Following a season-opening matchup against Michigan, the 2018 Notre Dame football schedule has on it a September 8 home clash against the Ball State Cardinals. Despite the fact that the Irish and the MAC-based Cardinals are both located within the state of Indiana, this meeting will mark their first-ever matchup.
Last season, the promise of a 2-1 start for head coach Mike Neu soon gave way to a never-ending string of injuries. That led to disaster and nine consecutive losses to saddle the Cardinals with a 2-10 finish, with both sides of the ball ultimately falling apart. The offense only managed an average of 13 points during this lethal stretch, while the defense coughed up an average of 47 points per game.
Ball State Offense: Some Welcome Returns
Once Riley Neal went down with a season-ending injury in Ball State’s win over Tennessee Tech, the Cardinals’ passing offense effectively died. Neal had thrown for more than 4,800 yards over the course of his previous two seasons and connected for 29 TD receptions during that same time frame.
Behind Neal will be some key offensive assets, especially the presence of another player felled by injury, James Gilbert. In 2016, Gilbert ran for more than 1,300 yards and had gained 207 in three games before his season ended. A return to form this season would be appreciated, with the early-season spot on the Notre Dame football schedule offering a quality test.
As a freshman last year, Caleb Huntley managed to break the 1,000-yard threshold after being pressed into service. That experience will help, while the return of Malik Dunner gives the team someone who scored eight times in 2017 and also serves as a receiving or kick return option.
One of Neal’s favorite receivers in 2016 was Corey Lacanaria, who was yet another injury victim and only caught 12 passes last season. He was a popular target in the spring game, with sophomores Justin Hall and Khalil Newton also possible considerations. Hall, who stands just 5-foot-9, had a team-high 78 catches, while Newton had breakthroughs late in last year’s miserable campaign.
The injury bug also affected the offensive line, which managed to start nine different players at those five positions over the course of the year. That chaotic situation resulted in seeing the number of sacks allowed spike by nearly twice the 2016 amount. This area still figures to struggle this year, which could put Neal under siege when facing the talent-laden Irish.
Ball State Defense: Change is Afoot
After using a 4-3 defense last year, the decision was made in the offseason to make the Cardinals a 3-4 unit. How that affects the 2018 edition of this squad remains to be seen, but the combination of injuries and inexperience on this side of the ball helps explain how the bottom dropped out in this department.
The defensive line no longer has its best rusher in Anthony Winbush, with Chris Crumb looking to pick up at least a portion of that slack this season. Standing at just six-feet tall, he doesn’t offer an imposing threat, but finished last year with 2.5 sacks and then had a solid spring.
The linebackers are led by Jacob White, who led the team in tackles with 72 last season. That accomplishment was both admirable and indicative of the Cardinals’ plight since White spent the final nine games wearing a cast after breaking his hand. Joining him will be Brandon Martin and Christian Albright, with Martin the more aggressive when it comes to the run.
The Ball State secondary will have players like Bryce Cosby and Romero Wade playing deep, with Josh Miller manning one of the corner slots. Many of these players got a baptism under fire during the team’s injury plague, with that painful experience hopefully helping them develop more rapidly.
Ball State Special Teams: Steady as She Goes
Morgan Hagee gives the Cardinals a mixed bag, since he’s very accurate for field goals kicked but doesn’t possess a powerful leg. He can also punt, but Nathan Snyder should again handle those duties. On the return front, Dunner’s efforts on kickoffs will be complemented by Lacanaria’s punt return capability.