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2022 Non-Conference Opponent Primer: Ball State Cardinals

The non-con schedule will be a proving ground for the Cards, who are reloading after a number of losses in a key year for Mike Neu’s future.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 25 Camellia Bowl - Ball State v Georgia State Photo by Chris McDill/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Mike Neu leads his alma mater into battle for the sixth time in 2022, with the Cardinals seeking to improve on their 6-7 record from 2021.

Ball State was wildly inconsistent 2021, a title defense season for the Muncie-based outfit. They rattled off a 1-3 start, with the only win a strugglefest against FCS Western Illinois top open the year before going 3-0 against Army, EMU and WMU. They ultimately finished 2-4 to end the year with at least three games decided by less than one possession and two decided by 17+ point blowouts.

2022’s schedule is a little non-traditional, with Ball State drawing three conference games in the first six weeks, starting in early September and ending in mid-October.

The roster will have to get things together quickly if they hope to finish .500 and go to the postseason, as this senior-laden depth chart also has to replace a number of key contributors.

Here’s what they have to look towards for the non-con slate:

Thursday, Sept. 1: Ball State at Tennessee Volunteers

TransPerfect Music City Bowl - Purdue v Tennessee Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

(Editor’s note: this section is borrowed from Akron’s non-conference primer, as they also play Tennessee in the upcoming season.)

Josh Heupel inherited a relatively hopeless situation in Knoxville in his first year as Tennessee head coach, but much like he did at UCF in the wake of Scott Frost’s departure for Nebraska, Heupel made the best of it and turned out a 7-6 season in a tough-as-nails SEC.

Performances throughout the year was up-and-down, as should be expected for a program in the middle of a culture-based rebuild, but the pieces for something potentially good are definitely there, as 14 starters return between the offense and defense.

QB Hendon Hooker, a former Virginia Tech Hokie, took over the starting job from fellow transfer Joe Milton early in the season after the latter’s struggles against BGSU and Pittsburgh, finishing with 2,945 yards, 31 touchdowns and three interceptions in 2021, while also finishing second on the team in rushing with 616 yards and five touchdowns on 166 attempts. Both QBs return in 2022, this time with Hooker as the surefire starter.

All but one offensive lineman return as well for the Vols, while top back Jabari Small (796 yards and nine touchdowns on 141 rushes) and compliment back Jaylon Wright (85 rushes, 409 yards, four touchdowns) should provide a tough run game for opposing defenses.

Receiver is a more varied picture, with Cedric Tillman (64 receptions, 1,001 yards, 12 touchdowns) returning, but Velus Jones Jr. (selected by Chicago in ‘22 NFL Draft) now off the roster. Several underclassmen will vie for the second and third receiver roles, including returnees Jalin Hyatt and Jacob Warren. There could be a bit of a dip in performance here as the Vols figure things out.

Defensively, the Vols return both their leading tacklers in linebackers Jeremy Banks (128) and Aaron Beasley (84), while pass rush expert Byron Young (11.5 tackles-for-loss and 5.5 sacks in 2021) return to disrupt the backfield. Safety Jaylon McCullough, who led the Vols with three interceptions last season, also returns, leading a defensive backfield with two other returning starters which will look to develop via baptismal fire after a 2021 campaign which saw them torched for 273.2 yards per game.

The Vols are also relatively settled in on special teams, with kicker Chase McGrath and punter Paxton Brooks (career-best 44 yards per punt in 2021) returning to the roster.

This will be a tough test for Ball State, as most MAC-SEC matchups are, but even being remotely competitive at stretches should be validating enough for this squad considering the offseason moves.

Saturday, Sept. 17: Ball State vs. Murray State Racers

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 11 Murray State at Cincinnati Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Ball State struggled against their FCS side last year, with Western Illinois a legitimate threat for an upset before fading near the end.

Murray State will look to pull off an upset in similar fashion, as the Racers went 6-5 in 2021, including two games against FBS opponents in Bowling Green and Cincinnati.

Offensively, this team is predicated on the rushing game, collecting 2,028 yards and 22 touchdowns as a unit, averaging 184.4 yards per game on the ground. The passing game is more or less there as an obligation, with 1,781 yards, five touchdowns and 15 interceptions through the air on only 279 attempts between several QBs. It’s a play style consistent with their team moniker, which is inspired by Kentucky’s race horse scene.

DJ Williams projects to be the starter for the Racers at QB after taking the starting role in Week 5, finishing with 1,020 passing yards on 54 percent completion, four touchdowns and three interceptions, while also contributing to the rushing attack with 532 yards and six touchdowns on 83 attempts.

