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Ball State at Indiana Game Preview: Can Kevin Wilson and the Hoosiers finally shake off the Cardinals?

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CHIRP CHIRP SOMEONE GRAB MY AIR RIFLE AND A GO-PRO TIME FOR A BIRD-HUNTING TUTORIAL

Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

Game Info / How to Watch

Who? Ball State Cardinals (#101 S&P+) v. Indiana Hoosiers (#60 S&P+)

When? Saturday, September 10th, 4:00 PM, Bloomington, Indiana

Channel? ESPN News

Vegas? INDIANA -17.5

_____________________________________________

The Hoosiers got their quest for a second-straight bowl game off to a wonderful start by dispatching of Florida International after a sluggish first half. In a strange role reversal from last year, Indiana was kept in the game thanks to huge plays on defense while the offense seemed to sputter inconsistently. Once Richard Lagow and his receivers settled in, it became far too tall a task for an over-matched Panthers' defense that already had its hands full trying to stop Devine Redding and the rest of Indiana's running backs from picking up yards in chunks.

Indiana leaves the hot swamp of South Florida to return home to (what had better be) a PACKED AND ROWDY Memorial Stadium on what will, assuredly, be a gorgeous Saturday afternoon in Bloomington. What awaits them might be the program's biggest bugaboo in the Kevin Wilson tenure: Ball State University.

Our friends from Muncie haven't played the Hoosiers on the gridiron all that much (only seven total meetings starting in 1997) and the series began with the Cardinals playing the role of cupcake to the perpetually-struggling Hoosiers. You couldn't count on many wins out of the Cream and Crimson, but Ball State coming to town was typically money in the bank.

Until 2008.

Coming off their first bowl game since the Mesozoic Era, the 2008 Hoosiers were looking to do what the 2016 Hoosiers are also attempting: achieve back-to-back bowl games. They started 2-0 with nondescript victories over FBS newcomer Western Kentucky and FCS Murray State before welcoming Nate Davis, Brady Hoke and the Cardinals into Memorial Stadium, who then summarily whooped on a hapless Hoosiers outfit, winning by 22 points en route to a perfect 12-0 season that would have put Ball State legitimately in position to crash the BCS as an at-large if Utah didn't exist. The second half collapse in the MAC Championship and ensuing blowout in the GMAC Bowl took much of the shine off of the season, as the Cardinals were ranked #12 in the BCS prior to the MAC Championship and finished the season unranked.

The schools wouldn't meet again until 2011, by then both changing coaches, with Kevin Wilson hosting his Indiana debut against Ball State in Lucas Oil Stadium. Indiana took a 17-14 lead into halftime but managed only three more points in the second half, losing 27-20. The schools met up again in 2012 in a wildly entertaining back-and-forth affair that saw true freshman Nate Sudfeld come into the game down 13 the 4th quarter down and score twice in the final four minutes to put the Hoosiers up late. With only 49 seconds left on the clock, the much-maligned Indiana defense could not keep Ball State from matriculating the ball into field goal range, putting the winner through the uprights with no time left.

Ball State is 4-51 all time against Power 5 / BCS programs and three of those victories are against the Hoosiers. But the past is rarely prologue in college football and middling Big Ten teams that want to go to bowl games consistently rarely get there if they drop non-conference engagements to MAC schools.

THE OPPONENT

Pete Lembo, who oversaw Ball State's last two victories over the Hoosiers, bolted for College Park after a 3-9 season that could have easily been an 0-12 campaign. Ball State never cleared the 50th percentile for performance in any of their 12 games last year and had Lembo not chosen to leave, it was unlikely Ball State was going to retain him. In his place is Mike Neu, who retained Lembo's offensive coordinator, perhaps in hope that they can build off the small success Ball State had on that side of the ball with their sophomore quarterback not needing to change systems in Year 2.

Offense (#108 S&P+)

Ball State (much like FIU) retains a lot from last season but they are dealing with significant losses across the offensive line along with last year's leading receiver: Jordan Williams-Lambert (72 catches, 920 yards, 8 touchdowns). After a mildly successful true freshman campaign, Riley Neal returns under center to lead the Cardinals quick-passing attack.

Again, much like FIU, Ball State's passing game is reliant on getting the ball out quickly to receivers in open space and letting them pick up the yards to convert first downs. This helps avoid sacks, but if receivers can't make plays one-on-one, it leads to some horribly inefficient outings. And that's how it played out in the Georgia Dome against Georgia State in Week 1. Neal completed 15 passes on 29 attempts for a dreadful 130 yards, with no touchdowns and two interceptions. Ball State's leading receiver KeVonn Mabon had only 69 yards (nice) and needed eight catches to do it.

Unlike last year, however, Ball State was able to rely on their running game to save them as they piled up 325 yards and 4 touchdowns on 52 carries, lead by James Gilbert (5.5 YPA, 160 yards) and Darian Green (7.2, 93). Ball State was 104th in Rushing Success Rate and Rushing Explosiveness last year, and a reshuffled line probably lead many to think they'd continue to struggle in that regard at least to begin 2016; but there was no such struggle against the Panthers.

Defense (#73 S&P+)

After a year where the defense was among the worst, Neu brought in Tim Daoust to help a unit that struggled mightily to disrupt opponents' offensive rhythm with their front seven, which lead to a disaster in the secondary that was being asked to hold up for far too long on a per play basis.

