Continuing with our coverage of UAB football a year in advance, this week our focus turns to Ball State and their matchup with Indiana this weekend.
Ball State opened up their season with a 31-21 win over Georgia State from the Sun Belt conference. That was a pretty difficult road test for the Cardinals, and they came out with the win.
This weekend they will take on an Indiana team that got off to a slow start before finally putting away FIU from Conference USA.
Matchup: Ball State at Indiana
Where: Bloomington, Ind.
When: 3 p.m. CT
As a precursor, we are preparing each week for the game that UAB football will be playing a year from now. Last week we covered Alabama A&M, who UAB will begin the season with in 2017. Alabama A&M was destroyed by Middle Tennessee 55-0, which is how I hope the Blazers start the 2017 season.
In our previews we will try to focus on underclassman that will have an impact on next year’s game.
So even though our UAB football team isn’t playing this fall, we can watch their future opponents together and get a look at what we’ll be facing next year.
Ball State Review
After a couple of good years in 2012 and ’13 when they won 19 games, Ball State has taken a big step back with just 8 wins the last two season, including just three last year.
Mike Neu takes over as the head coach for Ball State this season. He played for the Cardinals in the early ’90s, and he most recently was the quarterbacks coach for the New Orleans Saints.
UAB and Ball State have never faced each other before in football, so the winner will have an edge up in the series.
I look for this to be a really good test for where UAB is at for #TheReturn. Alabama A&M should be a nice tune-up, but the Ball State game will show us just how good the Blazers can be in 2017.
Ball State Offense
We’llstart out at quarterback where the Cardinals are playing sophomore Riley Neal this season. As a freshman he threw for 2,276 yards, 16 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. He also ran for 476 yards (399 net) with two more touchdowns.
In the opener, Neal was not great throwing the ball, going just 15-of-29 through the air for 130 yards with 2 interceptions. He did rush four times for 48 net yards. I expect him to be a real factor in the game next year as a seasoned junior.
Ball State has another sophomore star this year in running back James Gilbert. Against Georgia State he rushed for 160 yards on 29 carries with 2 touchdowns. In his freshman season he ran for 608 yards and 8 touchdowns.
Running back Darian Green will be back in 2017 as well and is another good runner after picking up 730 yards and 5 touchdowns on the ground in 2015. He’ll be a senior when he faces the Blazers next year.
The only big loss at the skill position will be senior wide receiver KeVonn Mabon. He was the top pass catcher in 2015, and he got off to a good start this year with 8 catches in their opener.
They will lose two guys off the offensive line after this season, but should still be pretty solid up front.
I expect this to be a very good offense in 2017 with Neal, Gilbert and Green all coming back. Keep an eye on those guys against Indiana this weekend.
Ball State Defense
The Ball State defense returns nine starters for the 2016 season, and eight of them are seniors. That bodes well for UAB as they should be very inexperienced next season.
Senior linebacker Sean Wiggins is by far the best player on this defense in 2016. He picked up 95 tackles, 2 sacks, 2.5 tackles for a loss, 4 pass break-ups and 2 interceptions in 2015. UAB fans will be glad they won’t have to face him next year.
The main player to watch on the Ball State defense this year in preparation for next year’s game is Marc Walton. The sophomore cornerback could be problem for the UAB receivers next year. We’ll see how much he grows during his second season.
The Ball State defense gave up 35.8 points per game in 2015. I expect that to improve in 2016 with all the players they have back, but 2017 is a big question mark as they’ll be losing a lot of starting experience.
UAB-Ball State Preview
It sounds like the Ball State team will be one-sided in 2017 with an experienced group on offense, and an inexperienced group on defense.
Look for the maturation of Neal this season. If he becomes an elite quarterback in the MAC, I think UAB will have a tough time keeping them off the scoreboard next year.
If they remain a one-dimensional team running the ball on offense, I think the UAB defense will be able to handle them.
I like the fact that a unit that gave up over 35 points in 2015 and returns nine starters in 2016 will be virtually depleted by the time UAB faces them. We get them early enough in the year too that they will still be a young defense no matter what.
The 2017 UAB football team will probably be somewhere between the 2016 Georgia State and 2016 Indiana team. Georgia State lost to them by just 10 points, and I think Indiana will beat them by at least 15 points.
It’s a game that UAB probably should win, and if they don’t it could be a tough first season back for the Blazers.
Enjoy your college football weekend, and don’t forget to watch the Ball State Indiana game on ESPNews at 3 p.m. Central