The Ball State Cardinals come to South Bend in week two of the 2018 season (Saturday, September 8th) at 3:30 PM. While the Notre Dame Fighting Irish traditionally haven’t had too much trouble against Mid American Conference schools and Ball State finished 2-10 last year, overlooking an opponent never does any good.
1. What’s your overall impression of how Ball State’s 2017 season went?
In a word, pitiable.
Ball State had some of the most unfortunate luck of any college football team at any level. They had to deal with a tough MAC West on one leg and a half an arm after a litany of injuries on both sides of the ball. At one point, they had to play fifth-string walk-on Drew Plitt in an actual game, which you never, ever, ever want to have happen. What made it all the more unfortunate was they actually had a decent out-of-conference showing, giving Illinois a last-second scare on the road and beating a UAB squad which proved to be dangerous in 2017 before suffering what amounts to the football version of watching a condemned apartment building collapse in slow motion.
There weren’t a lot of positives in the 2017 campaign, but if there’s something to take away from the experience it’s the fact they’re battle tested. Many players who may not have otherwise seen playing time saw the field and there’s always the positivity of growth, as coach Mike Neu, who just took the job three years ago, can use the flawed 2017 campaign as ammo for the 2018 season.
2. Will Ball State be better or worse in 2018?
There’s certainly no way they can be worse. 2017 was a freak season which no team wants to endure, and the Cardinals will be looking for a bit of vengeance, or if not that, at the very least, a couple steps in the right direction. They’ll be extremely young, as previously stated, and young teams need time to gel and find their chemistry, especially with a young coach at the helm. If the expectations are kept at “team with unknown potential which needs time to adjust”, I think there’s a reasonable chance they’ll get there. Any more would be frosting on the cake.
3. What’s going to be the biggest change between last year’s Ball State team and this one?
There honestly won’t be a lot of change outside of health; it’ll be as if 2017 never happened. The Cardinals’ one pro prospect from last year in edge rusher Anthony Winbush left for the NFL, leaving a significant gap on the defensive line. But on a more positive note, Ball State should get a lot of help back on the offensive side, including starting QB Riley Neal, starting RB James Gilbert and at least two of their three leading receivers, including Corey Lacanaira and Jordan Hogue, all four of which played in 12 combined games in 2017. They will also return a good majority of starters on both sides of the ball and also a lot of their backups who were forced into relief duty and contributed well, including RB Caleb Huntley, WR Justin Hall and TE Nolan Givan.
A young secondary which featured two true freshman at the safety spots also returns with good experience and two seniors at the corners as well, which should help them a bit in defending the pass. That said, the Cards will have great difficulty in stopping much of anything for awhile on defense, as Ball State graduates a lot of their best pass rushers, including the before-mentioned Winbush. They’ll be extremely aggressive-- the Cards were ranked 36th in defensive line havoc rate and 46th in adjusted sack rate per SBN’s Bill Connolley-- but time will tell if that really means anything, given the general void of known talent. There’s great potential, however.
4. Who are the big name players to watch for Ball State this year?
The biggest name will definitely be James Gilbert, who ran for 1,300-plus yards in 2016 and looked to repeat the effort before getting injured last season. He’s the focal point of the Ball State attack and has a penchant for breaking big plays. They essentially use him as a battering ram, and combined with Neal’s athletic threat on the run-pass option, it forces the defense to keep honest, allowing Gilbert room to run. Justin Hall, a five-foot-nine wide receiver, established himself as a favorite target towards the end of 2017 after several starters went down, and he could also play a role in the 2018 offense after proving himself up to the challenge. He’ll be a great complement to starting receivers Lacanaria and Hogue.
5. What’s your prediction for this team’s game against Notre Dame this year?
Let’s not kid ourselves: Ball State probably won’t be a favorite to beat Notre Dame on the road. ON the contrary, they’re probably going to be a 30-ish point underdog when Vegas unveils the lines going into the game. They’ll be coming off a game which will likely be their first win of the season vs. Central Connecticut State before making the trip to South Bend, so they might have some momentum going. Notre Dame will be supremely talented and probably talked about to be in a NY6 or Playoff spot once again in 2018. That said, Ball State has given in-state P5 rival Indiana, winning two of the last three match-ups, so who’s to say they can’t try to make a game of it?
I ultimately think Vegas will prove to be right, but I’ll be chirping all the way to the bitter end.
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