PREVIEW: Ball State defense faces early test at Illinois

<p>The Ball State Cardinals run onto the field at the beginning of the home opener game against Eastern Kentucky on Sept. 17 in Scheumann Stadium. Ball State heads to Illinois Saturday looking for its eighth consecutive season-opening victory. Grace Ramey, DN</p>

The Ball State Cardinals run onto the field at the beginning of the home opener game against Eastern Kentucky on Sept. 17 in Scheumann Stadium. Ball State heads to Illinois Saturday looking for its eighth consecutive season-opening victory. Grace Ramey, DN

Tale of the tape (last season, all stats per game)

Ball State

4-8 (1-7 MAC)

27.0 points

30.1 points against

229.2 pass yards

220.0 rush yards

319.7 pass yards allowed

150.6 rush yards allowed

Big questions: How quickly do the Cardinals’ young linebackers adjust? Who steps up at wide receiver?


3-9 (2-7 Big Ten)

19.7 points

31.9 points against

174.6 pass yards

140.5 rush yards

185.9 pass yards allowed

219.2 rush yards allowed

Big questions: How much has the Illini offense improved? Can the defense stop James Gilbert and Ball State’s run game?

Ball State football heads to Illinois Saturday looking for its eighth consecutive season-opening victory.

Whether or not the Cardinals (4-8, 1-7 MAC) can extend their streak depends on how quickly their inexperienced players adjust, especially with three new starters at linebacker.

“One thing I think with young linebackers and the mistakes they make is they probably try to play too fast too early,” linebackers coach Johnny Curtis said. “So I’ve been trying to harp on slow it down, see it and believe it … but until you get those first few reps in a game and get that experience under your belt, it’s going to be a bit of a guessing game with those guys.”

RELATED: Cardinals open football season with high expectations, revamped defense

Playing too aggressive can be deadly against an Illini team (3-9, 2-7 Big Ten) expected to run more read-option plays this season, where the quarterback reads a defensive player, usually an unblocked defensive end, and makes a late decision to keep it or hand it to the running back.

Illinois junior quarterback Chayce Crouch doesn’t have much experience and is coming off season-ending shoulder surgery. He’s only completed 50 percent of his collegiate passes, going 33-66 for 409 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions, though he’s run for 272 yards on 54 attempts with three touchdowns.

Most of Crouch’s production, however, came in just over half a game. He stepped in for injured starter Wes Lunt on Oct. 8, 2016 in a 34-31 overtime loss against Purdue, passing for 142 yards and rushing for 137 more. The next weekend, he logged his first start against Rutgers but then missed the final six games with an injury.

Crouch has the added benefit of working with pair of experienced running backs in senior Kendrick Foster and sophomore Reggie Corbin. Foster ran for 720 yards and seven touchdowns last year, while Corbin totaled 523 yards with two touchdowns.

RELATED: Ball State to pocket $900,000 against Illinois

Ball State also has a mobile threat under center with junior quarterback Riley Neal, who averaged 49.1 rushing yards per game last season on top of 231.0 passing yards. But most his yards come on scrambles or run/pass options rather than read-option plays.

“We’ve obviously just been running against our offense all camp, like pretty much every other college in the country,” redshirt sophomore linebacker Jacob White said. “[The Illini] do some different things and we’ve been getting some more team work with the scouts and Illinois and we’re really excited for it. Wish I could fast forward to it."

Still, defensive coordinator David Elson says the scout team has given his defense a good look at the option.

“We’ve got some quarterbacks ourselves that we’ve gone against in spring and fall that have given us a good look at that and then obviously we’re practicing for that,” Elson said. “Our guys just gotta be very conscious of that extra threat with the quarterback being a runner.”

RELATED: 5 things that changed since Ball State, Illinois football last played

Illinois’s offense ranked near the bottom of the Football Bowl Subdivision with 315.1 yards per game (123rd of 128) and 19.7 points per game (122nd) last season, in part because of a passing game that only averaged 174.6 yards per game (109th). But with a new quarterback and returning skill position players, it’s difficult to pin down how much of a jump, if any, the Illini will make this season.

“I think any time you get into a first game, you certainly never know exactly what they’ve been working on and what other guys have come to the forefront so you go off of last year, and [Illinois senior wide receiver] Malik Turner is easily their top guy,” Elson said. “So we’ve got to get into the game and get a feel of how they’re gonna use him and their other weapons and make some in-game adjustments.”

Turner provided the bulk of the Illini’s production in the passing game, leading the team with 712 receiving yards and six touchdowns. Listed at 6-foot-3-inches and 200 pounds, his frame could create mismatches with a Cardinals secondary that only features one cornerback listed as taller than 5-foot-11-inches.

Turner also has the athleticism to cover for his quarterback on plays like this:

Ball State, on the other hand, will use the opener to find out who steps up as the go-to receiver after losing its top two receivers from last year’s team, but most of the focus will likely be on the run game.

The Cardinals returns three offensive linemen — redshirt junior Alex Joss and redshirt seniors Vinnie Palazeti and Pat Maloney — from a unit that paved the way for the third-best rushing attack in the Mid-American Conference with 220.0 rushing yards per game, as well as redshirt junior Kaden Booker, who started six games last season.

RELATED: MAC football rundown, Week 1

Junior running back James Gilbert will count on their experience after finishing second in the MAC with 111.0 rushing yards per game and tied for the conference lead with 12 touchdowns. Gilbert says the strength of Ball State’s run game puts Illinois in a bind — the Illini allowed 219.2 rushing yards per game, the third-worst in the Big Ten.

“I’m expecting they’re going to stack the box because they’re trying to stop the run,” Gilbert said. “We’re going to try to be a balanced team and if they stack the box we’ll try to get a little play action off of it.”

In a certain Nevada city where it’s legal to monetize predictions, Illinois is favored, but only by one score.

“I feel like we beat [Illinois] it’s gonna create a lot of momentum, a lot of buzz coming back to the city of Muncie and then opening up for UAB,” Gilbert said. “If we beat them, that’ll be a good start and then keep it going.”

Ball State and Illinois kick off the season Saturday, Sept. 2 at 12 p.m. Eastern.

RELATED: DN Sports Podcast Episode 1: Ball State, MAC football preview


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