Football: Q&A with Ball State beat writer ahead of Saturday’s matchup

Jake Fox of the Ball State Daily News gives an insider’s look on the Owls next opponent.

Florida+Atlantic+head+coach+Charlie+Partridge+%28center%29%2C+wide+receiver+Kalib+Woods+%284%29+and+other+Owls+run+off+the+field+following+the+team%27s+38-10+loss+at+Miami+on+Sept.+10.%2C+2016.+Brendan+Feeney+%7C+Sports+Editor

Florida Atlantic head coach Charlie Partridge (center), wide receiver Kalib Woods (4) and other Owls run off the field following the team's 38-10 loss at Miami on Sept. 10., 2016. Brendan Feeney | Sports Editor

Brendan Feeney, Sports Editor

Florida Atlantic welcomes the Ball State Cardinals (2-1) to Boca Raton on Saturday, where the Owls (1-2) won their only game of the season.

Preview the matchup here.

Jake Fox, a Cardinals beat writer for the Ball State Daily News, recently took some time to answer a few questions for the University Press ahead of Saturday’s matchup:

University Press: What’s the current state of the Cardinals?

Jake Fox: The coaches and players obviously feel good about a 41-14 win over Eastern Kentucky at home last weekend, but they’ve moved on from it … I think Ball State feels good about being 2-1, but they also know there are still areas of improvement.

UP: The Cardinals are one win away from tying last year’s total of three wins. What’s the main difference been? What were the expectations like entering the season? Have they changed now that the team is 2-1?

JF: This new coaching staff changed the culture of the team in my eyes. I think the players are excited to play each and every week. Head coach Mike Neu came in expecting to compete in every game and in the [Mid-American Conference]. So even though Ball State only won three games last year, the expectations were a lot higher than that. I don’t think expectations have changed with a 2-1 record, either. So that goes to show what they were before the year started.

UP: By looking at the box score, it looked like the team struggled to pull away from Georgia State. What was the theme of the game?

JF: I wouldn’t say they struggled to pull away. It was the start of the game that hurt them. [Starting quarterback Riley] Neal threw two picks on the first two possessions, but the defense held its own. The theme of that game was defense and the running game. It was tied at the half, but Ball State just wore them down on the ground in the second half.

UP: The next week, the team found itself down 30-3 entering the fourth quarter against Indiana, but fought back to make it a 10-point loss. What was that game like? Obviously coaches rarely say they’re satisfied with a loss and try to avoid moral victories, but was there any sense of that after the game?

JF: Again, early turnovers. Ball State turned it over three times in the first half. The defense didn’t play terrible, but it was big plays by the Hoosiers that killed them, including a screen pass that went for a long TD to start the second half … In terms of moral victories, no. Neu actually started his post-game presser by saying there are no moral victories. He was happy with the way they battled in the second half, but it was still a loss. They were more hungry to get back after it than happy they came back.

UP: After what appeared to be an inconsistent first couple of games, what was the team expecting to see and accomplish entering the last game against Eastern Kentucky?

JF: I think they just wanted to put it all together against EKU. The running game had been good, but the pass had not got going. The defense had been pretty solid, but big plays were hurting. The players and coaches talked about being excited to play at home. It translated, and Ball State put them away pretty early.

UP: After the game I saw quotes about coach Neu praising the defense. Is the defense the soul of the team? Is there any unit that the team hangs it hats on?

JF: So far, the defense has been the key. They ranked toward the bottom of the MAC in several categories last year, but especially pass defense. This year they’re only giving up 338 yards per game so far. It hasn’t just been one unit either. It’s been pretty consistent, overall. If I had to pick one unit, I’d go with the linebackers. Zack Ryan, Sean Wiggins and Aaron Taylor are all seniors and 3 of the team’s top 4 tacklers. They were key in holding EKU to 3 rushing yards last week.

UP: FAU’s offensive coaches noted that Ball State likes to blitz a lot. What should we expect from your defense?

JF: Ball State runs some exotic schemes and moves guys around, which has been successful so far. They do like to blitz and get after the quarterback, though. A lot of guys at different levels of the defense have a sack. With that being said, the defensive line has been the most consistent at getting in the backfield. Defensive end Anthony Winbush ranks in the top 10 nationally with 4 sacks.

UP: How about the offense? It appears it is a run-heavy team, in terms of statistics at least. How so though?

JF: The offense is up-tempo, but can change depending on the pace of the game. But for the most part, they like to spread it out and move pretty quickly. It’s pretty balanced, between run and pass. But they are committed to running the ball. I believe the success of the running game will only help the passing game as they move forward.

UP: James Gilbert seems to receive most of the running back touches, but a lot of others have received carries. What is the running back situation like?

JF: It’s a pretty legitimate committee approach. Darian Green actually is listed as the starter, but Gilbert gets the bulk of the carries. Green brings a nice change of pace, and freshman Malik Dunner has started getting more work recently. Teddy Williamson brings a lot of experience and has scored two TDs this year. I think a lot of it depends on the matchup and just taking advantage of whichever back’s skill set can exploit the defense. They’re not committed to using just one.

UP: Can you talk about Riley Neal? His stats look like he isn’t afraid of tucking and running with the ball. It also looks like he can be erratic or inconsistent when forced to throw. What has his play been like and what should we expect from him?

JF: Neal started off a little rough, but completed his first 16 passes against EKU. He’s got good size, and can run and throw. He’s got a lot of what you want for a college quarterback. I think like any quarterback, he struggles a bit under duress. That’s how his first interception of the season happened. I think you can expect a lot of quick reads and throws, and for him to tuck and run a few times. For a sophomore, he’s pretty poised.

UP: Did coaches give you anything about what they expect to happen in FAU?

JF: In terms of FAU, Neu knows that it’s a talented team. He’s talked about how they’ve played some good teams and that they will be hungry to get back home and get a win. He said he’s been to FAU when he worked at Tulane. He said they’re going to have to be at their best in order to get a win on the road.

The game will kick off at 6 p.m. on Saturday.

Brendan Feeney is the sports editor of the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, email [email protected] or tweet him @feeney42.