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Ball State Cardinals vs. No. 17 Northwestern Wildcats football preview

Cardinals take winning momentum into Chicagoland with a second attempt to knock off a ranked opponent

Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

Ball State will make the drive to Chicago on Saturday to challenge No. 17 Northwestern Wildcats at Ryan Field.

Northwestern (3-0, 0-0) has looked mightily impressive in its first three games this season. The Wildcats opened the 2015 campaign with an upset victory over Stanford, then dominated FCS team Eastern Illinois, before recording an impressive victory on the road at Duke.

Three games in, Northwestern's defense has room to talk. Stand after stand, the defense has allowed the slow-blooming NU offense to get going. Starting quarterback Clayton Thorson has been just what Pat Fitzgerald needs him to be: decent. The freshman's completion percentage is hovering around 50%, but the Northwestern ground game is keeping the scoring attack afloat. The Wildcats have pounded their way to nearly 800 yards on the ground through three games, two of which were against opponents that will surely be playing in bowl games this season.

Ball State (2-1, 1-0) is taking a newly touted offensive scheme and QB into B1G territory this weekend. Newly appointed starting quarterback Riley Neal and the Ball State offense suddenly look capable of putting up some pretty noticeable numbers. In the conference opener against Eastern Michigan, Neal led Ball State to 28 consecutive points in a comeback win. Ball State's freshman has accounted for 453 yards of total offense and three scores over his first three appearances. Neal utilized his mobility to rush for 86 yards and a touchdown. The frosh was also lethal through the air, completing 24 of 28 passes for 194 yards and a score.

The Ball State offense will be challenged by a Northwestern defense that's handling offenses early on this season. The Wildcat defense ranks first in the nation in points per game allowed. Yes, first in the country, giving up only 5.3 points per game. The NU defense also stands in the nation's top ten in five more defensive categories, including first in total points allowed on the year, giving up only 16 points through their first three games. The weakest, if weak is even a fair description, point of the Wildcat defense is stopping the run. Ball State's ability to rush the football will have an enormous impact on the result of the matchup between MAC and Big 10.

Sophomore tailback Darian Green, along with fellow carriers Teddy Williamson and James Gilbert will have to earn each yard they gain against a tough front supplied by the co-leaders of the Big Ten's West Division. Green opened 2015 with a record-tying performance against VMI, and also shocked Texas A&M with two huge carries on Ball State's opening drive at Kyle Field. The trio of Cardinal tailbacks has accounted for 592 yards rushing and nine scores.

This is Ball State's second matchup against a  ranked team this season; lost 56-23 on the road against Texas A&M two weeks ago. Tomorrow's game is set to kick off at 8:00pm EST. The game will be nationally televised on Big Ten Network.