Ball State freshman running back Caleb Huntley scores with 2:05 left in the second quarter during the Cardinals’ game against UAB on Sept. 9 at Scheumann Stadium. Huntley’s touchdown put Ball State up 21-17. Paige Grider, DN File
3-back attack leads Ball State offense
Ball State football has a problem.
At least, it does if deciding which running back to hand the ball to can be considered a problem.
Junior James Gilbert was second in the Mid-American Conference with 111.0 rushing yards per game last season, but so far this year sophomore Malik Dunner and freshman Caleb Huntley have been competing for more carries.
Running back stats (through two games)
James Gilbert (Jr.)
Rushing yards: 115
Rushing touchdowns: 3
Finished second in the MAC with 111 yards per game last season
Malik Dunner (So.)
Rushing yards: 31
Rushing touchdowns: 2
Scored on a 93-yard kick return against UAB
Caleb Huntley (Fr.)
Rushing yards: 131
Rushing touchdowns: 1
Ran for a 52-yard touchdown against UAB
In fact, Huntley — listed behind both Gilbert and Dunner on the depth chart — leads the Cardinals (1-1) with 131 yards and 7.3 yards per carry after two games.
“We’re all different type of runners, so the defense really has to gameplan on all three of us instead of just one person,” Huntley said. “We can come at you with different things. Like [Dunner], he’s a speedster, he can get you on the edge, get you in zone plays. Me and [Gilbert] up the middle, on the side. We just come at you different types of ways.”
“He’s done a really good job in the weight room and and he’s a talented kid,” running backs coach Kevin Lynch said. “Big, physical fast and has really good balance. I think you’ll continue to see more and more from him.”
The three backs have combined for 277 yards on 67 carries through two games with six touchdowns, and this weekend they face Tennessee Tech, a Football Championship Subdivision team that allows 303.5 rushing yards per game.
“The only thing that’s skewed about that a little bit is their second game was against a triple-option team,” Lynch said. “... I don’t know who stops them under 300 yards rushing in that. So it’s a little bit of a different attack in that way, I don’t think that really has any indication of really how they are against the run.”
Still, Tennessee Tech allowed 298 rushing yards in its season opener against Western Illinois, too. And while Ball State’s offense is more balanced than what Tennessee Tech may have faced, it can create similar confusion by putting its running backs on the field at the same time.
Gilbert, for example, leads the trio with three touchdowns, and two of them have been scored when both he and Huntley are on the field at the same time.
In goal-line situations against both and UAB, the Cardinals came out with Huntley lined up at tailback and Gilbert on the wing, just behind the tight end’s hip. Both times, Gilbert cut to the other side of the formation after the snap, taking a sweep around the edge for a short touchdown.
“You’ll continue to see that,” Lynch said. “Obviously, we’re trying to get our best players on the field and we feel like those guys, with the ball in their hands, they do a lot of good things for us.”
That formation hints at another change in Ball State’s offense. In order for it to work now that opposing teams have seen it twice, the Cardinals will have to keep it fresh by either handing it off to Huntley or running play-action passes to the tight ends and running backs.
Through two games, the running backs have a combined four catches — Dunner has three and Gilbert has the other. Lynch said the group emphasized the passing game in the offseason.
“We haven’t had a bunch of catches this year, but we’ve done a good job and a better job of identifying blitzes and when we can get out and when we need to protect,” Lynch said. “Often times it’s not just that we caught the ball, but sometimes we’re occupying a player in coverage so we can throw to the receiver.”
Of the three, Dunner has the fewest carries (12) and rushing yards (31), though against UAB he scored on a 93-yard kick return.
“It doesn’t really matter,” Dunner said. “If Caleb’s in the game, if James is in the game, if I’m in the game — we’re all expected to make plays.”
Ball State and Tennessee Tech kick off Saturday’s Family Weekend game at 3 p.m.