Ah, football season is here. 128 FBS teams (sorry, Miami and Arizona) kick things off this week with hopes and dreams of an undefeated season. From an IU standpoint, head coach Tom Allen’s Hoosiers come in as one of the more perplexing teams in the nation, as they are deep and talented, but try to break through in an intensely competitive Big Ten East division. New offensive and defensive play callers Kalen DeBoer and Kane Wommack will try to push the right buttons to get the team over the proverbial hump. The excitement starts Saturday in the Ruoff Kickoff Classic, as the Hoosiers take on familiar foe Ball State at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Let’s dive in to what the Cardinals will bring to the gridiron this weekend.
How to Watch: Indiana Hoosiers versus Ball State Cardinals
|Who||Week 1: Indiana Hoosiers versus Ball State|
|When||12:00 pm ET / Saturday, August 31, 2019|
|Where||Lucas Oil Stadium (Indianapolis, Indiana)|
|Tickets||Find the Lowest Ticket Prices on SeatGeek|
|Watch||CBS Sports Network|
|Listen||IU Radio Network|
|Spread||IU -16.5, O/U 59|
You can find the latest 2019 Indiana Football schedule (printable) here.
Meet the Cardinals
Last season, Ball State went 4-8, and 3-5 in the MAC. In non-conference play, they had a good showing at #8 Notre Dame, falling to the Irish, 24-16. The following week, the Cardinals came to Bloomington to face IU. The Hoosiers played one of their best games of the season, notching a 38-10 victory.
They’ve always played very, very well in week one. And they went up to Notre Dame last year and darn near beat them, and played extremely well. I’m telling you…whatever their very best shot is, we’re going to get it.IU head coach Tom Allen, discussing week one opponent Ball State
Going into 2019, head coach Mike Neu is entering his 4th year, and will try to lead his alma mater to its first winning season since 2013 and first MAC Championship Game since 2008. Neu, who was named the 1993 MAC Offensive Player of the Year, currently sports a record of 10-26.
Ball State was picked to finish 5th in the competitive MAC West Division, just ahead of Central Michigan, in the 2019 MAC Preseason Media Poll released in July. The Cardinals will return 17 of 22 starters from last year; however, BSU’s top 2018 passer, Riley Neal (Vanderbilt), and rusher, James Gilbert (Kansas State), transferred elsewhere.
Get to Know the Ball State Cardinals
Key Offensive Players
With Neal transferring to the SEC, the door is open for junior QB Drew Plitt to take over as the starter in an offense that rated 110th in Football Outsiders’ S&P+ ratings last year. Plitt, who gained notoriety for a unique touchdown celebration (see tweet below), started three games last season, and completed 64.9% of his passes, throwing for 1,008 yards, 6 TD, and 8 INT. Plitt saw action in eight games overall. He can generally be defined as a pocket passer, who shows some mobility when pressured.
Plitt will primarily target two returning wideouts in the passing game: senior Riley Miller and junior Justin Hall. Last season, the Cardinals led the MAC in passing yards per game (252.9 yards/game). Plitt threw for 257.7 yards/game in his three starts. Miller, who ended up on the 2018 All-MAC Second team as a WR, led the team with 878 yards and seven receiving touchdowns, while Hall, who was named to the Third Team, led BSU with 69 catches. Miller, who hails from Yorktown, Ind., will have some extra motivation playing the in-state Hoosiers at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Speedy sophomore wideout Yo’Heinz Tyler will provide a unique wrinkle for IU co-defensive coordinators Kane Wommack and Mark Hagen, as they try to slow down a weapon who averaged 16.1 yards per reception in 2018. Finally, senior Malik Dunner is making the move to receiver from running back, where he carried the ball 66 times for 305 yards last season. Dunner is most effective as the Cardinals’ kick returner, where he was named to the All-MAC Third Team as a kickoff return specialist.
Ball State’s running game is currently a work in progress. The Cardinals need someone to step in for their departed leading rushers, Gilbert, Neal, and Dunner. One clear strength for the Cardinals is their offensive line, which had above average marks in all categories last season according to Football Outsiders. 6’3″, 280 lb. center Andrew Poenitsch was named to the 2019 Rimington Trophy watch list, for the nation’s best snapper.
