Improved defense giving Ball State a chance despite slow starts

<p>Ball State senior linebacker Aaron Taylor makes a tackle on Indiana running back Devine Redding during the Cardinals' 30-20 loss at Memorial Stadium on Sept. 10. Taylor led the team with&nbsp;13 total tackles in the game. <em>DN Photo // Grace Hollars</em></p>

Ball State senior linebacker Aaron Taylor makes a tackle on Indiana running back Devine Redding during the Cardinals' 30-20 loss at Memorial Stadium on Sept. 10. Taylor led the team with 13 total tackles in the game. DN Photo // Grace Hollars

Ball State — Team defense vs. IU

First downs — 19

Rushing yards — 197

Passing yards — 266

Total yards — 463

Sacks — 3

Tackles for loss — 6

Through two games, there's already a glaring difference on the field for Ball State compared to last season. The Cardinals' defense is giving them a chance.

Slow starts on offense have put the defense in a lot of tough spots, but head coach Mike Neu has been proud of the group's ability to combat short field.

"I always see good things from our defense — the staff, the players have been fantastic," Neu said. "Yes, we put them in a bind. We can't do that ... Their first snap on the field, IU is in the red zone. That's not fair to our defense."

Ball State's offense started the Sept. 10 game at Memorial Stadium the same way they opened the season a week ago at the Georgia Dome, with a turnover on the first drive. 

The Cardinals won the toss, and chose to receive. Sophomore quarterback Riley Neal dropped back on third down and delivered a pass to junior Corey Lacanaria for first-down yardage.

Only it wasn't a first down. Lacanaria fumbled, setting Indiana up with a first down at the Ball State 26-yard line.

The fumble was the first of three turnovers — James Gilbert had a fumble deep in Indiana territory and Neal threw an interception — in the first half for the Cardinals, who fell behind 30-0 before scoring 20 consecutive points in the second half.

"That's not the recipe you can have in order to have success, you can't have three turnovers," Neu said. "You can't get off to a slow start. That's a tough recipe if you expect to come back to win. That's asking a lot out of your team each and every week."

Ball State has asked a lot of its defense through the first two games, but for the most part, it has stood up to the challenge. The Hoosiers mustered just two field goals and punted once off those three turnovers.

The biggest problem was missed tackling. IU signal-caller Richard Lagow racked up 266 yards and three touchdowns on 17-for-28 passing, but the only time he really burned Ball State's secondary was on a 43-yard touchdown to Nick Westbook in the first quarter. Senior linebacker Zack Ryan, who leads the team with 17 tackles, said the Cardinals just made some mistakes.

"I think that's where we got in trouble," he said. "We put our head down when the ball came, missed a couple tackles, and next thing you know the ball is down field."

Ryan has been a key member of Ball State's defense since he was a redshirt freshman in 2013. He knows the Cardinals have made serious strides from the basement of the Mid-American Conference defensive rankings a year ago.

"I'm proud of our defense," he said. "We've come a long way with these new coaches, and I love our new coaches. They're going to put us in the best spot possible to play at the best of our ability."

The Cardinals are allowing 25.5 points, 362.5 total yards and rank sixth in the MAC with 132 rush yards allowed per game.

But those are just numbers. Watch the defense in practice, and the energy rises whenever they come up with a turnover. There's something different so far this year. The defense is giving Ball State a chance to win.

"I love going to war with those guys," Neu said. "And we're going to get this beginning of the game situation solved, and we're going to be just fine."


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