Preview 2017: Ball State Cardinals
Previewing and looking ahead at the Ball State Cardinals season – and what you need to know.
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What You Need To Know About The Ball State Offense
The offense worked. It finished 450 yards per game, there was an almost perfect balance, and the attack was able to move the chains. The Cardinals just didn’t score enough.
Six starters return, with everything expected to revolve around RB James Gilbert, who cranked out a massive season and has All-America upside. Three starters are back up front to pave the way, but there aren’t any all-stars. Overall, though, in Ball State’s up-tempo style, the line was solid in pass protection and helped the attack come up with over five yards per carry.
There are options at quarterback, with late-year starter Riley Neal sitting out spring ball getting healthy after a shoulder problem, and Jack Milas a veteran option who can run the O. Top target KeVonn Mason is gone, but the next three receivers are back. Now the passing game has to be more efficient, effective, and do more down the field.
Biggest Key To The Ball State Offense
The passing game needs to be more efficient. There’s no questioning the running game around Gilbert, but the quarterbacks have to take advantage of the opportunities to make big things happen down the field. Last year, the Cardinals threw 14 touchdown passes with 15 picks, and only averaged 6.3 yards per try.
What You Need To Know About The Ball State Defense
Well that was quick.
The defense was a disaster last season, ranking 116th in the nation and doing next to nothing against the better passing teams. After just one year at the helm, head coach Mike Neu made a change, getting David Elson from Western Illinois to take over.
Elson, the former Western Kentucky head man, knows how to make a defense work, with an attacking style that should get to the quarterback a bit more thanks to a potentially fantastic front four.
The top five tacklers are gone, but there’s hope for a back seven that, surprisingly, has decent depth considering all the new starters in the mix.
Kevin Willis is back inside and Anthony Wimbush returns to one end spot, but it’s JUCO transfer John Swisher who turned the most heads in spring ball – he should generate more of an interior pass rush.
All three starting linebackers are gone, and CB Mark Walton is the only returning starter in the secondary, but as long as the line is doing its part, the back seven should come around in a hurry. At the very least, the secondary can’t be any worse …
Biggest Key To The Ball State Defense
Stop someone from throwing the ball. The pass rush was terrific, generating 32 sacks on the second and coming up with consistent pressure. Did it matter a lick for the secondary? Nope. The Cardinals allowed over 3,800 yards and 27 touchdowns with just seven picks, and five of those coming in the first five games.
Georgia State threw for 195 yards in the opener. After that, the Cardinals allowed 266 yards or more in each of the last 11 games, and 300 or more in the final six, with three touchdowns in each.
Ball State Will Be Far Better If …
The defense forces more takeaways. And that’s where Elson comes in. The D generated the pressure last season, but there wasn’t enough production from it. On the year, the Cardinals were a -10 in turnover margin, mostly because the defense decided to stop taking the ball away. It came up with three takeaways in the loss to Eastern Michigan, but it only generated two more over the final seven games.
Best Ball State Offensive Player
RB James Gilbert, Jr. – He might be a smallish 5-8, 194-pounder, but he’s one of the toughest, most dangerous all-around players in the conference. The offense became his, running for 1,332 yards and 12 scores – averaging over five yards per carry – but he needs to be used more for the passing game after catching just one pass.
While he wore down a little bit late in the year, when he was on, he was fantastic for a five-game stretch including a 264-yard, two score day against Buffalo. Give him the ball 20 times, and he’ll hit 100 yards.
2. QB Riley Neal, Jr.
3. C Andrew Poenitsch, Jr.
4. OT Alex Joss, Sr.
5. WR Corey Lacanaria, Sr.
Best Ball State Defensive Player
DE Anthony Wimbush, Sr. – The undersized defensive end is an outside linebacker playing up front, but he produces. He’s only 6-1 and 225 pounds, but he’s a good playmaker behind the line coming up with 8.5 sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss. While he’s a pure turn-him-loose pass rusher, some more against the run would be nice with just 24 tackles. As long as he’s pressuring the quarterback, though, he’s doing his job.
2. CB Mark Walton, Jr.
3. DT Kevin Willis, Sr.
4. DT John Swisher, Sr.
5. CB Josh Miller, Jr.
Key Player To A Successful Season
WR Corey Lacanaria, Sr – The Cardinals need a stretch-the-field aspect to the attack – a few dangerous receivers have to emerge. With Damon Hazelton looking to transfer, and KeVonn Mabon gone, Lacanaria has to become a No. 1 target after finishing third on the team with 33 catches for 341 yards and two scores. Hurt throughout this spring, he needs to stay in one piece – BSU needs a veteran receiving presence.
The Ball State Season Will Be A Success If …
It’s a bowl campaign with a shot at the MAC West title. There are still way too many holes on defense to win the division, but getting two extra wins and going bowling is a must. It’s not going to be easy, and it might take a few upsets to get to six wins, but things have to be building to turn into a West power.
Key Game To The Ball State Season
Oct. 26 vs. Toledo – If all goes according to form, Ball State should lose at Western Michigan and, at least, split against Akron and Central Michigan – needing to beat the Chippewas in a home game after a week off. And then comes the showdown against Toledo at home on a Thursday night.
Last year’s 37-19 loss was at least competitive, but if the Cardinals want to at least be interesting this year in the MAC race, this is the game they have to have. It’s possible this should be the biggest game so far in the Mike Neu era.
2016 Ball State Fun Stats
– Penalties: Opponents 70 for 577 yards – Ball State 48 for 426 yards
– 4th Down Conversions: Ball State 12-of-23 (52%) – Opponents 4-of-17 (24%)
– 3rd Quarter Points: 50 – 4th Quarter Points: 103