cardinals to stardom in the second half.
Riley Neal can get the job done
When teams encounter problems midseason, the frequent reaction is to bench the starting quarterback. Mike Neu kept Neal the starter throughout Ball State's 4-8 campaign in 2016, which was a wise decision.
Neal is one of the veteran quarterbacks in this year's MAC. He is Ball State's best option and is more than capable of leading the Cardinals' offense to performances like Saturday's. The junior is the offense's leader and he paved the way to a 51-point outing by completing 23-of-34 passes for 217 yards and two touchdowns. It was not the most accurate performance for the quarterback, but it was enough to spark the Cardinals into a shootout victory. If Neal continues to power the offense by playing at this level, Ball State is sure to collect several MAC wins and improve upon its 4-8 mark from a season ago.
Ball State solved the three-and-out problem, and won handily
In my preview leading up to this game, I challenged Ball State to limit its three-and-out possessions — one key issue that led to the loss at Illinois. The Cardinals delivered.
Ball State only punted twice on Saturday, and both punts occurred after three-and-outs. They were relatively early in the contest, and the Cardinals went the entire length of the second half without calling the punter to the field. Ball State never fumbled or threw an interception and finished nearly every possession with points.
Ball State scored on the first five possessions of the second half, transforming a 21-17 lead into 51-24. The Cardinals went full throttle, blowing UAB away in the dust rather than punting on fourth downs. Their momentum was unstoppable and the home fans rallied behind the team's incredible offense.
UAB will miss bowl season, but will pick up FBS victories along the way
It's #TheReturn. UAB played in front of a record crowd at Legion Field to open 2017. After a two-year hiatus, the Blazers opened the new season with a 38-7 win over Alabama A&M of the FCS.
But on Saturday, UAB faced a reality check. The Blazers fell to the Cardinals, a team that has been uninvited to bowl season for three-straight years, by 20 points. Considering the team has not played football since 2014, UAB is not supposed to field a great team in 2017. But under head coach Bill Clark, the Blazers are bound to pick up some wins along the way.
Conference USA appears to be in a down year, especially after Western Kentucky and Louisiana Tech were steamrolled by Power Five opponents on Saturday. The conference is awfully bottom-heavy, and UAB is gifted with a favorable schedule in its first year back.
With the fans at Legion Field cheering with unforeseeable levels of energy, the Blazers will return home next week and seek a victory over their fellow new FBS member, the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers.