Before Northwestern hits the conference schedule and a matchup with Minnesota, the Wildcats welcome the Ball State Cardinals to Ryan Field Saturday. Similar to NU’s contest against Eastern Illinois, Pat Fitzgerald will be looking for a dominant performance against an opponent from outside the power five.
Ball State started off their 2015 campaign with a victory by defeating the Virginia Military Institute Keydets 48-36, but they were quickly dismissed by Texas A&M in week two by a score of 56-23, a game in which the Aggies led 49-3 at halftime.
The Cardinals dug themselves a big hole in week three, trailing Eastern Michigan 17-0 midway through the second quarter. However, running back Darian Green and quarterback Riley Neal ran wild from there on out as Ball State scored 28 unanswered points to start MAC play 1-0.
Sitting at 2-1, fifth year head coach Pete Lembo has an interesting decision to make. Neal, a true freshman, has not started in any of the Cardinals’ first three contests, but he replaced sophomore starter Jack Milas against EMU and A&M and clearly outperformed him. It might be time for Lembo to tab a new starter under center.
Neal was phenomenal in the EMU game, completing 24 of 28 passes and totaling 194 yards through the air. He also ran for 86 yards on 11 carries, none more spectacular than his 41-yard touchdown run. At 6-foot-5 and nearly 220 pounds with agile feet and decent strength, Neal actually looks a lot like Clayton Thorson.
The lanky youngster replaced Milas for good reason. Milas was a combined 1-13 passing in the last two games. No matter who starts at quarterback, Ball State will typically work from the shotgun, and they will rely more on the run. The Cardinals have produced 53 percent of their total yards on the ground so far this season.
Green and James Gilbert highlight a trio of backs who have combined for most of those rushing yards. Green, a 5-foot-8 sophomore, is averaging 7.4 yards per carry on 45 touches. He also handles kick returning duties and is averaging over 26 yards per return.
Gilbert is also 5-foot-8 but weights almost 15 more pounds than Green, so he’s asked to finish off drives at the goal line. Gilbert has scored five touchdowns and is averaging 4.5 yards per carry. Pat Fitzgerald compared both Green and Gilbert to Auston Anderson, mentioning their speed, agility and spin moves.
Most of the Cardinals’ playmakers lie in the backfield, but wideout Jordan Williams is a deep threat that NU will have to keep tabs on Saturday. Williams has over 200 receiving yards already and is averaging 14.3 yards per grab.
On the defensive side of the ball, Ball State has a pair of stud safeties in Martez Hester and Dedrick Cromartie. They are two of the top three tacklers on the Cardinal roster and each has a pass break up this season.
Ball State has a couple of decent pass rushers up front as well. Defensive end Joshua Posley and tackle Anthony Winbush have a combined four sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss this season.
How Northwestern attacks and performs against this defense will be the number one thing to watch Saturday. The Widlcats’ defense has dominated in each of their three games thus far. The questions about that unit are gone. Now, Pat Fitzgerald needs to see if his offense is ready for Big Ten play.
Ball State is an opponent that NU should score at least 30 or 40 points on. To make that happen, Clayton Thorson will have to improve from a miserable outing against Duke, and the wide receiver corps will need to run better routes and revamp their blocking on the outside.
Northwestern is looking strong in nearly every phase at this point. The offense just needs to complement its stellar running game with a competent aerial assault to complete the Wildcats’ attack. In a game that NU should win handily, keep an eye on the passing game against Ball State.