Ball State Cardinals vs. Illinois Fighting Illini
11:00 a.m. CT
Memorial Stadium, Champaign, Illinois
A decade ago, college football fans debated superiority through total yardage. Five years ago, yards per play started to come to the fore as a better measure of offensive production.
And in 2017, Bill Connelly offers 20 different advanced statistics for every team and Tom Fornelli uses a unique algorithm to rank the best and worst teams in the country. College football discourse is constantly evolving and advancing, with better ways to analyze nearly every last detail of the sport.
But, cheesy though it may be, there’s one thing that simply can’t be measured by conventional nor unconventional means: intangibles. That’s not to say statistical analysis isn’t worthwhile or comprehensive whatsoever — I devour each new formula as it comes out.
It’s merely to say this: When Chayce Crouch took over for the just-injured Wes Lunt against Purdue in October, an unquantifiable electricity enveloped the oft-moribund Memorial Stadium. Fans seemed to cheer louder as the offense improvised its way to the endzone and players seemed to block harder as their new quarterback braved hit after hit in the open field.
Something about that day, whether it was the Chayce Crouch brand of leadership or the offensive style reminiscent of 2007, struck the Illinois football program with a nostalgic passion it hadn’t felt since at least the O’Toole O’Takeover.
Everything seemed perfect, until Chase McLaughlin doinked a potential game-winning 41-yard field goal off the uprights. The Illini lost in overtime.
And after his season-ending injury at the Rutgers game the following week, Crouch never got to show fans what would’ve happened with him at the helm long-term instead of Jeff George Jr. and Lunt. The offense immediately returned to frustrated incompletion after frustrated incompletion.
But Crouch has his opportunity now, against a Ball State team that should allow him all the space he needs to operate.
Ball State (2016: 4-8, 1-7 MAC, but an unlucky 1-4 in one-score games) comes to town in a similar situation to Illinois. The Cardinals’ second-year coach, former BSU quarterback Mike Neu, boasts one of the youngest rosters in football, with new starters at most position groups. Nowhere could that be more damaging against the Illini than in the middle of the field defensively.
Ball State will start two true freshmen at safety and three first-time starters at linebacker Saturday. Illini fans should be well-acquainted with the perils of new starters, particularly at safety (see: 2013, 2016). Head coach Lovie Smith and offensive coordinator Garrick McGee are wise enough to attack this group relentlessly, and they should. Short passes to Mike Dudek and Ricky Smalling could help build confidence for Crouch in his second-ever start and open up lanes for Illinois’ *crosses fingers* potent rushing attack.
And Kendrick Foster and Mike Epstein will need those lanes opened. The Illini’s ragtag, youth-laden offensive line, which may still not be cemented by game time, should have a fairly challenging match-up against Anthony Winbush (2016: All-MAC, 8.5 sacks) and the Cardinals’ experienced defensive line.
New Ball State defensive coordinator David Elson loves to bring pressure. The Cardinals will spend most of Saturday in a 4-2 Nickel, putting their defensive backfield in a zone and throwing an array of blitzes at Crouch and his line. Craig of Illiniboard noted in his preview that the Illini can abuse this by flooding the sidelines with receivers and running quick outs and screens to overwhelm the Covers 2/3 and minimize Crouch’s snap-to-throw time.
Between Ball State’s well-seasoned line and Elson’s willingness to make Crouch beat his secondary, Illinois may have some difficulty with McGee’s power-running schemes on Saturday. The faster the offense recognizes its advantages on the sidelines and in the deep middle of the field, the earlier the Illini will start moving.
On the other side of the ball, Illinois will face an even tougher test. Ball State’s spread offense was the team’s better unit by far last season. Quarterback Riley Neal will lead the Cardinals mostly out of a variety of pistol and shotgun formations. In his first season, head coach Neu didn’t ask Neal to make too many difficult throws. The Cardinals adopted an effective dink-and-dunk approach, moving the ball downfield through quick passes, quarterback options and a heavy reliance on their talented backfield.
That group, led by star running back James Gilbert, could cause problems for a young, undersized Illinois line. Sean Adesanya and James Crawford will be crucial to slowing down Ball State’s rushing attack, which primarily consists of off-tackle plays to the outside (also noted by Craig).
The Cardinals return three starting offensive linemen from last season’s solid unit, so expect at least a couple of frustrating 12-play drives that wear down the Illinois defense. Ball State excelled last season at staying “on schedule” and turning 1st-and-10 into 3rd-and-3 with regularity.
Where Illinois may have the opportunity to exploit some advantages is with the defense’s improved athleticism. Lack of experience aside, the Illini at least have the speed and size to handle Ball State at most positions.
Defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson should press that advantage, literally, by challenging the Cardinal receivers to get open one-on-one. Illinois will be without first-string cornerback Jaylen Dunlap on Saturday, but have enough talent in the secondary to force a couple turnovers.
Ball State will probably move the ball on the Illini, but Nickerson is banking on the Cardinals’ offensive weaknesses being similar to last year: a complete absence of explosiveness and a predilection for shooting themselves in the foot.
With all of Illinois’ youth on both sides of the ball, it wouldn’t be shocking if Saturday looked dicey at times. Any team with this many contributing freshman and sophomore starters will have rough patches.
There’s a reason Bill Connelly’s statistical projections have Illinois 85th-best in the country and USA Today ranked the Illini 112th nationally. In the same rankings, Ball State places 90th and 111th.
The statistics and the general consensus (see: Illinois -6.5) say this game has a good chance of ending in disappointment. It likely won’t be the cakewalk fans seem to expect.
But what Lovie Smith and Illini fans are truly hoping for is the return of that same electricity that coursed through the stands when Chayce Crouch dragged Illinois back into the game against Purdue. It’s a new year, with new leadership on the field, and Ball State represents the first real chance to see what this Illinois coaching staff has to offer.
This is the offense McGee wants to run. It’s the defense Smith and Nickerson want to run. Some of their recruits are already taking on significant roles.
Lovie’s youth movement has begun at Illinois, and Ball State is the first test.
Ball State has a few great match-ups against the Illini, particularly their advantages on both sides of the trenches. If Illinois can use its superior size to win those battles more often than not, this game could be a breeze. If Ball State gets rolling, then it’s going to be trouble.
I think the Cardinals are going to put up a challenge early, but fade late as Illinois wins a shaky contest by two scores.
ILLINOIS 35, BALL STATE 27
Follow Matt Silich on Twitter at @msilich2.