Opponent Outlook: New-look Ball State seeing improvement

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

Since finishing 10-3 in 2013, Ball State’s football team hasn’t fared well.

The Cardinals are 15-34 overall and 7-25 in the Mid-American Conference (MAC) in the four seasons since. Ball State showed improvement in last Thursday’s opener. Although their win came over FCS program Central Connecticut State, the Cardinals broke a few school records en route to a 42-6 thumping.

Last season, Ball State’s men’s basketball team upset then-No. 9 Notre Dame on Dec. 9, 2017. The Cardinals will attempt the same in their first-ever football game with the Irish this Saturday.

We caught up with the Muncie Star Press’ Ball State beat writer, Ryan O’Gara, to gain more insight on the Cardinals.

• When comparing last Thursday’s opener to their previous seasons, are the Cardinals improved?

O’Gara: ”They appear to be much improved. That’s mostly just by virtue of actually being healthy. Their two best players (quarterback Riley Neal and running back James Gilbert) missed the final nine games of last season due to injury, and the Cardinals lost all nine. With those two, they were 2-1 and nearly 3-0.

“Additionally, I was surprised by the vibe all of training camp. This team doesn’t carry itself like it went 2-10 last season. The players have had a little swagger, like they knew they were going to surprise some people this season. Last week’s win — which probably should have been 56-0 — allowed them to feel their best heading into the week many circled on the calendar when the schedule came out.”

49 players on the Cardinals’ roster are from Indiana. Do you think any of them are secretly Notre Dame fans?

O’Gara: “I doubt any of them are Notre Dame fans anymore, but a lot of them grew up watching Notre Dame by virtue of them being on national TV. Even head coach Mike Neu has said that watching Notre Dame shaped his football fandom. Whether or not the players were actually fans, I think a lot of them are excited to play at Notre Dame Stadium.

“The team is going to take a tour on Friday to check it out, so Saturday they won’t be in awe of it. Ball State has five players who grew up within an hour of Notre Dame: Markice Hurt, Jr., Tavonte’ Malone, Danny Pinter, Zac Ricketts and Grant Williamson.”

(All five are actually from within the Tribune’s coverage area as Malone and Pinter are from Adams High School, Williamson is from New Prairie, Ricketts from Bremen and Hurt Jr. is from Michigan City)

The Cardinals amassed over 650 yards last Thursday and broke all sorts of records. Who are Ball State’s biggest playmakers?

O’Gara: ”Ball State’s three-headed monster in the backfield of James Gilbert, Caleb Huntley and Malik Dunner will be the focal point, and Justin Hall is the one to watch in the passing game. Hall was a Freshman All-American and is very shifty, and Riley Neal loves getting him the ball.

“Of the backs, Gilbert should get between 14-16 carries, Huntley 10-12 and Dunner 4-6, with four or five targets in the passing game. Watch out for true freshman wideout Yo’Heinz Tyler, who is a big target and had two touchdown catches on three targets in the opener, though he may not be quite ready for primetime yet.”

The Cardinals switched to a 3-4 defense this year. What are your early impressions of it?

O’Gara: ”It appears to be much improved, but it’s still early. Central Connecticut State had a three-year starter at quarterback and really couldn’t move the ball against Ball State, which surprised me. The Cardinals had a shutout going until the final 12 seconds. The biggest difference for the Ball State defense this season will be speed.

“Outside linebackers Ray Wilborn and Christian Albright are going to get after the quarterback, and Jacob White is solid at inside linebacker. If the defense is significantly improved, Ball State will be in bowl contention. If it’s not, another three-win season is on the horizon.”

• Ball State’s basketball team pulled off an upset over Notre Dame last December. What would it take for the football team to do the same on Saturday?

O’Gara: ”It’s going to be very tough, much more so than basketball. The Ball State basketball team had a core that had been playing together for several years and was a program in a much different place. and the nature of basketball is that if you hit shots and your opponent doesn’t, you’re going to have a pretty good chance at an upset.

“With Notre Dame’s superior athletes on the football field, it is going to take Ball State dominating the turnover battle and scoring on either special teams or defense.”

A healthy Riley Neal, Ball State’s quarterback, should make a big difference for the Cardinals this season.