Cardinals running back James Gilbert got the final three carries of the Ball State drive, capping it off with a 3-yard touchdown run. Ball State football opens the 2017 season against Illinois Saturday at noon. Grace Ramey, DN
Chirp: X-factors against Illinois
When Ball State football opens the 2017 season against Illinois Saturday at noon, it'll be facing a program similar to itself.
Both the Cardinals (4-8, 1-7 MAC) and Illini (3-9, 2-7 Big Ten) expect to improve under a second-year head coach with Mike Neu leading Ball State and Lovie Smith at the helm in Illinois. The Cardinals hasn’t played in a bowl since the 2013-14 season, while the Illini haven’t played in one since the 2014-15 season. Both teams have quarterbacks coming off shoulder surgery.
And, being a season opener, both teams have to rely on last season tapes and statistics to evaluate their opponents. Based on that dated information, the Cardinals’ strengths seem to line up with the Illini’s weaknesses, and vice versa.
Each team, however, is loaded with question marks and unknowns. Who steps up for the departed senior? Who bounces back after a rough season? Who makes better in-game adjustments?
Colin Grylls, the Daily News football reporter is traveling to the game and offered up some insight on key positional matchups:
Ball State run offense vs. Illinois front seven
We know what James Gilbert and the Cardinals’ rushing attack can do.
The junior running back tied for the Mid-American Conference lead with 12 rushing touchdowns and was second with 111.0 rushing yards per game last season, anchoring the Mid-American Conference’s third-best run game (220.0 yards per game). Junior quarterback Riley Neal added 49.1 yards per game on the ground, while Ball State’s offensive line returns three players who started 12 games last season and another who started six.
Illinois head coach Lovie Smith is an NFL legend known for defense, and the Illini should improve on last season’s 219.2 rushing yards allowed per game, but it’s doubtful there will be a drastic jump.
Edge: Ball State
Ball State wide receivers vs. Illinois secondary
2017 could be a make-or-break year for Neal after losing his top two targets from last season. KeVonn Mabon graduated and Damon Hazelton, Jr. transferred to Virginia Tech, meaning the offense loses a combined 85 receptions and 1,477 yards — more than half of its production.
It’s unclear just who will step up and fill the void against an Illinois defense that allowed just 185.9 passing yards per game, the 16th-fewest in the country. The Illini return senior cornerback Jaylen Dunlap, who at 6-foot-1-inches tall has the length to contend for jump balls and defended 11 passes last season.
Ball State linebackers vs. Illinois run offense
Ball State had the third-best run defense in the MAC after allowing just 150.6 rushing yards per game, but the Cardinals lost their five top tacklers including starting linebackers Sean Wiggins, Aaron Taylor and Zack Ryan.
Meanwhile, Illinois returns senior running back Kendrick Foster and sophomore running back Reggie Corbin, who combined for 1,243 yards and nine touchdowns last year. Junior quarterback Chayce Crouch doesn’t have much experience, but his mobility in an option attack puts the Illini in a good position to take advantage of the Cardinals’ young linebacking corps.
Ball State pass rush vs. Illinois pass offense
While Ball State is working in three new starters at linebacker, they’ll have the benefit of playing behind an experienced defensive line that finished second in the MAC with 31 sacks.
Redshirt senior Anthony Winbush led the Cardinals with 8.5 sacks and redshirt junior defensive tackle Kevin Willis added two more. Neu says he also expects big things from senior defensive tackle John Swisher. Though he didn’t start last season, Swisher recorded 12 total tackles in 10 games and forced a fumble.
Illinois returns two offensive linemen who started all 12 games and another who started seven, and they only allowed 20 sacks last season, but Crouch has only completed 33 of his 66 career passing attempts. Inexperienced quarterbacks — especially ones who can run — tend to hold onto the ball in order to make a play.
If Crouch does that, the Cardinals’ defensive line has the talent to make him pay.
Edge: Ball State
Season openers are always difficult to pick, especially when a weaker Power 5 conference team is playing a solid Group of 5 team, and it would be a shock to see either team win in a blowout.
Still, Illinois hasn’t lost a home opener since 1997. While that stat is skewed by the Illini’s habit of scheduling smaller programs like Illinois State and (insert cardinal direction) Illinois for their home openers, athletic departments rarely shell out $900,000 for games they expect to lose.
RELATED: Ball State to pocket $900,000 against Illinois
It’ll be a close game — likely within one score— and Ball State should have a legitimate shot to win, but with so many questions about both teams, the difference could come down to home-field advantage.