The Ball State Cardinals looked poised for a road Big Ten win. The Cardinals roared back from a 16-7 halftime deficit at Illinois with a pair of third quarter touchdowns.
With a little over five minutes remaining, Ball State intercepted Illinois and was gifted with the ball around midfield, all while maintaining a 21-16 lead. The Cardinals went three-and-out on the decisive possession, leaving the door ajar for the Fighting Illini to retake the lead.
Lovie Smith's team did just that, sprinting down the field after a 52-yard punt return reversed Illinois' fortune. One Illinois touchdown later and one 54-yard blocked field goal later, Ball State is scratching its heads, wondering how it fell to 0-1 after a great defensive performance.
The Cardinals return to Muncie for an opportunity to rebound against a "new" FBS program.
On Saturday, the UAB Blazers played their first game since November 2014, defeating Alabama A&M 38-7 in front of a record home crowd of 45,212. After two seasons of absence, there is a strong, resurgent energy that lurks in Birmingham. UAB is surrounded with more hype, fans, and viewers than ever. Saturday afternoon in Muncie will be the Blazers' first contest against an FBS team since they defeated Southern Miss 45-24 to close the 2014 season.
As of now, it is hard to track how good UAB really is. Any 38-7 win should be regarded as a positive performance, but Alabama A&M is an FCS team who has not surpassed the four-win mark since 2012.
Bill Clark took over the Blazers' head coaching position in 2014. After finishing with a losing record every year from 2005 to 2013, Clark instantly turned the program around, finishing 6-6 before the infamous shutdown of the program. Despite offers from other schools, Clark stayed put. The coach worked hard to re-install the UAB football program and signed a five-year contract with the school after the program announced in 2015 that it would return several years later.
The motivated UAB program travels to Ball State in hopes of winning its third-straight game under Clark.
Players to Watch
Anthony Winbush, DE, Ball State
The Big Ten Conference is known for its burly, forceful offensive lines. But the Illini front-five couldn't stop Winbush on Saturday. The MAC West Defensive Player of the Week finished with three sacks and four tackles for loss. He totaled seven tackles during the course of the day, earning national attention for his dominant performance. The redshirt senior earned Third Team All-MAC honors last season after finishing third in the conference with 8.5 sacks. He finished with 24 tackles and 10.5 tackles for loss in 2016, but is already on excellent pace to shatter those totals in 2017.
James Gilbert, RB, Ball State
Gilbert is the focal point of Mike Neu's offense. The junior running back finished his 2017 opener with 74 yards on 19 carries, reaching the end zone on one occasion. Gilbert was Ball State's glimmer of hope last season, propelling the offense with 1,332 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. He ranks ninth in Cardinals' history in rushing yards but is sure to rise up far on the list after his next 11 games. UAB impressively allowed 45 rushing yards against Alabama A&M, so it will be interesting to see if Gilbert finally breaks the Blazers' brick wall of a run defense.
A.J. Erdely, QB, UAB
Before Saturday, Erdely's most recent FBS action occurred in 2014, as Middle Tennessee's backup wildcat quarterback. In his first game in green and gold, Erdely attempted 14 rushes — good for 21 yards and a touchdown. He also thrived in the passing game, throwing his first collegiate completions in the statement victory. The junior finished 11-of-20 for 152 yards and two touchdowns. His accuracy numbers weren't stunning but the Blazers found a reliable quarterback to move the offense down the field. He stayed turnover free and contributed greatly to the scoring effort against Alabama A&M.
Tevin Crews, ILB, UAB
Crews is not your typical college football player. He arrived to campus in 2011 for his redshirt season. Now 25, Crews is one of the leaders of the revitalized UAB Blazers. The senior linebacker saw his first action on the field since the team's final season in 2014 on Saturday. Crews tallied four tackles for loss, finishing with a total of seven on the day. Instead of transferring to play elsewhere, Crews is finishing what he started in Birmingham and is expected to lead a defense of a team composed of players from a variety of different football backgrounds.
Keys to the Game
Avoid the three-and-outs
If Ball State wants to improve upon its performance at Illinois, the Cardinals must look what went wrong when trying to extend their 21-16 lead. On the four possessions up by five, Ball State threw an interception, turned it over on downs, and punted twice after three-and-outs. These possessions handed Illinois advantageous field position, setting the Illini in perfect position to claim a home victory. If Ball State wants to rebound from Saturday, the pressure will be on the Cardinals offense to move the ball down the field on their drives. The defense (only 216 yards allowed against Illinois) is strong enough to hold its own and impede opposing offenses. However, Mike Neu's offense, led by quarterback Riley Neal and his halfback Gilbert, must refuse to go three-and-out late to hold onto leads.
Replicate last week's performance in UAB's backfield
Ball State's front-seven, led by Anthony Winbush, played an excellent game last outing. The unit combined for four sacks and nine tackles for loss in the 24-21 defeat, winning the battle in the trenches for the majority of the contest. Ball State added copious amounts of pressure on Illinois' quarterback Chayce Crouch in order to gain the lead in the third quarter and forced him to throw an interception. If Neu's squad hopes to improve to 1-1, replicating the defensive performance against UAB is a great step toward the Cardinals' first home victory over an FBS team since September 2, 2016.
The game kicks off at 3 p.m. EST at Scheumann Stadium. As mentioned before, Ball State has struggled mightily at home recently, dropping its final four in Muncie to end 2016. After starting 3-1 a year ago, Ball State has found itself on the losing side of eight out of nine games, including losing six-straight.
There is not much statistical data on UAB, considering the program was temporarily defunct in 2015 and 2016. What we do know is that the Blazers are 1-0, along with 79 other FBS programs and dominated an FCS team in Legion Field's grand re-opening. UAB enters as 14.5-point underdogs to the Cardinals. The game can be streamed online on ESPN3.
Ball State's defense will power the Cardinals to a victory over the start-up Blazers' program. Bill Clark is an excellent coach and will keep the game closer than the spread, forcing UAB to compete in Muncie. At the end of the day, the Blazers have no answer to Anthony Winbush and James Gilbert is more than capable of posting 200 yards on a defense that has yet to play an FBS college.