The running backs are paced by a duo of redshirt freshmen in team leader workhorse back Damonta Weatherspoon (212 rushes, 912 yards, eight touchdowns) and change-of-pace back Cortezz Jones (45 rushes, 264 yards, two touchdowns.) True freshman Kylan Galbreath could also get looks after an impressive spring game. They’ll combine with Williams to lead a power run offense.

LaMartez Brooks (33 rec., 447 yards, one touchdown), Malik Honeycutt (19 rec., 331 yards) and Jacob Bell (20 rec., 234 yards) all return at receiver to provide stability in the pass game, with with Weatherspoon also contributing as the team’s fourth option (18 rec., 170 yards, one touchdown.) Tight end Jake Saathoff will be a redzone threat, with a team-leading two touchdowns on 16 receptions.

The strength of this Racers team in 2021 was on the defense, where they ranked top of the Ohio Valley Conference in total defense and 36th in the country with 3,820 total yards allowed, while also giving up only 32 percent of third-down conversions (good for first in the OVC.)

A big part of that defense is gone now, as cornerback Marcis Floyd, who led the team in pass deflections and interceptions, transferred to West Virginia in the offseason. Redshirt freshman Quinaz Turner will look to fill the gap, and if the spring game is any indication to go off of, he’ll do just fine in the role.

The defense runs through its linebackers and safeties, with five of the seven top tacklers from last season returning to occupy those positional roles. Inside backer Eric Samuta will pace the defense after collecting 77 tackles and three forced fumbles in 2021, while battery mates Lawuan Powell and CJ Barnes (five tackles-for-loss apiece) will seek to disrupt the backfield once again.

Davonte McKee and Turner will be the most important defensive backs to watch, as they each picked up two interceptions and were sure tacklers last season.

Murray State is no slouch, so Ball State will want to prepare for MSU as if they’re any other opponent here. They were lucky in 2021 to escape from an upset against WIU in a game they probably deserved to lose, and MSU is a similarly talented unit. Mike Neu should have the Cards properly motivated here if he’s serious about leading BSU back to conference contention.

Saturday Sept. 24: Ball State at Georgia Southern Eagles

NCAA Football: Georgia Southern at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

The Georgia Southern team the Ball State Cardinals will meet won’t be like any other Eagles team in recent memory, as first-year head coach Clay Helton— yes, that Clay Helton, from USC— arrives in Statesboro to completely transform GASO into a pass-first offense after decades of running the triple-option.

Such a dramatic move was necessary after the previous head coach Chad Lunford lost control of the locker room en route to a 3-9 season, finishing a paltry 2-6 in Sun Belt play at a time where the SBC has become a lot stouter in competitive level. That’s only set to get more intense with four new additions set to enter the league this season, so it’s pivotal to get the regime change right.

Former Buffalo QB Kyle Vantrease shocked many in MAC circles by transferring to GASO in the offseason as one of Clay Helton’s first commits, and will likely be QB1 for the Eagles heading into the year due to his starting experience, with 35 games played over five years, including three seasons as a starter. Vantrease will be a dual-threat force, with 4,755 career passing yards and 25 passing touchdowns, as well as 13 rushing scores.

The offensive line returns four of their five starters, but with the transition from triple-option to a more traditional college football passing-oriented offense, it’s to be determined if that can be a strength or not. In that sense, it’s hard to know where they stand with receivers as well; Khaleb Hood (41 receptions, 497 yards) is the leading returnee who projects to be a starter.

Where the Eagle’s won’t be weak is at running back, and they’ll likely lean on that early as the roster adjusts to the new play style. Gerald Green returns as leading rusher, with 423 yards and five touchdowns on 75 attempts in 2021, but two-time all-Sun Belt honorable mention back J.D. King (1,541 yards, 15 touchdowns in three seasons) returns after a knee injury which left him out of eight games in 2021. Jalen White and AJ Brown (no, not that AJ Brown) will also push for rotation work.

Defense is a bit more certain of a projection even with their scheme adjustments, as six starters return in 2022 for the Eagles. The unit was statistically below-average in 2021, finishing seventh or lower in all major categories in the 10-team Sun Belt Conference, including a league-worst in passing yards allowed, with 289.5 passing yards per game on average.

