Despite being in neighboring states, this will be just the second meeting between Illinois and Ball State, with the previous matchup coming back in 2007. In all, the Cardinals are just 3-36-1 all time against teams from the Big Ten, with all three victories coming against in-state rival Indiana.
If there were ever a time to notch a win over another B1G foe, now would be it, as Illinois has not finished with an overall winning record since 2011, is having to replace its starting quarterback and returns just six starters on defense.
Can Illinois avoid an embarrassing home upset in Week 1 to begin Lovie Smith’s second season in Champaign? Or will yet another MAC squad pull off a shocker over a Big Ten opponent in the opener for a second straight year?
Ball State at Illinois
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 2 at 12 p.m. ET
TV Channel: Big Ten Network
Spread: Illinois -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Which quarterback steps up?
For the Illini, the original plan was to have former Virginia Tech and junior college transfer Dwayne Lawson under center in 2017, but that did not materialize. Instead, it will be up to junior Chayce Crouch to try and get the Illinois passing game up and running after averaging just 174 yards per game last season. Having two outstanding weapons on the outside should help in leading receiver Malik Turner and junior Mike Dudek, who returns to the field after missing the majority of the last two years due to injury. On the flip side, junior quarterback Riley Neal returns for the Cardinals after a sophomore slump, throwing for just 13 touchdowns with 12 interceptions. The thought is that a second season in head coach Mike Neu’s offense should serve him well.
2. Can the D jell?
All four starters up front are gone from last season for the Illini. Two or three junior college transfers could wind up in the starting lineup. Senior starting cornerback Jaylen Dunlap is expected to miss the opener due to injury. Can second-year defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson mesh together his six returning starters with the influx of freshmen and transfers to field a capable defense? Week 1 may not provide us with many answers, but the remainder of the non-conference schedule will, as Illinois will face two outstanding offenses in the coming weeks in Western Kentucky and South Florida.
3. Stopping James Gilbert
Ball State’s best chance at pulling the upset is relying on a ground game that ranked third in the MAC last season, averaging 220 yards per game on the ground with 25 rushing touchdowns. Star running back James Gilbert rushed for 1,300 yards and topped the 100-yard mark six different times last season, though only two of those performances came in wins. In addition to Gilbert, the Cardinals will look for contributions from backup Darian Green and even Neal, who ran for 540 yards and eight touchdowns. With Illinois having to replace all four starters along the defensive front, look for this to be an area Ball State attacks early and often with its more-than-capable ground game.
The Illini are not going to do anything overwhelming on offense, even against an inferior opponent, so limiting turnovers and playing solid defense will be imperative to avoid an embarrassing home upset in Week 1. They will have their hands full with stud running back James Gilbert, but if the Illini are to take a step in 2017, improving upon their 103rd-ranked rush defense from last season will be crucial, and this game should provide a barometer on their progress. Ball State will hang around, but look for the Illini to escape Week 1 with a narrow victory.
Prediction: Illinois 24, Ball State 23
— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. Follow him on Twitter @MBainbridgeCFF.
(Top photo courtesy of www.BallStateSports.com)