Ball State Football head coach Mike Neu preached all week long that conference play is a new season. After going 1-3 during the non-conference portion of the schedule, Neu said it’s time to forget about the past and focus on getting to 1-0 at the end of each week.
Well, the week has come to an end, and the Cardinals are 1-0 in Mid-American Conference play. Ball State took down Kent State 52-24 Saturday. There were plenty of takeaways from the game. Here’s a few that stood out.
They can pass it too
Through their first five games, the Cardinals are averaging just less than 200 yards a game on the ground. It’s been no secret their plan of attack has primarily been to run the football. With the talent they have at running back, you can’t blame them. James Gilbert was an All-MAC first teamer in 2016. Caleb Huntley had a 1,000-yard season last year. Malik Dunner can do it all and has great hands out of the backfield.
Against Kent State, the three combined for only 71 yards. This isn’t because the run game was ineffective. Rather, the pass was clicking more than usual. Riley Neal threw for a career-high 402 yards and four touchdowns. He completed 30 of 50 pass attempts. In the simplest of terms, he was locked in.
Neu said running the ball is still one of the team’s biggest strengths, but after their latest performance, the aerial attack could be right there beside the run.
No clear go-to receiver
Last season, Justin Hall was the Cardinals’ leading receiver by more than 500 yards. So far in 2018, he’s only led the team in receiving yards once. He’s still third on the team in receiving, so there doesn’t seem to be a sophomore slump.
It’s been the emergence of Riley Miller and Corey Lacanaria that has defenses wondering who to cover. Specific to the Kent State game, Miller hauled in a career-high 208 yards.
It’s obvious these three have been Neal’s favorite targets thus far, but who will be thrown to on any given play is constantly in question.
Next man up
The Cardinals had to use four different quarterbacks due to injuries last season. After Neal went down, they were never able to get their mojo back. This season has been different. Granted, the missing piece may not be at the quarterback position, but the Cardinals have proven they can win without key players.
Hall, a second team All-MAC recipient a year ago, caught one pass for seven yards against Kent State. You would think that caliber of a receiver would be featured more in a game where the quarterback sets a career high for passing yards. Hall was essentially a non-factor, but the Cardinals had no problem getting the job done offensively.
On the defensive side, Jacob White, the team leader in tackles, was sidelined for the majority of the fourth quarter. Ironically, that was the only quarter in which Ball State held Kent State scoreless.
Not to say the Cardinals should expect to win without “the usual” contributions from key players, but it’s a plus to have other options.
When the defense is clicking, watch out
Ball State’s defense was constantly in the backfield against Kent State. The Cardinals recorded nine tackles for loss and five sacks. They also came away with three turnovers, something Neu said would be key heading into the game.
Neu said the team’s overall performance has been inconsistent, and it seems to directly correlate to how much ruckus the defense is causing.
Against Notre Dame, the defense had four sacks and three interceptions. The Cardinals may have lost, but they held the Irish to 24 points and only lost by eight. In their two most recent losses to Indiana and Western Kentucky, the defense had one sack and one turnover combined.
The formula is simple: put pressure on the quarterback, and you have a better chance of winning games.
All or nothing attitude
Neu said scoring touchdowns in the red zone was something his team had to improve on. The first play of the game against Kent State put the Cardinals inside the 10-yard line. They couldn’t find the end zone the next three plays, and Neu decided to go for it on fourth-and-goal. It panned out, and Ball State took an early lead.
Neu said the mindset heading into this week was to attack and be aggressive. The Cardinals did just that, taking multiple shots downfield and converting both of their fourth down tries.
It may cost them from time to time, but if this play style results in scoring more than 50 points, the Cardinals might have to think about sticking with it going forward.
Contact Zach Piatt with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @zachpiatt13.