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Countdown to Illinois State

OTP Countdown200It’s the season opener in Muncie, one of about six days (all football gamedays) per year I long to be back in Muncie. But just because physically I’m not in East Central Indiana doesn’t mean my mind hasn’t been there all day. Finally, it’s time. It’s time for Ball State to take the field for what could be a ridiculously special season. It’s time for Keith Wenning to put his stamp on the program’s record book. It’s time for Pete Lembo to cement his reputation as “The Man” to hire when rebuilding is needed at your major program. It’s time for all that and more. But now, it’s time to Countdown to Illinois State.

5 Things You Should Know

  1. Illinois State and Ball State have met quite a few times before. BSU topped ISU 45-30 at Scheumann Stadium before it was named Scheumann Stadium in 1993 in the most recent meeting of the two squads. Overall, BSU leads the series 11-5 and has won seven straight.
  2. ISU is not your run of the mill bottom feeding FCS program. They are currently ranked 10th in the FCS Coaches Poll, were a FCS quarterfinalist last season, and they also beat an FBS program on the road. (Though in fairness it was EMU, so that’s a borderline FBS program at best) Either way, it means this isn’t a program struggling to find matching cleats and shoulder pads without missing straps. They know what they’re doing.
  3. This an extremely experienced ISU team. Out of the starting 22, only 4 are sophomores and none are freshmen. The rest are juniors and seniors and many have FBS experience after transferring into ISU. The schools from which those players came range from powers like Oklahoma, Michigan State, and Ohio State. There’s even a former Ball Stater in WR Phil Dudley, who is expected to start tonight.
  4. ISU head coach Brock Spack should be familiar with BSU. Spack, who came to ISU in 2009 is a Purdue alum and former Boilermaker coach. He’s 28-18 at ISU and each year has landed at least four players on the first team Missouri Valley Football All-Conference Team.
  5. In 2012, the Redbirds were road warriors. ISU was 6-1 on the road last season, including the aforementioned victory over Eastern Michigan. Grain of salt though: FCS road crowds have a tendency to be not as rabid as even a mediocre BSU crowd.

4 Players You Should Know

  1. Colton Underwood, DE – The rockstar of the Illinois State defense. Named to the Buck Buchanan Award Watch List, the Senior Bowl Watch List, First-Team All-American by the Sports Network, Phil Steele All-America First Team, and the First-Team Missouri Valley. Underwood is certainly capable of creating an impact, as he rang up career highs last year in single game tackles (15) and single-game sacks (3).
  2. Jordan Neukirch, FB – Named first team Missouri Valley, Third-Team All America by the Sports Network, and Second Team All-America by Phil Steele. Fullbacks gonna fullback, y’all.
  3. Chris Highland, LS – Named third team All-American by the Sports Network. Is there a real impact here? Probably not. But he is on an All-American team and since BSU is Specialist U, I have love for the long snappers.
  4. Jared Barnett, QB – A transfer from Iowa State, Barnet started nine games for Iowa State, leading them to upset victories over #19 Texas Tech, #2 Oklahoma State, and Kansas. He’s replacing the Missouri Valley Conference’s career passing leader in graduated Matt Brown, but does have the chops to continue the passing success.

3 Ways We Win

  1. Score, score, score some more – That seems sort of cliche in terms of outscoring your opponent, but ISU is capable of putting points on the board. Combine that with a relatively unknown quantity in the defensive secondary and I have a sneaking suspicion that ISU is going to put up points.
  2. Establish the run game early to open the passing game late – Or vice versa, but the more dominant the run game is early, the less of a chance the ISU defense pins their ears back and comes hard after Keith Wenning. Colton Underwood is a threat, and keeping him neutralized is of top priority.
  3. Control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball – Against an FCS team, even one with notable players on the offensive and defensive fronts of your opponent, BSU simply has to control the line of scrimmage. If that doesn’t happen, then the rushing game doesn’t get rolling, the passing game has to deal with pressure, and the Cardinal defense can’t force favorable down and distance situations. It’s imperative that this game look like an FBS team vs FCS team.

2 Cardinal Questions

  1. Can this Ball State team dominate the game with a killer instinct from minute one? This BSU team unlike years past has sizable expectations, buzz, and attention. In many respects, there’s more pre-season buzz about this team than the 2008 version. How that translates to the field is that opponents will always see this Cardinal squad coming and look at each game as an opportunity to take down one of the headline grabbers in the MAC West. Good teams survive pressure. Great teams thrive in it.
  2. What can we expect from an offensive line that is one of the only offensive questions? It isn’t that the BSU offensive line isn’t a skilled unit or an inexperienced unit, it’s that it’s just an unproven unit. Each player has experience, just not a lot of starting experience. How they react to this new role and how they play within it will be the deciding factor on the successfulness of the BSU offense this season. With holes for Jahwan Edwards and protection for Wenning, all of a sudden the defense no longer becomes a question mark as the offense is capable of just outscoring anyone when needed. But to get to that point requires an offensive line that exerts its will on command.

1 Bold Prediction

It’s games like this that in some respects worry me. It has all the makings of a trap game for the Cardinals, but if I’ve learned anything from the Pete Lembo regime it’s that the little things matter. Little things like living in the present, taking one game at a time, and understanding just how easy it is to take a loss if you are unprepared. The old quote from salty sports curmudgeon Bobby Knight seems like the underscore of the Lembo approach: “Everyone has a will to win, few have the will to prepare to win”. That’s really the Lembo Plan in its most basic form, that preparation to win. From special teams to warm ups, I find it hard to believe that CPL hasn’t already run over every possible permutation of gameplay in his mind and passed on the most valuable lessons to his team. Because of that, my worry for the Cards coming out flat and overlooking a potentially dangerous team just because of their classification is mitigated considerably. I think the outcome is contingent on the crowd and the atmosphere of Scheumann Stadium crazily enough. If the Cards come out of the Fisher Complex for kickoff with a loud and proud student body, that sort of energy transfers to the team and a beat down ensues. If it’s a mediocre turnout, the game starts slow, but talent ends up trumping the Redbirds. With a good crowd… BSU 42-17. A mediocre crowd… 35-21. BSU starts off 1-0 and has a week-plus to prepare for the tricky triple option of Army.

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