Cornerback Derrick Canteen returns from a pectoral injury which left him unavailable for nuch of the 2021 season, while the defensive line is highlighted by by two sixth-year seniors in Dillon Springer and Justin Ellis (team sacks leader in 2021), who combined for 15 tackles-for-loss in 2021. North Carolina transfer Kristian Varner (six-foot-four, 300 lbs.) should provide size up the middle and serve as a compliment to the edge rushers. Michael Edwards III returns as the only starter in the linebacker room after a true freshman campaign which saw him pick up 59 total tackles and seven tackles-for-loss.

The safety tandem of fifth-year senior Justin Birdsong (49 tackles, two passes defensed in 2021) and third-year sophomore Anthony Wilson (team-leading 77 tackles, 4.5 tackles-for-loss, one sack, nine passes defensed in 2021) should provide some stability in the last level of the defense.

GASO have a legitimate punting prospect in Anthony Beck II, who pinned opponents behind the 20-yard line 23 times last season.

Ball State has lost plenty of pieces over the offseason, but GASO is vulnerable enough to where the Cardinals could reasoomably capitalize if they lean on their experience and stability.

Saturday Oct. 15: Ball State vs. UConn Huskies

NCAA Football: Connecticut at Cincinnati Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

UConn remains one of the most ceaselessly fascinating football programs in the country. The university, in an effort to move to a better basketball conference, went independent in football while moving all other sports to the Big East.

This has worked out all right for basketball, as the Big East was generally considered better than the American Athletic Conference, but the football team has suffered tremendously, walking a long, sad road with Bob Diaco and Randy Edsall going a combined 17-58 post-AAC.

Jim L. Mora enters the fold now, looking to restore the dignity of a UConn program which once hailed a Fiesta Bowl appearance as recently as 2010, and graduated several pros in the NFL.

It’s not going to be easy, as UConn was a bottomfeeder in basically every major statistical category, with their passing defense the only statistic to get out of the 110’s and below, ranking 105th in the country at 258.0 yards per game allowed. Most of that is thanks to defensive tackle prospect Travis Jones, who was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in the 2022 NFL Draft, getting into the backfield.

Quarterback is an unsettled position at present, but the early favorite is Ta’Quan Roberson, a three-star transfer from Penn State, whose spring camp practices blew coaches and observing media away. He’ll compete with last year’s primary starter Tyler Phommachanh (returning from knee injury) and Oregon transfer Cale Millen for reps.

Whoever starts at quarterback will have an experienced receiving corps to throw it to, with five returnees on a pass-heavy offense, including last year’s receiving leader Keelan Marion (28 receptions, 474 yards, five touchdowns.) Old Dominion transfer Nigel Fitzgerald (six-foot-five, 228 lbs.) presents as a tall, outside threat who should get plenty of playing time.

At running back, there will be competition for the starting role, with last year’s returning rusher Nate Carter (125 rushes, 578 yards, two touchdowns) competing with JUCO transfer Will Knight, a former all-Colonial Athletic Conference honoree at Delaware in 2019.

UConn fans can only hope the defense can go up from here, with seven returning starters returning to the fold alongside a platoon of transfers from all levels of college football, as Mora and his staff were aggressive in the transfer portal to shore up all over the defensive side of the ball.

Leading tackler Jackson Mitchell (120 total tackles in 2021) will lead the unit once again in 2022 from the linebacker spot, where he is joined by Kevon Jones (team-leading two sacks, 58 tackles, eight tackles-for-loss) and Marquez Bembry (27 career tackles at Kentucky.) Brandon Bouyer-Randle, a transfer from Texas Tech, has verbally committed to join UConn, but as of publication, was not on the spring rosters.

Defensive line will be the hardest position group to restructure with the departure of Travis Jones, but UConn will give it a shot, as six-foot-five, 318 lb. Old Dominion transfer Sokoya McDuffie (28 tackles, 6.5 tackles-for-loss, four sacks) will occupy the old Jones role. Dal’mont Gourdine and returning starter Eric Watts round out expected contributors along the line.

The safety tandem of Durante Jones (59 tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss) and Malik Dixon (58 tackles, four tackles-for-loss, one interception) returns, for what that’s worth, as they’ll be the most expereinced players in the defensive backfield. The outside corners will see a lot of competition— and a lot of inexperience— as Tre Wortham (team-leading two interceptions in 2021) is the only returnee along the outside with starting experience.

On special teams, all eyes are on Freshman All-American retunr specialist Brian Brewton, who returned two kicks for touchdowns last season.

UConn is not exactly 1945 Army, to say the least. Ball State should be far enough in their progression as a unit to make easy work of the Huskies, who are in a vastly worse state than the Cardinals organization-wise. But as last season showed for BSU, nothing is a guarantee. They will want to be careful and not leave themselves exposed at this point in the year.