After a 2-10 2017 campaign that went haywire mostly due to a rash of injuries, the Ball State Cardinals are looking to have a bounce-back season in 2018 starting this weekend when they host FCS opponent Central Connecticut State Thursday night. On paper, the Cards should roll as they have won five straight games against FCS opponents, but the Blue Devils won their conference and made the FCS playoffs a season ago.
Offensively for BSU, junior quarterback Riley Neal and junior running back James Gilbert are coming off of medical redshirt seasons but they have been productive throughout their careers as Neal has accounted for nearly 6,000 yards of offense in his career and Gilbert being named to the All-MAC First Team in 2016. Returning receiver Corey Lacanaria was also a medical redshirt in 2017 but he has 11 starts and 1,001 receiving yards to his credit.
The question mark for this season will be the right side of the offensive line with the Cardinals losing their starting right guard and tackle from a season ago. Phil Steele projects that sophomore Curtis Blackwell, who made seven starts in 2017 as a true freshman, and junior Danny Pinter, who is a converted tight end, will man those spots respectively.
On the defensive side of the ball, Ball State is switching to a 3-4 defense to account for the departure of three starters on the defensive line. JUCO defensive lineman Shannon Hall has a chance to make an impact up front, while JUCO inside linebacker Ray Wilborn can help solidify a linebacking corps that brings back three starters from last season. Senior cornerback Josh Miller is a leader in the defensive backfield with a team-high 13 pass break-ups in 2018 and can be a threat in the return game as well.
Meanwhile, CCSU was picked to win the NEC in the coaches’ poll and had seven players named to the Preseason All-NEC team. Quarterback Jacob Dolegala is the school’s all-time leading passer and has thrown for 5,908 yards and 32 touchdowns in his career. Offensive lineman J’Von Brown and Connor Mignone are a part of a unit that averaged 185 rushing yards in 2017 and only allowed nine sacks in the regular season. Tight end Arthur Gilmore recorded nine receptions for 136 yards as a part of being a well-rounded player.
The Blue Devils also have some talent on defense with defensive lineman Chris Tinkham (40 tackles, 5.5 TFLs, 3.5 sacks), linebacker Kenneth Keen (85 tackles, 9.5 TFLs), and defensive back Tajik Bagley (42 tackles, 16 PBUs, two INTs, 25.2 average kick return yards, kick return TD). CCSU led the country with six defensive scores and were +10 in turnover margin last season.
Again, this is a game that Ball State should win handily but I would not be surprised if CCSU gave the Cardinals some fits early in the game. The 3-4 defense can get gashed by an offense if the players are not used to playing and communicating in it in a game environment. The Blue Devils don’t have the personnel to consistently do this but the possibility for big plays are there. Also, the experience on CCSU’s defense can make could be an asset against that young right side of BSU’s offensive line. Once Ball State settles into the game however, the Cards should have their way and the final score will be in the realm of 35-14.