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Ball State Football: 2018 Cardinals Preview and Prediction

Caleb Huntley, Ball State Football

Caleb Huntley, Ball State Football

Injuries sabotaged the 2017 season for Ball State before the Cardinals could get anything going. Not that Mike Neu's Cardinals planned to challenge Oklahoma for the title of college's best offense, but it's crucial to remember that Ball State lost its third-year starting quarterback, All-MAC running back, top returning receiver and two best offensive linemen before MACtion got underway. The Cards hope 2018 brings better luck.

Previewing Ball State Football's Offense for 2018

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Ball State scored just 10 touchdowns in MAC play last year while losing every league game by at least 16 points. "It was like we were stuck in a tornado and we couldn't get out of it," Neu says. "We can't make any excuses about it. We had to play a lot of young guys faster than we were ready for. But that was one consistent message I tried to impart to our team: 'Yes, it's difficult right now, but we're going to be better in the long run.'"

The running game is just one example. Star running back James Gilbert (1,332 yards, 12 TDs in 2016) played only three games before tearing a ligament in his right thumb. In his stead, freshman Caleb Huntley rushed for 1,003 yards, and junior Malik Dunner added eight rushing TDs while averaging 5.9 yards per carry. Ball State's brain trust worked all offseason to find ways to get at least two -- and sometimes all three -- of these weapons on the field at the same time. "We have a three-headed monster," Neu says.

Junior quarterback Riley Neal completed 68 percent of his passes for 659 yards and six TDs in the first three games but spent the rest of the year on the sidelines with a tibial plateau fracture in his right knee. Neal was granted a medical redshirt, as were Gilbert, wide receiver Corey Lacanaria and guard Alex Joss.

Neal's top target will be Justin Hall, who caught 78 passes en route to earning Freshman All-America honors in 2017. Nebraska transfer Keyan Williams is set to join the team this fall.

Previewing Ball State Football's Defense for 2018

Ball State's offensive woes had a trickle-down effect on a young defense that spent too much time on the field and surrendered 48.4 points per game in MAC play. While the Cardinals lose the services of graduated defensive end Anthony Winbush, one of the nation's leading sack artists, second-year coordinator David Elson spent the offseason switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4. Not only does that jibe with his preferences, but it's also better suited for Ball State's personnel.

The Cardinals welcome back last year's top three tacklers in junior middle linebacker Jacob White, sophomore strong safety Bryce Cosby and sophomore linebacker Brandon Martin. Martin is moving from the strong to the weak side to take advantage of his playmaking abilities.

Keep an eye on sophomore Christian Albright, who'll line up at outside linebacker and fill Winbush's pass-rushing role. Junior college transfer Ray Wilborn, an early enrollee, steps into the starting lineup as well.

Previewing Ball State Football's Specialists for 2018

Kick returner Malik Dunner earned third-team All-MAC honors after averaging 24.4 yards per return, including a 93-yard TD in the win over UAB. Senior placekicker Morgan Hagee was automatic during his first two seasons but converted just 6-of-11 from 30 to 47 yards last season. Ball State was next to last nationally in net punting -- a stat that is exacerbated when you punt 75 times in a 12-game season.

Final Analysis

The Cardinals should show significant improvement across the board -- assuming they don't suffer a similar rash of injuries. That, however, might not be enough for them to make a significant move in the MAC West, the more challenging of the league's two divisions.

College Football Rankings: Ball State

NATIONAL RANKING: 120

MAC WEST PREDICTION: 6