Running back James Gilbert attempts to run the ball down the field during the game against University of Massachusetts on Oct. 31, 2015 at Scheumann Stadium. Gilbert rushed for a career-high 160 yards on 29 carries in Ball State's 31-21 win over Georgia State to kick off the 2016 season. Samantha Brammer // DN
Ball State running backs ready for more after first week performance
Ball State head football coach Mike Neu said he's loved his group of running backs since his first day on the job.
After the first game of the season, he has even more reason to love them.
The Cardinals rushed for 325 yards — their highest total since 2012 — and four scores in a 31-21 win over Georgia State on Sept. 3. Staying true to their running back by committee approach, three different backs scored a rushing touchdown in the season opener.
Running backs — Week 1 statistics
James Gilbert: 29 carries, 160 yards, 2 TDs
Darian Green: 13 carries, 93 yards, 1 TD
Teddy Williamson: 4 carries, 28 yards, 1 TD
* Team rushed for 325 net yards in win
Junior Darian Green had 93 of those yards and a touchdown. He said part of the reason Ball State was so successful against Georgia State is because he, sophomore James Gilbert and senior Teddy Williamson each have a different skill set, which keeps defenses off-balance.
"[Gilbert] is the downhill, run-hard guy, I'm kind of the scatback and working on my downhill, and [Williamson] is the balanced running back," Green said. "I feel like we complement each other because we know our roles. I'm not trying to run people over and things like that."
Neu said their combined work ethic has him excited.
"All of those guys are going to have an opportunity to get some touches throughout the course of the game because it’s a good group and they practice hard," Neu said. "They are always ready to work."
Though Green is listed as the starter on the depth chart, the three backs will share time. It won't be an even split every week either — Neu will likely favor whichever back's style matches up better with each week's opponent.
"We all have different skill sets and we're trying to reach our full potential with them," Green said.
The Sept. 3 game, for example, saw Gilbert reaching his full potential. He led the Cardinals with 29 carries and 160 yards, both career bests. His power running style wore down Georgia State's defense into the second half, where Ball State earned 267 yards on the ground, including a career-long 43 yard rush in the fourth quarter.
"I feel like we've been holding a lot of stuff in, so we got to let it all out [against Georgia State]," Gilbert said. "We didn't start off good, but we brought it in the second half and showed what we could do."
The Cardinals' final rushing numbers got a big boost in the second half when quarterback Riley Neal kept it on a read option for a 46-yard gain down to the Panthers' 15, setting up Williamson's second career touchdown to put Ball State up 24-14.
The three-headed backfield could also grow to four — true freshman Malik Dunner may be a wild card.
Dunner made a name for himself with some big plays in camp, and Neu likes his explosiveness moving forward.
"You want to put the ball in the hands of your explosive players and give them a chance to do something that fits their skill set," Neu said. "Malik is one of those guys with a great attitude, and he'll be ready to go back to work. He's kicking himself — he had a chance on a screen and dropped it, but we move right past that and we'll be fine."
The next challenge for Ball State's running game will be against an Indiana Hoosiers defense that held Florida International to 63 yards on 21 carries in a 34-13 win.
It's no secret the Cardinals will try to run the ball, but the running backs have no intention of slowing down.
"It was all right, but that's what is expected," Green said. "I'm my biggest critic and I'm the biggest critic of the group. Like coach said, we played well, but that's the good thing about it. We can play better."