RB Caleb Huntley will likely draw the week 1 start; the junior ran for over 1,000 yards his freshman year, but saw his playing time decrease last season. Graduate transfer Walter Fletcher has gained some hype as well. He came to Ball State from Division II Edinboro University, where he had a decorated career, getting named a D2 All-American last season.
Statistically, the strength for Ball State is on passing downs. They were above average in those situations last year, they led the MAC in passing yards per game, and their offensive line allowed one of the lowest sack rates in the nation. However, their weakness is hitting on big plays. They ranked 122nd in ISO PPP, a metric that provides a measure of explosiveness, out of 130 teams.
Key Defensive Players
Last year, the Cardinals had a number of issues defensively. They finished allowing at least 41 points in each of their final five games (all against MAC opponents). As a result, the Cardinals brought in former Western Illinois DL coach Tyler Stockton as a co-defensive coordinator, joining forces with already-installed DC David Elson. The two have a mentor-mentee relationship dating back to their WIU days. The Cardinals run a 3-4 defense.
From a personnel standpoint, BSU has a couple of linebackers returning that received All-MAC Third Team recognition. Junior Christian Albright recorded 67 tackles last season, 8 TFLs, and 5.5 sacks, while senior Jacob White also made 67 tackles, 5.5 TFLs, and led the team with 2 fumble recoveries. Digging deeper, junior OLB Jaylin Thomas had 76 tackles last year, and was also named to Pro Football Focus’ National Team of the Week for his performance in Week 2 against Notre Dame.
Another senior linebacker, Ray Wilborn, had a couple interceptions, 83 tackles, and was PFF’s 3rd-highest rated linebacker in the MAC. Overall, the Cardinals will return their top seven tacklers from last year, so they will be an experienced bunch.
Week 1: What to watch for against the Ball State Cardinals
1. The IU running game against Ball State’s porous run defense
Even with redshirt freshman Michael Penix being named the starting quarterback on Monday, the game plan could very possibly center on running the football with Stevie Scott, Sampson James, Ronnie Walker, Cole Gest, and others. Last season, Ball State gave up a startling 240 rush yards per game, including 255 yards on 5.8 per carry against IU in week 3. In that game, Scott ran for 114 yards and 2 TDs, while Walker and QB Peyton Ramsey each totaled over 40 rushing yards. Additionally, with senior OLs Coy Cronk, Hunter Littlejohn, and Simon Stepaniak all being named to the 2020 Senior Bowl Watch List, the Hoosiers should have little trouble moving the ball on the ground.
2. IU’s secondary versus the dangerous Ball State passing attack
Last season, even though IU allowed the 5th-fewest passing attempts per game in the Big Ten, they allowed the 5th-most passing yards per game in the conference (240.6). According to Football Outsiders’ S&P+ ratings, IU finished 104th in the country in pass defense last year. Now, with 4-year starter and 2018 team MVP Jonathan Crawford having graduated, the Hoosiers will trot out a secondary that has never previously played together, against a dangerous Ball State passing attack. Seniors A’Shon Riggins, Khalil Bryant, and Andre Brown will lead the way, but keep an eye out for sophomore Reese Taylor, who will transition from his QB/WR role last season to DB. Taylor is nursing a hand injury, for which he is day-to-day. Ball State’s passing game, led by QB Drew Plitt, WR Riley Miller, and WR Justin Hall, will try to exceed the putrid 143-yard effort they mustered up against IU last year.
Week 1: Indiana Hoosiers versus Ball State Predictions
38-24 Indiana. I think IU controls the ground game, and Hoosier Nation gets an early sampling of what 4* freshman Sampson James can provide while running the football. Ball State will keep it close in the first half, but then IU will pull away.Nithin Krishnan
30-17 Indiana. A slow start early on from Indiana offensively but Penix gets the team going in the second half. Defense makes a statement with at least one takeaway.Andrew Rude
35-24 Indiana. The Hoosiers open up big against a rebuilding Ball State Cardinals team and they make a statement with aggressive play calling by Kalen DeBoer. Despite some growing pains with Michael Penix returning for the first time since injury, the Hoosiers have enough offense to carry them through.Rob Jiang
Featured Photo: BallStateSports