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Scouting Report: Illinois Fighting Illini vs. Ball State Cardinals

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Ball is not a state.

Western Michigan v Ball State Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

We can’t even begin to tell all of you how exciting it is to be examining an Illini opponent again. This season, TCR will be previewing all of Illinois’ opponents on the gridiron. If there is something else you would like to know ahead of Saturday (or Friday in some cases), please let us know in the comment section!

This week, Mike Neu’s Ball State Cardinals will travel to Champaign to open their season with the Fighting Illini. The MAC West’s worst team a year ago, Ball State comes into the 2017 campaign after posting a 4-8 record last season. While that’s not anything to brag about, it should be noted that 4 of the 8 losses the Cardinals had were by 7 points or less (2 were by 3 points or less).

Last Meeting/Series History

Illinois is (1-0) all-time against the Ball State Cardinals.

Last (and only) meeting: In 2007, Illinois won 28-17 at Memorial Stadium.

Ball State is (3-36-1) against teams in the Big Ten. All three wins have come against the Indiana Hoosiers in Bloomington -or- Indianapolis.


Strengths

Ball State can flat out run the football. Last season, the Cardinals assembled the 34th best rushing offense according to S&P rankings, touting the 30th best rushing yards per game average (220.0 yds/g). Ball State converted on 3rd down an average of 7.1 times per game in 2016 at a rate of 44.4%, which was the 13th best rate in college football last year. This isn’t overly surprising as their S&P ranking of average 3rd down distance was among the best in the NCAA, and having a quarterback as mobile as Riley Neal makes that an easier feat to overcome.

Neal was the third best rushing QB in the MAC, averaging 4.3 yards per carry, totaling 543 yards, and scoring 8 touchdowns. In the backfield is James Gilbert, who ran for 1332 yards (3rd in MAC) averaging 5.3 yards per carry (8th in MAC) and 12 touchdowns (T1st in MAC) in 2016. If there’s one thing that Illinois needs to defend against on Saturday, it’s the run.

Weaknesses

Everything behind the front 4 on defense.

Anthony Winbush, Kevin Willis, and John Swisher are going to be quality pass rushers up front for the Cardinals in 2017. After that, there is a LOT of doubt. Ball State graduated 8 players from their defense last season, including both of their safeties. The Cardinals were ranked 117th in the S&P on passing downs, and was 103rd in total defensive efficiency last season. While an aggressive rush managed to keep opposing running games in check, a loose secondary saw Ball State give up the third most passing yards in the NCAA (319.7 yds/g). If Illinois can throw the ball successfully, they will put up 40+ points against the Cardinals.


What We’re Concerned About

Illinois did not defend against the run well last season. Ranked 103rd in the nation in average rushing yards surrendered (219.2 yds/g), Ball State’s experienced rushing attack will cause some problems for the Illini on Saturday. The good news though, is that Illinois has a new JUCO transfer starting at linebacker in Del’Shawn Phillips. We will see how Hardy Nickerson will have his defense prepared to handle the Cardinal run-game...

Why We’re Not Worried

Ball State’s relatively one-dimensional attack means the Illinois defense can sell out a little more against the run. With veteran James Crawford and JUCO transfer Sean Adesanya covering the ends, Illinois should have things well under wrap defensively. On the other end of the ball, the Illini passing offense should get some early season momentum going up against one of the weaker passing defenses in college football. Chayce Crouch should be able to utilize his receiving corps (especially Malik Turner) to open up the defensive backfield, and we expect Mike Dudek to find the endzone in his first game back to the lineup in two seasons.