Chirp: X-factors against UAB

<p>Ball State quarterback Riley Neal throws a pass during the first quarter against the University of Illinois on Setp. 2, 2017. Neal finished the season opener with 204 passing yards and a touchdown. <strong>Robby General, DN</strong></p>

Ball State quarterback Riley Neal throws a pass during the first quarter against the University of Illinois on Setp. 2, 2017. Neal finished the season opener with 204 passing yards and a touchdown. Robby General, DN

Ball State’s home opener against Alabama-Birmingham pits the Cardinals against an enigma.

UAB (1-0) hasn’t played a Football Bowl Subdivision team since Nov. 29, 2014 after their football program was shut down and subsequently revived. The only two games of film featuring the Blazer’s current players are the spring game and last week’s 38-7 win over Alabama A&M, a Football Championship Subdivision team.

Meanwhile, Ball State (0-1) is coming off a 24-21 loss to Illinois.

Colin Grylls, the Daily News football reporter, is covering the game and offered up some insight on the key positional matchups:

Ball State defensive line vs. UAB offensive line

One of the more interesting individual matchups this week features Cardinals senior defensive tackle John Swisher lining up across from Blazers guards Malique Johnson, a redshirt junior and Chris Schleuger, a redshirt senior.

Swisher played with Johnson and Schleuger — as well as Cardinals defensive back Deion Hallman and four other UAB players — at Iowa Western Community College.

RELATED: Ball State prepares for transfer-heavy UAB roster

Johnson, Schleuger and the rest of the UAB line cleared the way for 259 yards on the ground last week, but the Blazers needed 58 attempts. That’s 4.5 yards per carry against an FCS team, and Ball State just held a similar Big Ten rushing attack to 71 yards on 30 attempts (2.4 yards per carry).

Cardinals redshirt senior defensive end Anthony Winbush also won last week’s Mid-American Conference West Division Player of the Week after recording three sacks at Illinois. It’s hard to imagine an offensive line that gave up three sacks to Alabama A&M keeping him away from the quarterback.

Edge: Ball State

Ball State rushing attack vs. UAB front seven

One game into the season, the Cardinals are already down two offensive linemen in redshirt senior Pat Maloney and redshirt junior Alex Joss.

Still, offensive line coach Kyle DeVan prepared for potential injuries throughout spring practice and preseason training.

The Cardinals ran for 171 yards on 51 carries (3.4 yards per carry) last week, and UAB limited Alabama A&M to 45 yards on 33 carries (1.4 yards per carry), but this is where competition factors in.

Alabama A&M doesn’t pass well (more on this in the next section), making it easier for UAB to key in on the run, and the Bulldogs are also a lower-division team. On the other hand, Illinois is a Power 5 conference member, and their head coach — Lovie Smith  — is known for his NFL defenses.

Edge: Ball State

Ball State passing game vs. UAB pass rush

UAB limited Alabama A&M to 138 passing yards on 13-29 passing, but it’s difficult to determine just how much credit to give the Blazers given how, last year, the Bulldogs completed just 47.35 percent of their passes.

Ball State junior quarterback Riley Neal went 21-34 passing for 201 yards against Illinois, and redshirt sophomore Riley Miller emerged as a solid target, hauling in 7 catches for 86 yards.

Neal, however, was also sacked three times, including a crucial sack with 40 seconds remaining, which helped set up junior kicker Morgan Hagee’s game-ending blocked field goal. The Blazers also sacked the Bulldogs’ quarterbacks three times, and DeVan says “they have some big, athletic dudes” on the defensive line.

Nine different Cardinals, though, caught passes last week, including two tight ends and two running backs. Ball State should have enough passing options for Neal to move the ball through the air if he can make the right reads.

Edge: Ball State

RELATED: DN Sports Podcast Episode 2: Hosting UAB, transfer talk


The Blazers have something to prove.

They have to prove a team full of former community college players can hang with the players who went Division-I out of high school. They have to prove to their fans that they deserve the outpouring of support, including the UAB-record crowd of 45,212 at their season opener. They have to stick it to the administrators who shut down their program three years ago.

Talking to the Ball State coaches, it really does seem like they’re taking UAB seriously. It’s just hard to discredit a team in a perfect position to write the script for Disney’s next sports movie.

Edge: UAB

Final prediction

Don’t overthink this. Ball State is playing its home opener against a team that hasn’t played a Football Bowl Subdivision team since 2014.

That being said, UAB has more talent and experience than a typical start-up program. It’ll be closer than most people think.

Edge: Ball State


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