Written by Nathan Comp
Week One Preview: Ball State Cardinals
The Indiana Hoosiers will kick off the 2019 season against intrastate foe Ball State University. It will be the second of a three-game series that began last year in Memorial Stadium when Indiana scored their highest margin of victory ever against the Cardinals, a 38-10 defeat. This year’s contest will serve as Ball State’s home game, though it will be played in the Indianapolis Colts’ Lucas Oil Stadium rather than Muncie’s Scheumann Stadium. The series will conclude in 2020 when the two teams return to Memorial Stadium for a week three non-conference battle.
This will be the 10th ever matchup between Indiana and Ball State. Indiana holds a 6-3 advantage over the Cardinals, but the series has certainly been back and forth. After winning the first four meetings between the two, Indiana proceeded to drop the next three between 2008 and 2012. Since then, Indiana has returned to the winning column in 2016 and 2018. Last year’s victory included one of the main highlights of Indiana’s 2018 season, J-Shun Harris returning a punt for a touchdown after his third ACL surgery during the prior offseason.
Week One: Ball State Cardinals
Date & Time: Saturday, August 31, 2019 at 12:00PM EST
Venue: Lucas Oil Stadium Indianapolis, Indiana
TV: CBS Sports Network
Cardinals at a Glance
Head Coach: Mike Neu
- His fourth year at the helm, holds a 10-26 record.
- His first NCAA head coaching job. He also held head coaching jobs at the arena football league’s New Orleans Voodoo, Carolina Cobras, and Augusta Stallions. BSU is his alma mater.
- He previously served as the Quarterbacks Coach for the New Orleans Saints, working directly with Super Bowl Champion and Purdue alumnus Drew Brees.
2018 Cardinals: 4-8 (3-5, MAC West)
Cardinals Returning Leaders
Passing: Drew Plitt (2018: 85-131, 64.9 Comp %, 1008 Passing Yards, 6 TDs, 8 INTs)
Rushing: Malik Dunner (2018: 66 attempts, 305 yards, 4.6 avg, 4 TDs)
Receiving: Riley Miller (2018: 61 receptions, 878 yards, 7 TDs)
Tackles: Ray Wilborn (2018: 83 TKLs, 3.0 Sacks, 2 INTs, 2 Forced Fumbles)
Cardinals Preseason Predictions
Athlon: 5th in the MAC West
Lindy’s: 5th in the MAC West
Phil Steele: Tied 5th in the MAC West
Street & Smith’s: 5th in the MAC West
S&P+: 4.3 wins, Ranked 110
Impact Newcomers for the Cardinals
Jalen McGaughy, WR/ATH: McGaughy is the highest ranked recruit according to 247 Sports in the Cardinals’ 2019 class. The 3-star prospect from Detroit, Michigan also had offers from Minnesota, Missouri, and additional MAC schools such as Northern Illinois and Central Michigan. McGaughy was originally committed to Northern Illinois before flipping his commitment to the Cardinals the day before the early signing period. Ranking wise, McGaughy is the 6th best recruit of all time for Ball State. He will join a competitive receiver room in 2019.
Walter Fletcher, RB: Fletcher will join the Cardinals as a graduate transfer from Division II Edinboro University in Pennsylvania. Fletcher had an extremely impressive career with the Fighting Scots, rushing for 1624 yards and 17 touchdowns while catching 30 passes for 249 yards all last season. Last season was highlighted by a 328 rushing yard performance against Seton Hill, along with recording Edinboro’s first ever 100-100 game with 111 rushing yards and 109 receiving yards against Gannon. His addition comes at the perfect time for the Cardinals, as star running back James Gilbert opted to play his final year at Kansas State.
Nic Jones, CB: The highest rated defensive recruit for the Cardinals is 3-star cornerback from Southfield, Michigan Nic Jones. Jones also held offers from Akron and Western Michigan. He cracks the top 20 for best recruits all time for the Cardinals and comes on the defensive side of the ball where historically Ball State is the weakest. At 6’0” and 160 pounds he will need to add some weight to be effective, but certainly shows the athletic ability to be a performer on defense.
When the offense is at its best, offensive coordinator Joey Lynch is able to call short, safe passes that quickly get the ball in the hands of playmaking receivers. The offense’s goal is to avoid long third downs, while sprinkling in the occasional explosive play down the field by either catching the defense off guard or one of the aforementioned playmaking receivers breaking tackles and racking up yards after contact. Let’s take a look at who the Cardinals will have at their disposal to accomplish these goals.
