Well, after two weeks of sitting by and getting bored to death by my opponent previews, Steven decided to step back in and give it a go and... is that... are my eyes on fire? Is everything on fire? Why is everything on fire? Who let Steven in this house?
So I’m back again to provide you with a preview of this week’s opponent. Will this preview be as humorous as something from Steven? No. Will it be as eloquently written? No. But will you come away feeling satisfied with having invested the time in reading it? Probably also no, but let’s do this anyways.
If there’s one thing we learned from last week, it’s that you don’t tempt the Football Gods. You say, “we should easily handle this team,” and the Football Gods take a long, slow drag of their cheap cigarette and blow it right back in your face while laughing and drinking the last of your good liquor - not unlike that sleazy chick from freshman year of college who you thought would be a “fun time”. “It’s college, dude!” But, wait. Now you have feelings. This wasn’t supposed to happen. There’s no future here, she’s awful. Why do you have feelings? Why do you care? What is going on?! DAMMIT, STEVEN!!!
Okay! So. This week’s opponent: Ball State. Let’s learn us some stuff about Ball State, THE ABSOLUTE GREATEST COLLEGE FOOTBALL TEAM TO EVER PLAY THE GAME. PERIOD. END OF DISCUSSION.
Mike Neu is now in his fourth year back at his alma mater, and things aren’t really going well. In his first head coaching job not in the Arena Football League (he was actually the OC and then Head Coach for Raleigh’s own now-gone Carolina Cobras), Neu is just 11-28 coming off a 4-8 season where the team played very well through the first seven games of the season (they were 3-4), before getting decimated by injuries and falling apart. Not helping things is that the program is just 3-8 in one possession games over the last three-plus years. Combining bad injury luck with bad on-field luck is just... err... not lucky? I told you this wasn’t going to be as eloquent.
The good news for Neu and Ball State? This year’s team will probably the best one Neu has had (currently #109 in SP+), with one of the most experienced teams in the country (17 returning starters from last year). The bad news? That’s pretty easy, when his previous teams have finished ranked 96th, 123rd, and 119th in SP+, respectively. This year’s team is just 1-2 with the lone win being a 57-29 win over FCS Fordham, but the team played both Indiana (SP+ #48) and FAU (#88) close before ultimately faltering. It took a 50-yard Indiana FG with just 2:15 to play to finally put that game out of hand in the 10-point loss.
Leading this year’s Cardinals team is Junior QB Drew Plitt. In an offense (85th in SP+ O) that’s slightly more pass-heavy (40.4 pass attempts per game versus 36.0 rush attempts per game), Plitt has been rolling in his first full year as a starter. He’s completed 70.6% of his passes for 1,040 yards, 11 TDs, and 3 INTs, resulting in a Pass Efficiency Rating of 169.5 (for comparison, NC State QB Matt McKay has a PER of 120.3).
Junior RB Caleb Huntley has rushed for 231 yards and 2 TDs at a 4.7 yards/carry average thus far, looking to be back to his freshman year form that saw him rush for over 1,000 yards. He missed the last six games last year after suffering a knee injury.
The offense distributes the ball around well through the air, with seven different players having caught TD passes and ten different players with multiple receptions. The receiving corp doesn’t have a lot of size, but does have experience on its side. They’re led by two redshirt-seniors (Antwan Davis, Riley Miller) and a junior (Justin Hall). Davis (13 rec, 222 yds, 3 TD) and Miller (14/236/2) are your outside receivers, while Hall (16/162/1; 6 carries, 63 yards) is your more dynamic get-it-to-him-in-space type. Also of note is All-Name Team candidate Yo’Heinz Tyler, who has 7 receptions for 130 yards and a pair of TDs this year.
As a unit, there are 124 career starts accounted for across eight offensive linemen, including four guys with over 20 starts each. While the line has plenty of starting experience, they struggled last week allowing five sacks to an FAU team that only had three total in their first two games. They have paved the way for running backs to average 3.9 yards per carry.
The defense, which runs out of a base 3-4 alignment, has been a major concern for the Cardinals (113th in SP+ D). They’re allowing a hair under 35 points per game and only have 3.0 sacks to their credit. They have, however, been good at forcing turnovers, notching six total on the year (four interceptions, two fumbles), with an even two in each game. The defense also has tallied 20.0 tackles for loss.
The D-line lacks size (no starter over 272 pounds) and - aside from R-JR DE James Jennette III (13 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks) - an ability to consistently create pressure (just 2 QB hurries from the D-line on the year), but the linebacker corp has both size and productivity to their credit. Redshirt-SR Jacob White, R-JR Jaylin Thomas, JR Christian Albright, and R-SO Jordan Williams have all been great at cleaning up at the second level and have been the main driver in creating plays behind the line of scrimmage (11.0 TFL as a group).
The secondary is aaaaaaaaaa little rough. They’re allowing over 300 yards pass per game to opponents thus far, and have allowed opposing QBs to complete 65.8% of their passes. Not all of that can be placed solely on the shoulders of the corners and safeties - especially with a D-line that can’t generate consistent pressure - but they do deserve a good bit of the blame. The one thing they have done well? Intercept passes, with four total in three games. Sophomore CB Amechi Uzodinma II leads the group with two.
Punting (both kicking it away and returning it from opposing teams) is the strength of the special teams unit. Junior P Nathan Snyder is averaging 41.9 yards per punt with eight of his 12 punts being fair caught and he’s landed six punts inside the 20-yard-line. As a team, the Cardinals are averaging 12.0 yards per punt return.
Expecting this Cardinals team to come into Raleigh and knock off NC State is asking a lot, but the offense has clicked very well through the first three games and certainly has the experience and ability to put up points if the Wolfpack defense isn’t dramatically improved from last week. This is, after all, a Ball State team that hung with an Indiana team that profiles remarkably similar to NC State in SP+.
While this /should/ be a relatively easy win for NC State (have mercy on me, Football Gods), this isn’t a complete pushover Ball State squad - and the Wolfpack could easily have their hands full if they don’t come out playing well early.