Before the season began, the path towards bowl eligibility and more for Indiana’s 2018 football season seemed to hinge on a 3-0 start. We are now two weeks in, and all that stands between the Hoosiers and that perfect start is in-state opponent Ball State.
If you know IU’s recent history against the Cardinals, you realize that this is no small task. Ball State has won three of the last four against IU, and the 2018 edition of the Cardinals appears to be one of its more competitive teams. While their 2017 season was derailed by injuries, the 2018 Cardinals are deep and experienced.
If the Hoosiers can get to 3-0, it would be the 17th time that they accomplished that feat in program history.
BALL STATE (1-1) at INDIANA (2-0)
- Kickoff: Noon Eastern Time
- Location: Memorial Stadium, Bloomington, Indiana
- Television: BTN
- Series: Indiana leads the all-time series 5-3 (Indiana won the last meeting in 2016, 30-20).
- Odds: Indiana is a 14.5 point favorite.
Ball State head coach Mike Neu is in his third season with the Cardinals and has accumulated a record of 7-19 during his tenure there. Neu was a former Ball State quarterback and the 1993 MAC Offensive Player of the Year. He served as the New Orleans Saints quarterbacks coach in 2014 and 2015.
WHEN BALL STATE HAS THE BALL
The Cardinals returned nine starters on the offensive side of the ball in 2018. The headliner is quarterback Riley Neal. Through two games this season, Neal is 46 for 80 for 439 yards. He has added three touchdowns and two interceptions.
The Yorktown, Indiana native played in the 2016 contest against IU and passed for 231 yards and a touchdown.
Neal, a junior, has running ability as well. He has carried the ball 13 times for 72 yards on the young season.
Running back James Gilbert is Ball State’s 8th all-time leading rusher with 2,319 yards. He is on the Maxwell Award watch list.
Neal’s primary passing targets are WR Justin Hall and TE Nolan Givan. Hall is on the Biletnikoff Award Watch List, while Givan has scored in both 2018 contests.
Thus far in 2018 Ball State has featured a balanced running and passing attack. They rank 31st in total offense, 35th in rushing offense and 50th in passing offense. They’ve been strong with converting 3rd downs, ranking 27th nationally, but have struggled in the red zone, coming in at 101st.
Indiana’s defense has exceeded expectations thus far in 2018. The young unit is currently ranked 41st nationally in total defense, although bad weather in week two may have contributed. Nevertheless, IU is ranked 13th against the pass, led by safety Jonathan Crawford and husky Marcelino Ball. The duo lead the Hoosiers in defensive series played thus far.
The IU run defense is still a work in progress. The front seven was a question mark coming into the season, and the questions remain. IU has the 93rd ranked run defense through two weeks.
WHEN INDIANA HAS THE BALL
Interestingly, Ball State is ranked 65th in both rushing and passing defense through two games. Those stats don’t tell the full story.
The Cardinals nearly pitched a shutout in week one against Central Connecticut, and made headlines in South Bend against Notre Dame in week two. The Ball State defense had three interceptions and 10 tackles for a loss against the Irish.
The Cardinals have switched their base defense from a 4-3 look to a 3-4 this fall. Thus far, the results have been a defense that bends but doesn’t break. While the national yardage rankings are middle of the road, Ball State has been strong on third downs and in the red zone. The Cardinals are 27th nationally on third down, and 7th in the red zone.
If there is a weakness, it is likely with the defensive line, where three of four starters were lost including star Anthony Winbush. With the strength of the IU offense being its offensive line, a downhill running game appears to be the likely focus of the game plan.
So far the Hoosiers are ranked 67th overall in total offense, 39th running the ball and 90th passing. Again, those numbers are somewhat misleading due to the weather conditions against Virginia. Nevertheless, IU seems to have found something with true freshman Stevie Scott running the ball behind a veteran offensive line.
Notre Dame players said that they overlooked Ball State. Indiana’s players no doubt saw how close the final score was last week in South Bend. Tom Allen and the IU coaching staff surely reminded them all week both about Notre Dame and the Cardinals’ recent success against Indiana. There should be no overlooking Ball State.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that Ball State is good. Legitimately good. We can’t see IU getting significant separation in this one unless Ball State makes a lot of mistakes.
It won’t ever be comfortable and once again the Hoosiers won’t cover the spread. In the end it won’t matter, as the Hoosiers move to 3-0 and set up a prime time Big Ten opener next week at home against Michigan State.
BALL STATE 20
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