Again, I defer to Bill Connelly:

The Ball State secondary desperately needed help from the pass rush and didn't get any. Left to its own devices, it bombed. Opponents completed an incredible 71 percent of their passes (worst in the country by more than two percentage points) with 26 touchdowns to just seven interceptions. BSU allowed a passer rating of 160.7, which basically means that the Cardinals turned every opposing passer into Jared Goff (161.3 in 2015).

To their credit, Ball State's secondary should improve solely thanks to experience, as the unit fielded no seniors in 2015 and all eight of their top players have returned for this season. The early returns, in the smallest sample size imaginable, are very good. Georgia State managed only 149 yards through the air on 40 attempts, and only 77 on the ground in 25 attempts. The Cardinals also had 7 sacks and tackles for loss combined, perhaps showing that the unit is going to be more successful than the one who finished the year ranked 119th overall last season.

THE HOOSIERS

After sleepwalking on offense through the first half against FIU, the Hoosiers woke up midway through the third and put together a very complete performance, winning by an amount that should satisfy both those who watched the game and those who merely peeped the box score after the fact.

Offense (#73 S&P+)

Hoo boy. After being projected to be a top-25 offense in the country the Hoosiers came out flat against FIU and it shows up in their statistical profile. While it'll be a few games before we can glean any useful information out of these rankings (and expect them to vary wildly from week-to-week as things settle in) we can spend at least this week touting INDIANA, DEFENSIVE-MINDED FOOTBALL SCHOOL.

Indiana's glaring issue on Thursday night was their inability to finish drives. On a night in which the defense contributed two touchdowns and a safety, it can cover up the dreadful performance the offense had, one where they did not hit paydirt until Danny Friend crossed the goal line with thirteen minutes left in the fourth quarter. The Hoosiers had no problem getting across the 50-yard line, doing it 12 times in their 14 drives, but once in plus-territory the offense was haunted by penalties, missed field goals, botched holds, and turnovers; leaving gobs of points on the board in the process.

Lagow was serviceable is in first start, getting a touchdown in the air and on the ground while not turning the ball over. He missed some throws early on that he'll probably hit more often as the season goes on. And it should always be noted that he did this all without Simmie Cobbs, who missed the game with a suspension. As JUCO transfer, I imagine Lagow gravitated to the 6'5" wideout coming off a 1,000-yard season and to conduct his opening act without him probably didn't help things.

The run game successfully ground FIU up into a dust as the game wore on. Defenders dropped to their knees with cramps and various maladies throughout the contest and Indiana kept handing the ball off, letting their strongest unit plow the roads for just about every running back on the active roster. It's a formula we should see frequently against Ball State. Indiana's offensive line is a terrifying monstrosity and any success is going to be predicated on that group staying healthy and dominant.

They did have some false starts in key spots, something I'm sure drove the staff crazy and hopefully will not be a critical issue going forward.

Defense (#48 S&P+)

I've got few complaints through one week here. Outside of the huge defensive touchdowns, Indiana did a good job of getting penetration up front, limiting FIU to 63 yards on 21 carries, 27 of which came on a single option pitch during the game's first drive. That said, they could do a better job generating negative plays, as they ended the game with only one sack and two tackles for loss. Granted, FIU's offense is designed to get the ball out quick, which helps prevents sacks but comes at the expense of deeper throws downfield.

Tackling was much better than last year's game against FIU (not that it had much room to be worse) and while the first guy didn't always finish the job, he typically held the guy up long enough for reinforcements to arrive and finish the job. Tackling will, again, be at a premium this week as the Cardinals run a similar quick pass attack. If the Hoosiers can't wrap up the ball carrier and force Ball State to get yards 3 or 4 at a time, it could be trouble.

Also Tony Fields made an incredible play on the opening drive, recovering quickly to knock the ball out of Jonnu Smith's hands in the back of the endzone on third town to force a field goal. It's plays like that, where guys don't quit on themselves despite getting beat, that make all the difference.

THREE THINGS

  • This is a huge damn spread and I don't trust it. As of writing the Hoosiers are 17.5 point favorites in their home opener and while a lot has changed since the last time these two teams met, I would be stunned if they win that easily. I think the Hoosiers prevail by a touchdown or so, but I would never give Ball State two and a half touchdowns in Memorial Stadium. We could beat Ball State by over 100 a thousand times in a row and I probably still wouldn't do it.
  • I think Lagow has a pretty long leash and that's probably a good thing. As drive after drive sputtered in the first half, there were rumblings on Twitter to give Zander a chance to ignite the offense but Kevin Wilson stayed with his starter throughout the game and it finally payed dividends in the fourth quarter with two touchdown drives. I'm sure we're all hoping for an earlier return on the investment this weekend but Wilson seems to be sticking with Lagow for the foreseeable future. Whether Zander gets some looks as more of a zone-read guy in certain, defined situations remains to be seen (a la Tyron Swoopes), but I don't expect Wilson to be pulling Lagow anytime soon.
  • Go to the game. It's going to be ridiculously nice weather this weekend and the Week 2 slate across college football is pathetic. If you stay home to watch Michigan play UCF, Ohio State play Tulsa, followed by Tennessee playing Virginia Tech (not kidding, that's the entire ABC slate for Saturday) I'm going to call the cops.