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Ball State got nuked by injuries in 2017. Last year’s pain is this year’s gain?

Third-year coach Mike Neu gets a mulligan for last year’s disaster.

NCAA Football: Ball State at Northern Illinois Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

It was sometime in late-October when I began to notice, holy crap, Ball State is collapsing. Neu’s second squad had begun by nearly beating Illinois and keeping UAB and Tennessee Tech at arm’s reach. They fell at WKU by 12, which wasn’t ideal, but at 2-2, this seemed like a viable MAC squad, just as it was in 2016.

Then, almost overnight, it wasn’t.

  • Western Michigan 55, Ball State 3
  • Akron 31, Ball State 3
  • Central Michigan 56, Ball State 9
  • Toledo 58, Ball State 17

What the hell was going on here? I looked into the issue, expecting to see a key injury or two. But what was happening in Muncie was far more devastating.

It continued.

  • Eastern Michigan 56, Ball State 14
  • Northern Illinois 63, Ball State 17
  • Buffalo 40, Ball State 24
  • Miami (Ohio) 28, Ball State 7

In eight conference games, BSU got outscored by an average of 48-12. The offense got a smidge better late in the year, but only marginally so. This was the worst team in the country over the final two months of the season, and justifiably so.

  • Starting quarterback Riley Neal completed 68 percent of his passes, then got hurt three games in. Backup Jack Milas got the job but did nothing with it, producing a dreadful 88 passer rating — 53 percent completion rate, 8.8 yards per completion, two touchdowns, eight interceptions. Sophomore Zack Blair got more involved, then was lost for the season, too. Freshman Drew Plitt played and looked like a freshman.
  • Starting running back James Gilbert, a 1,300-yard rusher in 2016, also only made it three games in. The lion’s share of the carries went to a freshman, Caleb Huntley.
  • Starting receivers Corey Lacanaria and Jordan Hogue played in a combined five games. Tight end Danny Pinter made it seven games. The targets went to 5’9 freshman Justin Hall, and fellow freshman Khalil Newton became an interesting target in November.
  • No one started all 12 games on the offensive line. Only two started even 10. Nine guys started at least once.

It was a similar story on defense, where only half of the team’s Game 1 starters made it through 12 games unscathed. Freshmen got extensive playing time at defensive end, outside linebacker, cornerback, and safety.

This is all one long way of saying Neu gets a mulligan for 2017. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a team get this wholly devastated by injury, and I’m not sure there’s a single Group of 5 team that would’ve handled this without collapsing.

It’s also in the past. And 2018 could see a pretty stark bounce back, if guys stay healthy. Neal, Gilbert, Lacanaria, and Hogue are back. So are seven of the nine part-time line starters and the sophomores who were asked to take on far more of a load than expected — Huntley, Hall, Plitt, Newton, tight end Nolan Givan, backup RB Markice Hurt Jr. On defense, the line is thinned out, but the back seven returns almost everybody.

And with five home games (and one road game) against teams projected 87th or worse in S&P+, BSU’s win total should at least double, and maybe triple, in 2018.

Offense

2017 Ball State offensive radar

Since 2017 was such a wash, allow me to link to last year’s offensive radar as well. That way, you can get a better feel for coordinator Joey Lynch’s intentions: avoiding lost yardage and setting up third-and-manageables.

Lynch served as the bridge from Pete Lembo’s briefly successful tenure to Neu’s and has been in Muncie since 2009. His is supposed to be an efficiency-first system with high completion rates and minimal losses, but once Neal went down, the latter disappeared. And big plays, which have always been an afterthought, went missing entirely.

2017 Ball State offensive efficiency & explosiveness

BSU averaged just three gains of 20-plus yards per game, 128th in FBS. Huntley was pretty good at gaining five yards here and there but almost never gained more. And of the 11 players to catch at least four passes last year, only one averaged more than a paltry 10.4 yards per catch: Newton, whose first catch didn’t come until November.

This total lack of explosiveness meant that BSU had to engineer eight- or 10-play drives to put itself in scoring position. Hard to do with a M*A*S*H unit for a two-deep.

Ball State v Illinois
Riley Neal
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

The importance of Neal’s return can’t be overstated. He threw for 2,276 yards with a 58 percent completion rate as a freshman in Lembo’s final year, then raised those numbers to 2,541 and 61 percent as a sophomore. He was on fire at the beginning of last year, and BSU’s scoring average (33 points per game through three games) reflected that. I fully assume he’ll win the starting job, though having both Plitt and former Texas A&M QB Hank Hughes around to push him won’t hurt.

He’ll also have a skill corps loaded with experience.

  • Huntley brings decent efficiency to the table, while Gilbert’s return adds some big-play pop. Malik Dunner also emerged as a potentially explosive option, averaging eight yards per carry over the final five games.
  • Hall was the most efficient weapon on the team last year, and Lacanaria’s return gives Neal a pair of dink-and-dunk options in the slot. Plus, split end Riley Miller’s marginal efficiency (plus-11.1 percent) was the best on the team, and Givan’s size and three-star recruiting profile suggest he might have more to offer with more experience.
  • Explosiveness could still be an issue, though Newton’s late-season emergence is intriguing. He was all-or-nothing (29 targets, only 12 catches), but the three games in which he caught more than one pass were BSU’s three best offensive performances in MAC play.

At its best, the Ball State offense pulls you from side to side, avoiding negative plays and working at a high tempo — the Cardinals were 10th in Adj. Pace in 2016 before Lynch smartly hit the brakes with all of last year’s injuries. The Cardinals can play keep-away with the best of them, keeping opposing offenses off the field and theoretically wearing opponents down. We saw almost none of this in 2017, but the pieces are in place again.

