Blue and Gold Illustrated

Sept. 10, 2018

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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34 SEPT. 10, 2018 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED BY COREY BODDEN B all State has nowhere to go but up following a rough end to its 2017 campaign. The injury- riddled Cardinals lost their fi- nal nine games, including all eight in Mid-American Conference play by an average score of 48-12. Last season actually began in en- couraging fashion, with a narrow defeat at Big Ten foe Illinois (24-21) followed by victories over UAB (51- 31) and Tennessee Tech (28-13). How- ever, injuries to then-junior starting quarterback Riley Neal and then- junior starting running back James Gilbert sidelined them for the final nine games and grounded the Cardi- nals. Ball State was also forced to start seven different offensive line combi- nations because of injuries. In the three games he played, Neal completed 67.7 percent of his passes for 659 yards with six touchdowns and three interceptions. Gilbert added 207 yards and three scores on 48 car- ries in those three contests. In 2016, Gilbert rushed for 1,332 yards and 12 touchdowns, while Neal threw for 2,541 yards with 13 scores and 12 picks. Head coach Mike Neu, who quar- terbacked Ball State to the MAC title in 1993, entered his third season at the helm after compiling a 6-18 record in his first two years. After the difficult finish in 2017, Neu will need to start winning games to keep from feeling some heat from the fan base. "While he is well-liked and most give him a pass due to the plethora of injuries, his seat is getting a little warm," said Ryan O'Gara, a sports reporter for The Star Press of Muncie, Ind. "Ball State is 1-15 in MAC games the last two seasons. "Anything close to a repeat of last season could result in him losing his job." All eyes will be on Neal and Gilbert in 2018. The duo will be counted to take the next step and help the Cardi- nals avoid a repeat of last year where the finished No. 100 nationally in total offense (335.2 yards per game). "At 6-foot-6 with above-average athleticism, Neal has immense poten- tial and certainly possess the type of talent to be an All-MAC quarterback and play at the next level," O'Gara stated. "As he goes, so goes Ball State. The Cardinals were 2-1 before he got hurt last year and should have been 3-0 if not for a blown lead against Illinois. They were 0-9 without him, so that says about all you need to know. "Gilbert was an All-MAC running back in 2016, and the expectation is that he will return to that level of play. He will have plenty of help in the backfield — Caleb Huntley was a 1,000-yard back as a true fresh- man [last year] and is expected to split carries. Gilbert will be the go-to back, though, and is one of the best all-around players in the conference." While replacing Gilbert, Hunt- ley rushed for 1,003 yards and three touchdowns to give the Cardinals a talented one-two punch heading into 2018. Junior Malik Dunner added 440 yards and eight touchdowns on just 74 carries (5.9 yards per carry). "Ball State has four running backs that have performed well when given the opportunity, so I anticipate rotating them and getting them involved in a variety of ways," O'Gara noted. It was the Justin Hall show at wide receiver last season. He led the team in receptions (78) and receiving yards (801) by a wide margin en route to earning Freshman All-America hon- ors from ESPN. The next-closest pass catcher was junior Riley Miller with 30 catches for 300 yards. "This is one of Ball State's deepest position groups," O'Gara explained. "The weakness is that they don't have any height. Justin Hall would probably be at a Power Five school if he wasn't 5-9. "Senior Corey Lacanaria is the sec- ond-best receiver, and he is 5-8. Look for Neal to go to his high school team- mate, junior Riley Miller, on third downs, and sophomore tight end No- lan Givan in the red zone." Improvement on offense depends on a line that will be counted upon to allow Neu and company to operate. From left to right, the Cardinals started junior Kaleb Slaven, senior Alex Joss, senior Andrew Poenitsch, sophomore Curtis Blackwell and senior Danny Pinter against Central Connecticut State in the opener. The group combined for 38 starts before this year, with all but Blackwell going down with an injury in 2017. GAME PREVIEW: BALL STATE Wounded Birds The Cardinals hope a return to health for two of their top players will get them back on track Facts & Figures NOTRE DAME VS. BALL STATE Game Info Date: Sept. 8, 2018. Site: Notre Dame Stadium (77,622). Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. ET. Television: NBC. Radio: This broadcast can be heard live on SIRIUS Satellite Radio (channel 129) and on Notre Dame's IMG affiliates. Series Facts: This is the first meeting between the two programs. Head Coaches: Ball State — Mike Neu (7-18, third season); Notre Dame — Brian Kelly (70-34, eighth season). Noting Ball State: The Cardinals have just nine seniors on their roster, which is tied for the second fewest among all Football Bowl Subdivision teams (behind only Illinois' 8) … Despite the lack of seniors, the Cards are tied for seventh nationally with 19 returning starters … Ball State will not leave the state of Indiana for the first six weeks of the season … The Cardinals have not defeated a Football Bowl Sub- division team since taking down UAB 51-31 on Sept. 9, 2017 … Ball State defeated Notre Dame in men's basketball 80-77 in overtime last December in South Bend. Redshirt junior James Gilbert rushed for 1,332 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2016, but played in just three games last year due to a hand injury. PHOTO COURTESY ICON SPORTSWIRE

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