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2017 Week 4 Preview: Ball State Cardinals at WKU Hilltoppers

Red teams collide in Bowling Green, KY

Western Kentucky v Alabama Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Ball State (2-1) will depart from Muncie on a two-game winning streak to battle the WKU Hilltoppers (1-2) on the road.

WKU won the last two Conference USA titles under former head coach Jeff Brohm, but the Hilltoppers have mightily struggled despite high expectations entering 2017. The team renowned for its high-octane, explosive offense only topped Eastern Kentucky of the FCS by two touchdowns and followed that performance with an embarrassing 20-7 loss at Illinois — a game in which WKU opened as 7.5-point favorites.

Last week, in a rematch of the 2015 and 2016 Conference USA title games, the Louisiana Bulldogs overcame a 12-point deficit in the first half, scored 10 points in the fourth quarter, and dispatched their rival on a chip shot game-winning field goal as time expired. Louisiana Tech escaped the town of Bowling Green, KY with a significant conference victory, causing the Hilltoppers to open C-USA play at 0-1.

The bottom of the conference standings is uncharted territory for the Hilltoppers' roster. From 2014-2016, WKU ranked eighth in the country with a .756 win percentage (31-10) and tied for sixth with 31 victories in three seasons. In the last two seasons alone, WKU fared 23-5, so the team is definitely concerned with dropping two of its first three games.

Meanwhile, Ball State suffered a heartbreaking loss to the Fighting Illini in Week 1 but has smoothly recovered since. The Cardinals won two consecutive contests for the first time since September 2016, sitting comfortably at 2-1. Ball State defeated UAB of the C-USA 51-31 before besting FCS foe Tennessee Tech 28-13. Unlike the Hilltoppers, the Cardinals have strung together three-straight losing seasons in a row, so Mike Neu's program looks improved at 2-1 after two convincing victories (albeit against a weaker schedule).

Common Opponent Analysis: Illinois

Both squads in Saturday's MAC vs. C-USA have already ventured to Champaign-Urbana in attempts of defeating Illinois of the Big Ten. Neither Group of Five team succeeded, but Ball State nearly pulled off the upset, while WKU struggled as touchdown-favorites.

The Cardinals roared back from a 16-7 deficit to lead 21-16 in the fourth quarter with as little as 2:07 remaining. Ball State failed on four opportunities to extend the five-point lead, but Illinois' late-touchdown forced Ball State to score on its final possession. Kicker Morgan Hagee's 54-yard field goal attempt was blocked by the Illini special teams, causing Illinois to survive with a 1-0 record. Illinois 24, Ball State 21

The next week, WKU's offense showed up flat in the Land of Lincoln. The Hilltoppers accumulated 244 yards, but just six in the running game. The defense played sturdy at the beginning of the game, forcing just two field goals. But a Mike White interception was returned for a Fighting Illini touchdown right before halftime, causing Illinois to lead 13-0. The Illini led 20-0 at the end of three quarters and WKU's one fourth quarter touchdown of the evening served only one purpose: to avoid the shutout. Illinois 20, WKU 7

When Ball State has the ball:

Ball State possesses a reliable quarterback in junior Riley Neal. Neal has completed 67-of-99 passes this season (67.7%). However, he is not a downfield, air-attacking passer, as his highest average yards per completion mark this season is 10.3, in Week 3's victory over Tennessee Tech. Neal has thrown six touchdowns and three interceptions this season, staying mistake-free in Ball State's signature 51-point offensive performance against UAB.

The star of the Cardinals' offense in 2016 was 1,332-yard rusher James Gilbert. The halfback is off to a slower start in 2017, but finally picked things up last week — 92 yards in 11 attempts. But then arose a glaring issue: Gilbert injured his ankle and his hand last Saturday before returning to the field. He is currently listed day-to-day, but Neu told the The Star Press, "if there's a way, James will be out there (Saturday)."

WKU's defense surprisingly has been the team's strongpoint in the post-Brohm era. The Hilltoppers only allow 20.0 points per game, allowing similar scoring outputs in all three games this season (standard deviation of three). The unit has forced just two turnovers and has proved solid in stopping the rushing attack (113.3 yards per game).

When WKU has the ball:

Senior quarterback and former South Florida transfer Mike White carried the stellar offensive unit in 2016. The signal caller finished fifth in passing yards in the FBS (4,363) and eighth in touchdowns (37). But White and the offense have experienced several speed bumps under first-year head coach Mike Sanford Jr. Under the former Notre Dame offensive coordinator, the unit is scoring just 14.5 points per game in two its competitions against FBS talent.

White's completion percentage mirrors his mark from a year ago, but he is completing much shorter passes rather than finding receivers past the sticks. His average yards per attempt has dropped off from 10.49 to 6.68. Also, despite having a rushing total of (-45) yards, White actually has earned more touchdowns on the ground than through the air, two-to-one. He lost his star targets Taywan Taylor to the NFL and Nicholas Norris to graduation. The duo combined for 3,048 receiving yards and 31 touchdowns last season, so White must develop a new group of viable receiving threats in Lucky Jackson, Nacarius Fant, and Xavier Lane.

In the rushing game, the Hilltoppers are led by junior halfback D'Andre Ferby. Ferby produced at a high-level as the team's second back in 2015, totaling 650 yards and a team-high 11 rushing touchdowns in the memorable season where the Hilltoppers finished ranked No. 24. The running back missed out on 2017 by suffering an injury on his first carry of the season against the Rice Owls.

The junior sprained his ankle during practice in August but played in WKU's first two games of the season, rushing for 71 yards on 26 carries. Ferby continues to battle his ankle injury and sat on the sidelines during the entirety of the Louisiana Tech game. If the running back is unable to recover by Saturday, his successors in the depth chart — Marquez Trigg and Quinton Baker — will split carries.

In terms of yardage allowed per game, Ball State's defense is about average in the FBS. But in terms of pressuring opposing quarterbacks, the Cardinals trot out the number one player in the category. Defensive end Anthony Winbush leads the nation with 6.5 sacks, and his team has collected 11 as a whole this season. An astounding 9.5 of the senior's 20 tackles have resulted in a loss of progress by the opposing offense. Winbush additionally has forced three fumbles, serving as one of college football's most dominant defensive ends.

Game Notes

The game at Western Kentucky kicks off at 7 p.m. EST. The Hilltoppers open as 8-point favorites but have yet to cover a single spread this season, despite being favorited in all three contests.

The teams last met in 2007 and 2008, with Brady Hoke's Cardinals soundly defeating FBS-newcomer Western Kentucky in both contests.

With a win on Saturday, Ball State improves to 3-1 for the fifth time since 2011. WKU has not started a season 1-3 or worse since 2011, when the Hilltoppers began 0-4 en route to a 7-5 record.

Key to the Game/Prediction

After three underwhelming performances in a row, Mike White must revert to 2016 form in the pocket. He has been sacked nine times this year, including four against Louisiana Tech before he faces Ball State's impressive pass rush. If White can beat Winbush and the Cardinals' front-seven with smart throws for substantial yardage, the Ball State secondary may be in for a long day.

Both offenses may suffer with the possibility of their starting running backs sitting on the bench. The game will likely be decided by the productivity of Neal versus the productivity of White. Limiting turnovers will be key in this contest, and the team that wins this battle should leave with the 'W.' Since transferring to Western Kentucky, White has shown excellent decision-making, rarely tossing game-deciding interceptions. With WKU earning its second home game in two weeks, it is hard to see the Hilltoppers faltering once again in front of their home fans.

Prediction: WKU 28, Ball State 23