The biggest questions on the offensive side of the ball will be answered by how the Cardinals can overcome the departures of QB Riley Neal and RB James Gilbert. Neal and Gilbert both opted to transfer for their final seasons, Neal to the SEC with Vanderbilt and Gilbert to the Big 12 with Kansas State. Both were major contributors in the past and threw a bit of a twist on what would have been Mike Neu’s deepest depth chart during his tenure. The torches will be passed to QB Drew Plitt and incoming graduate transfer RB mentioned previously Walter Fletcher. If both can mimic the previous production, this may be one of the better Ball State offenses that we’ve seen in a couple years.
Plitt saw action in a couple games last season and seemed to have similar numbers when Neal went down with injuries. Though not as much of a running threat, Plitt showed to be a bit more capable at throwing the short hitch and screen passes that frequent the Ball State offense, highlighted by his 21-26 and 3 TD performance against Western Michigan last November. If he can improve his passing down the field and stay healthy, he should be a solid replacement.
Plitt’s job will be made significantly easier both by practically their entire offensive line returning and by the receiving group he will have around him. The only primary player to graduate was Corey Lacanaria. Returning will be Riley Miller, Justin Hall, Khalil Newton, and Yo’Heinz Tyler. Miller, a redshirt senior, highlights the group having caught seven touchdowns and 878 yards last season. He led the MAC in both contested catch ability (58.3%) and explosive plays (25). Factor in Hall’s production, especially during his freshman season, and you’ll find the strongest part of the Ball State team: the receivers.
In terms of the running game, they will also have the benefit of a line that returns eight of nine that saw at least one game’s action in 2018. Tasked with replacing Gilbert will be Walter Fletcher, Malik Dunner (who may actually see more time at receiver than tailback), and Caleb Huntley. Dunner and Huntley both were able to see time last year as Gilbert missed time with injury. It will be interesting to see if Lynch leans on his running game more than in the past and forces opponents to respect a rushing attack, freeing holes for Miller and Hall to catch passes downfield.
When looking at even the best Ball State teams, the downfall has typically been on the defensive side of the ball. Though somewhat improved in 2018, this ultimately was again true. The goal for the 2019 Cardinal defense coached by David Elson will be similar to 2018, but hopefully better executed. Elson runs an aggressive 3-4 system built around pressuring the opponent’s quarterback and limiting a team’s run game.
The best part of the Ball State defense last season was easily their pass defense, and this should be true again this year. The Cardinals ranked 12th in the nation in passing marginal explosiveness and 34th in open-play big-play rate. They should see similar production from the secondary in 2019, as they return three excellent pass coverage and blitzing safeties, Bryce Crosby, Brett Anderson II, and Myles Hannah. Tack on returning corners Antonio Phillips, Amechi Uzodinma, and Tyler Potts, and the Cardinals have the making for a complete secondary as long as they can stay healthy.
Moving one layer inwards on the defense, the Cardinals also find two great linebackers, Ray Wilborn and Christian Albright. In 2018 they were not only productive, tallying a combined 8.5 sacks and 21 run stuffs, but also available, both appearing in all 12 games. They continue the trend of stellar pass defense as well; Wilborn allowed the lowest passer rating in the MAC last season (71.0). They easily created the most havoc on the Ball State defense and will have to continue this trend in 2019 if Ball State’s defense is to make a significant leap.
The issue, and still the biggest question mark, for the Cardinal defense comes at the defensive line. You’ll remember I said in order to be successful, Elson’s 3-4 system must put pressure on a quarterback and stymie the opponent’s run game. In 2018, they were horrendous at accomplishing this feat. A necessity for a strong 3-4 defense is a nose tackle that can clog running lanes and disrupt the timing of a quarterback, and Ball State just doesn’t really have this. Their biggest nose tackles come in Tuni Ropati and Chris Crumb, both weighing in at under 280 pounds. Hopefully Emeka Jillani or Kyle Williams will work their way up the depth chart and fill this need, but the jury is still out on this. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how good the secondary is at defending passes if the opponent sees no need to turn away from the running game.
Special Teams Preview
In the past, the Cardinals have had returner Corey Lacanaria and place kicker Morgan Hagee to rely on in the final third of the game. Both now graduated, things certainly get more shaky. Justin Hall and Malik Dunner will be turned to in the return game, but the kicking game is likely an open competition. Patrick LeCorre will once again man the punting position, who in 2018 never really punted for distance, but rarely was returned against either.