They’re in place for now, at least. We’ll see who the injury bug bites this time around.

Toledo v Ball State
Justin Hall (12) and Drew Plitt (11)
Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Defense

2017 Ball State defensive radar

When you’re in a parity-heavy league without standout resources, you almost have to choose which side of the ball you want to be good on. You probably won’t have the pieces to end up above-average in the MAC on both offense and defense.

Over the last seven years, BSU has ranked 65th or better in Off. S&P+ four times; in that same span, the Cardinals have never ranked better than 88th in Def. S&P+. Hell, they haven’t ranked in double digits since 2013.

Neu brought in a new defensive coordinator last year to help, but while the defense wasn’t hit nearly as hard by injuries as the offense, it was hit hard enough. David Elson’s unit was too young for him to show what he might want to do. And just as big plays were an issue in their low volume on offense, big plays were an issue for the opposite reason on defense.

2017 Ball State defensive efficiency & explosiveness

Opponents averaged more 30-yard gains in 2017 (3.3, 126th in FBS) than Ball State averaged 20-yard gains. That probably added about a touchdown’s deficit to the scoreboard before factoring in any of BSU’s other problems. Elson appeared to want to attack — 46th in Adj. Sack Rate, 36th in defensive line havoc rate, 68th in overall havoc rate — but didn’t have the pieces. And the ones he had were up front and have probably now graduated.

Six players took part in at least five run stuffs last year, and four are gone. End Anthony Winbush was second on the team in stuffs and had nearly half of BSU’s 24 sacks; his departure hurts, as does that of stuffs leader Damon Singleton. Both starting tackles are gone, too.

The backup linemen were at least a little bit encouraging, though. Tackles Chris Crumb and Fred Schroeder combined for 28.5 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss, while the end foursome of sophomores Christian Albright and James Jennette III and juniors Sean Hammonds Jr. and Akeem Hutchinson combined for 39.5 tackles and 9.5 TFLs. And I’m curious what sophomore linebacker Jaylin Thomas can do with a full season of work — he got more playing time than expected when Singleton missed action, and he nearly matched Singleton’s TFLs total.

Not relying as much on freshmen and sophomores in the secondary should help with the big-play pass totals, though granted, Elson will still be relying on sophomores and juniors.

Bryce Cosby and Brett Anderson II were thrown into the starting safety positions from day one of their true freshman campaigns. Elson had to know what he was getting himself into by doing that, but theoretically he is rewarded for his decision with stability in future seasons. Juniors Romero Wade and Lamar Anderson saw plenty of rotation time as well.

The safeties will get support from two senior cornerbacks: Josh Miller (14 passes defensed in 2017) and Marc Walton (14 passes defensed in 2016 before losing part of 2017 to injury). Sophomores Antonio Phillips and Verenzo Holmes Jr. combined for four passes defensed and three TFLs as well.

There’s quantity in the back but unknown quality. There’s potential quality in the front but unknown quantity. Luckily, if nothing else, there’s a low bar, too.

NCAA Football: Ball State at Indiana
Mitch Larsen (29) and Josh Miller (11)
Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

It was almost mean that, while dealing with such extreme injury and youth, Neu also had to watch his special teams unit fall apart. The Cardinals plunged from 72nd to 124th in Special Teams S&P+. Morgan Hagee’s place-kicking went from good to mediocre, and punting went from mediocre to worst in the country — bad timing considering how much BSU punted in 2017.

None of that is guaranteed to improve in 2018, but at least BSU has Malik Dunner and Corey Lacanaria. The former averaged 24.4 yards per kick return with a touchdown, and the latter averaged 14.8 yards per punt return before injury. If you can’t derive a field position advantage from your kicks, at least make sure your opponents can’t either.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
30-Aug Central Connecticut NR 12.2 76%
8-Sep at Notre Dame 7 -35.8 2%
15-Sep at Indiana 58 -16.6 17%
22-Sep Western Kentucky 90 -4.8 39%
29-Sep Kent State 127 5.9 63%
6-Oct Northern Illinois 69 -9.4 29%
13-Oct at Central Michigan 116 -2.6 44%
20-Oct Eastern Michigan 96 -3.3 42%
25-Oct at Ohio 68 -14.6 20%
31-Oct at Toledo 49 -18.4 14%
13-Nov Western Michigan 87 -5.7 37%
20-Nov at Miami (Ohio) 82 -12.4 24%
Projected S&P+ Rk 117
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 114 / 108
Projected wins 4.1
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -8.3 (107)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 101 / 109
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -9 / -4.7
2017 TO Luck/Game -1.8
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 82% (90%, 74%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 2.7 (-0.7)

S&P+ isn’t designed to take injuries into account — it only sees that BSU collapsed last year and, outside of the defensive line, returns nearly everybody in 2018. Because of that, I think that the Cardinals’ No. 117 projection is artificially low. The Cardinals were 84th in 2016, and while that might be too high, I would guess they end up closer to that than last year’s No. 122 finish.

If they indeed rank in the double digits, a bowl run is on the table, but there’s not a lot of room for error. The schedule features four extremely likely losses (road trips to Notre Dame, Toledo, Indiana, and Ohio), plus a trip to Miami (Ohio) and a visit from NIU, both of whom might be a little too far ahead of BSU.

That means that BSU will have to sweep the other six games, and while five of those are at home, that’s probably too much to ask.

The goal for 2018 is to approach 2016 levels and go from there. A rebound to four or five wins would set the table nicely for 2019.

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