Ball State football healthy, poised for better year

<p>Running Back Caleb Huntley gets tackled by Jamil Sabbagh during the Homecoming Game against Central Michigan on Oct. 21 at Scheumann Stadium. The Cardinals lost 9-56. <strong>Rachel Ellis, DN</strong></p>

Running Back Caleb Huntley gets tackled by Jamil Sabbagh during the Homecoming Game against Central Michigan on Oct. 21 at Scheumann Stadium. The Cardinals lost 9-56. Rachel Ellis, DN

Ball State football is about a week away from its Aug. 30 home opener against Central Connecticut State. After a disappointing 2-10 (0-8 MAC) 2017 season, the Cardinals are itching to get back on the field to show the rest of the Mid-American Conference last year was not true Ball State football.

“Ever since that night in the locker room at the end of the 2017 season, I circled this date on the calendar and couldn’t wait to get started,” said Ball State head coach Mike Neu.

The Cardinals were picked last in the MAC West for a second consecutive season in the preseason polls. Neu said he’s proud of where his team is at but understands why the expectations are low.

“We addressed night number one that there’s nothing we can do about what happened a year ago,” Neu said. “They’re not just going to vote you based on what they think you can accomplish. It’s going to be based on what you accomplished the year before.”

A consistent starting quarterback was one thing the Cardinals lacked a year ago, as they were forced to use four different quarterbacks due to injuries.

Redshirt junior Riley Neal started the first three games of 2017 and led Ball State to a 2-1 record before going down for the year with a tibial plateau fracture. Neal threw 659 yards and six touchdowns in those three games. The Cardinals went on to drop their last nine games of the season using three other quarterbacks.

Neal is back after using a medical redshirt, and all signs are looking up for this season.

“Having him back is great for us,” said sophomore and 2017 Ball State leading receiver Justin Hall. “We missed him. Just to have him back healthy — I feel like we just got our swag back.”

Redshirt junior James Gilbert, Ball State’s starting running back, was also sidelined for the year after week three due to injury. However, sophomore Caleb Huntley and junior Malik Dunner stepped up, and the Cardinal offense still managed 158 yards per game on the ground.

Gilbert said he loved being an extra coach and watching the other running backs succeed.

“From the sideline view, I was their biggest fan,” Gilbert said. “Every time they made a good run or scored a touchdown, I was always cheering them on.”

Neu said Neal and Gilbert, among others, aren’t taking anything for granted and are more than ready to come back and lead the team, and Gilbert is all about it.

“We got the mentality where we want to put the team on our shoulders and lead us to victory,” Gilbert said. “I don’t care about any stats or breaking any records. I just care about winning and doing whatever I can to help my team win a game.”

Ball State is looking to improve its play on the defensive side as well. The Cardinals allowed over 40 points per game last season and surrendered over 50 points five times.

“Last year was last year, and we’re trying to delete that from our memory because this is a completely different team,” said redshirt junior linebacker Jacob White. “At the same time, we do understand that last year was unacceptable and it’s not going to happen again. Our backs are against the wall and we’re going to come out swinging this year.”

Ball State switched to a 3-4 base defense this year. Neu said some of the team’s better athletes are at linebacker and wants to use their versatility to allow them to operate in open space. However, Neu emphasized the switch isn’t going to be a quick fix.

“Just because we switched to a 3-4 doesn’t automatically mean it’s going to fix our problems,” Neu said. “We got to be better. Period.”

The Cardinals will want to be at their best come week two when they travel to South Bend to play Notre Dame for the first time in school history.

Neu said that game will be a big moment for not only the players, but himself as well. Neu grew up a Fighting Irish fan on the south side of Indianapolis and said he fought his siblings to get to the television first so he could watch all the games.

“To be able to go in there and have a chance to play in that environment is going to be cool for a lot of our guys,” Neu said. “We got everything to gain and nothing to lose.”

While Neu is excited to have Notre Dame on the schedule, he said the team is dialed in for week one.

As training camp winds down and the regular season approaches, the Cardinals are focusing on perfecting the little things to prepare for their home opener.

Ball State will begin the 2018 season at 7 p.m. Aug. 30 against Central Connecticut State in Scheumann Stadium.

Contact Zach Piatt with comments at or on Twitter @zachpiatt13.


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