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2019 Week 1 MAC Preview: Indiana Hoosiers vs. Ball State Cardinals

Ball State meets a local Big Ten foe Week 1 inside the home of the Colts.

NCAA Football: Ball State at Northern Illinois Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

It’s the site where Mario Manningham’s sideline haul propelled the Giants’ game-winning drive over the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI. It’s the site where Gordon Hayward’s halfcourt heave against Duke landed just inches away from glory. It’s where recently retired quarterback Andrew Luck played the majority of his NFL games.

Lucas Oil Stadium just had its 11th birthday, but the venue has created some of sports’ best stories of the 2010s. The next story unfolds Saturday, when two Hoosier State teams collide in the 63,000-seat dome in Indianapolis.

Ball State hasn’t finished with a winning record since 2013. Indiana hasn’t done so since 2007. But the wonderful thing about opening week is the blank slate and the sliver of hope, which both teams will carry into Indianapolis.


Ball State Cardinals

Plenty of familiar faces remain on Ball State’s offense. Despite longtime quarterback-running back duo of Riley Neal and James Gilbert transferring out of Muncie, the Cardinals retain veteran experience at both of the positions.

At quarterback, the Drew Plitt era gains steam. Plitt has checked into 12 games as a Cardinal, often playing in relief for the injured Neal. As a freshman, he struggled, losing all five games he saw action in, but his progressions as a sophomore were conspicuous. Plitt raised his completion percentage from 50 to 65 and threw for over 1,000 yards on 131 attempts. The night he became the quarterback of Ball State’s future was November 13. Plitt completed 21-of-26 passes and threw for 258 yards and three touchdowns to lift the Cardinals to an upset victory over Western Michigan.

With Gilbert headed to Kansas State, Ball State still carries two seasoned halfbacks on its depth chart. Junior Caleb Huntley rushed for over 1,000 yards as a freshman but an injury-shortened sophomore year forced him out of the second half of 2018. Huntley’s injury quickened the growth of Will Jones, who rushed for 154 yards in four games last season. The Cardinals offense now features a duo of power backs, as one of their speedsters — Malik Dunner — moved to wide receiver this offseason.

Ball State’s wide receiver corps might be the most complete in the MAC. The unit is led by senior Second Team All-MAC selection Riley Miller, whose 91 career receptions lead all active players in the conference. Alongside Miller is the MAC’s active receiving yards leader Justin Hall, who achieved Freshman All-American status in 2017 and added 622 yards a season ago. Ball State’s deep receiving unit also includes Yo’Heinz Tyler who finished fourth on the team with 226 receiving yards in 2018 and Dunner (21 receptions last year).

The star of the defense is community college transfer Ray Wilborn, who contributed a team-high 83 tackles to the Cardinals defense last year. Wilborn also added 10.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions, three sacks, two forced fumbles, and four passes defended. A linebacker/safety hybrid, Wilborn can line up in a variety of places and may be used increasingly as a safety in Ball State’s defense.

The Cardinals are running a 3-4 for their second consecutive year, with defensive end Shannon Hall anchoring the line. Hall, also a community college transfer, started eight games last season and immediately became impactful at disrupting the opponent’s passing attack. He batted down four passes, tied for third on the team.

Strong safety Bryce Cosby and outside linebacker Jaylin Thomas are also two names to watch on the Ball State defense. Cosby contributed 83 tackles while Thomas added 76. Pitted against Indiana’s sophomore phenom Stevie Scott, the two Cardinals will be tasked with a lot of the run stopping duties in Indianapolis Saturday.


Indiana Hoosiers

Scott will be the focal point of Indiana’s offense, which ranked 52nd in yards per game last season. He was really the only threat in the run game, as no other running back in the offense posted 150 yards. Scott tallied 1,137 and rushed for 10 touchdowns and landed a spot on the Doak Walker Award watch list heading into 2019.

Indiana named its starting quarterback earlier this week, and it’s not incumbent Peyton Ramsey. Instead, the Hoosiers are shifting toward freshman Michael Penix Jr., who redshirted last season after an ACL tear against Penn State. Penix completed 21-of-34 passes for 219 yards and a touchdown. He also displayed an ability to scramble, averaging 6.4 yards per carry on a small sample size of seven rushes. Penix made a brief appearance in Indiana’s 38-10 win over Ball State in Bloomington last season, earning fourth quarter mop-up duties.

Nick Westbrook and Donovan Hale led the Hoosiers’ receivers last year by each recording 42 receptions and over 500 yards. Despite no receiver finishing with more than 600 yards, Indiana’s passing offense under Ramsey ranked 36th in yards per game. The Hoosiers employ a variety of targets, so Ball State’s defense will have to focus on a vast array of skill position players Saturday.

Defensively, Indiana marinated in a below-average 2018. One player Ball State’s running backs should be wary of is “Husky” Marcelino Ball. Indiana runs a 4-2-5, with the Husky serving as a linebacker who is adept in coverage/a safety who hits like a linebacker. Ball certainly fulfilled those descriptions last season with 7.5 tackles for loss and a pair of passes defended. Ball State’s offensive line will also be cognizant of defensive tackle Jerome Johnson. The 6’3”, 294-pound lineman finished first on the Hoosiers in sacks last year and became a common disruption in opposing backfields.

Game Notes

Time and Date: Saturday, August 31 at 12 p.m. ET

Network: CBS Sports Network

Location: Lucas Oil Stadium — Indianapolis, IN

Spread: Indiana (-17)

ESPN FPI: Indiana has 86.6% chance to win

All-time series: Indiana leads series, 6-3

Last meeting: Indiana 38, Ball State 10 — September 16, 2018


Prediction

Indiana’s offense gave Ball State fits last September, taking down its in-state MAC foe by four touchdowns. After a brief 3-0 Cardinals lead, the Hoosiers rattled off 31 unanswered points thanks to a game-changing 86-yard punt return in the second quarter. Ball State didn’t commit any turnovers, but Indiana’s offense rolled at a steady pace throughout the afternoon.

Ball State will have to match that offensive production in Saturday’s neutral-site action. Drew Plitt will have to unleash the Drew Plitt we saw against Western Michigan last November. With a talented receiving corps, Ball State has potential to keep this one close against Indiana. But stopping Penix, Scott, and the Hoosiers will be the Cardinals’ greatest challenge.

Prediction: Indiana 34, Ball State 21