BY JACK KIZER | Ball State Sports Link
It’s been a long time since 2008. Ten years ago, the iPhone was just over a year old, George W. Bush was president, Snapchat and Instagram didn’t exist, and Ball State Football was in the midst of an undefeated regular season.
Well, that undefeated year for the Cardinals is the last time they beat Northern Illinois. The Ball State players and coaching staff understand it’s been too long. Here’s how the Cards can flip the script on Saturday and take home the Bronze Stalk Trophy:
LIMIT THE NORTHERN ILLINOS PASS RUSH:
NIU leads the Mid-American Conference in sacks with 16 through five games. A big chunk of that number comes from defensive end Sutton Smith, a 2017 first-team All-American (led the nation with 14 sacks) and 2018 pre-season second-team All-American. Smith has totaled five solo sacks thus far (2nd in the MAC) and has also reeled in 10.5 tackles for loss (1st in the MAC). He beefed up 20 pounds over the off-season and all 6’1″, 240 of Smith will be coming full force at the Ball State backfield.
Smith and the rest of the Huskie’s pass rush will pose a difficult blocking assignment for a Ball State offensive line that will be without two of its best anchors, Alex Joss and Kaleb Slaven, due to injuries. The new o-line played a full game versus Kent State last week and held up well, only relinquishing two sacks to the third best pass rush in the conference. The passing numbers also show the fruits of their labor as Riley Neal threw 50 times for 400 yards and four touchdowns. If Neal consistently has a clean pocket, he clearly has the ability to carve up defenses. Another week of practice has only helped the cohesion between the players up front, but the test certainly gets more daunting this Saturday.
Conference season is where Ball State running back James Gilbert has shined brightest. Last year’s chance to terrorize opposing MAC defenses was halted by injury, but Gilbert’s stats from 2016 are nothing short of fantastic. He ran for over 100 yards in six of the eight conference games, including a 264-yard performance against Buffalo and three touchdown outing versus Northern Illinois.
Of the three primary running backs Ball State uses, Gilbert is the best and the most consistent. With what he brings to the table and his strong track record against the Huskies, don’t be surprised if Gilbert receives a lot of touches this Saturday.
Unfortunately for JG and the Ball State offense, Northern Illinois’ run defense is extremely stout. Opponents are only rushing for an average of 125 yards/game (2nd in the MAC) and Eastern Michigan gained just 62 yards on the ground against NIU this past week. Establishing the run-game in this match-up will be vital to the balance and prosperity of the offense, and that starts with James Gilbert.
SPLIT THE UPRIGHTS
Scoring will be much more challenging for the Ball State offense than it was last week against Kent State when it racked up 52 points and 606 yards. Thus, field goals could be a huge factor in the outcome. Cardinals’ kicker Morgan Hagee has had his inconsistencies over the course of his career, but the senior has been pretty solid through the first five games of his senior season. Hagee has knocked in 7/10 field goal attempts, is 5-6 from inside 40 yards and set his career long with a 49-yarder at Notre Dame earlier this year. In a game many expect to be tight and potentially low-scoring, Hagee might be the difference maker.
Ball State and Northern Illinois kick off at 3pm. Pre-Game coverage begins with Sports Link Game-Day on Facebook Live.
With Alex Thomas, Jack Kizer, and Jarin Matheny on the call, the game broadcast can be found on SL Digital Radio: mixlr.com/bsusportslink