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Know your Northwestern football opponent, Week 4: Ball State

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After back-to-back bowl games in 2012 and 2013, Ball State looks to rebound from a disappointing 2014 campaign.

Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

With our Summer Guide now complete, you probably have a general sense of Northwestern's outlook for the coming season. But breaking down any given team's strengths and weaknesses doesn't paint a complete picture. To truly gauge a team's win-loss potential, analyzing the schedule is arguably just as important.

Come game week, we will have detailed, timely, matchup-based write-ups on each opponent, but in the interim, we present to you our Know Your Opponent series. It's our look ahead at all 12 teams on Northwestern's 2015 schedule. So by the time training camp rolls around, you'll have a fuller view of the upcoming season.

Today, we preview Ball State, the last of Northwestern's four non-conference opponents.

The Basics

Returning Starters: Offense - 9, Defense - 6
2014 Record: 5-7 (4-4 MAC)
Coach: Pete Lembo, 5th year (30-20 at Ball State)

The Stats

The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly of SB Nation and Football Outsiders. You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.

2014 S&P+ Overall Rank: 116
2014 S&P+ Offense Rank: 100
2014 S&P+ Defense Rank: 112
2015 S&P+ Projection: 100

2014 Capsule

2014 was a disappointment for a Ball State program that had gone to two straight bowls, and won 10 games in 2013.  It was a year of offensive turnover, as longtime quarterback Keith Wenning went off to the NFL, and Ball State struggled to find a replacement for him. With sophomore Ozzie Mann under center, the Cardinals started the season 1-4, with their only win coming against Colgate in week one. In week five, freshman Jack Milas took over and promptly threw for 326 yards and 4 touchdowns against Western Michigan, but the defense gave up 42 points and the Cardinals fell to 1-5. Ball State did manage to bounce back though, winning three of its next five, and even when Milas broke his wrist in week 11, Mann came back and led the Cardinals to an upset win over Bowling Green. Ball State finished the season at 5-7, and missed out on a bowl.

Offensive Overview

Similar to 2014, Ball State will have to once again have to deal with the loss of one of its best offensive players. After losing Wenning last year, the Cardinals will have to find someone to replace running back Jahwan Edwards. In four years at Ball State, Edwards rushed for a school record 4,558 yards and 51 touchdowns. Replacing that kind of production will certainly be difficult, but head coach Pete Lembo hopes that a platoon of junior Teddy Williamson, sophomore Darian Green and freshman James Gilbert can help make sure the transition isn't as bad as it was in 2014.

Aside from the running backs, Ball State brings pretty much everybody else back from last year. All five offensive line starters come back and Jack Milas is now the full time starter. Both of his top targets return as well in All-MAC second- and third-team receivers Jordan Williams (56 rec, 753 yards, 6 TDs) and KeVonn Mabon (59 rec, 717 yards, 5 TDs). Since the running game is still up in the air, most of Ball State's offensive output will run through Williams and Mabon — and therefore will heavily rely on the quarterback, Milas.

While bringing back players always helps improve a team, it should still be noted that this group was ranked 100th nationally in S&P+ offense a year ago. So yes, the offense should be better this year; but it'll have to be significantly better to give Northwestern trouble. It likely won't return to the heights of 2013, when it was ranked 34th in the country.

Defensive Overview

Ball State's defense was not very good last year by any statistical measure. It ranked 112th in the S&P+ index, and gave up 27.2 points per game. In Lembo's four years as head coach, the Cardinals' defense has never been ranked better than 88th. And there's not much reason to think that'll change in 2015.

This year's defense is still a work in progress, as second-year defensive coordinator Kevin Kelly has been trying out different formations such as a 3-3 stack or a simple 4-3. Nothing has been settled on as of yet, and the unit as a whole is still very much up in the air.

As for the personnel, a deep defensive line, led by DT Darnell Smith (4.0 sacks and 37 tackles), returns to anchor the defense, and leading tackler Zack Ryan (91 tackles and 6.0 tackles for loss) returns alongside Ben Ingle (87 tackles) at linebacker. The biggest problem area is the secondary, which only returns one starter, cornerback Tyree Holder (39 tackles and 2 interceptions), and is rife with injury.

Ball State is very much a bend-but-don't-break defense, and for the most part relies on the offense to win games. The Cardinals can still hold their own (they held Iowa to 17 points last year), but overall there's not a ton here that absolutely stands out at first glance.

Three Players to Know

Jordan Williams, WR - The 6-foot-2, 224-pound senior is arguably Ball State's best skill position player. Even with shaky quarterback play last year, Williams still managed to earn second team All-MAC honors. Back when Wenning was his quarterback in 2013, Williams hauled in 72 passes for 1050 yards and 10 TDs. Pairing up Williams with fellow senior Mabon could make the Ball State passing attack a force to reckoned with, as long as the quarterback play improves.

Jack Milas, QB - Speaking of quarterback play, Milas is the motor that runs this offense. Milas was solid in six starts last year, completing 55 percent of his passes for 1302 yards and 9 touchdowns, but he also went through some growing pains, throwing 5 interceptions. With junior Ozzie Mann announcing plans to transfer, Milas is now in the driver's seat with no safety net. Coming off of a season-ending wrist injury, it will interesting to see how long it takes him to get back to full strength. But the Arlington Heights native is a name to watch in the MAC.

Zack Ryan, MLB - The cornerstone of the defense, the redshirt junior has tallied 92 and 91 tackles the last two seasons.  Ryan is relatively small in stature, coming in at 5-11, 224, so he's fast, but not necessarily the strongest guy on the field. On a defense that doesn't have that many standout performers, Ryan consistently puts in work and recorded five double digit tackle games last season, including his 10-tackle performance against Big Ten opponent Iowa.

Behind enemy lines

Keith Scheessele of Hustle Belt gives his thoughts:

At Ball State we believe with Lembo all things are possible. Most preseason publications that you will read place the Cardinals at 4th in the MAC West. This is largely due to unproven commodities. The top rusher in BSU history graduated after last season and there's plenty of uncertainty as to who will get the bulk of the carries for the Cardinals. Prior to last season there was a quarterback battle between Ozzie Mann and Jack Milas. We figured out that the BSU QB moving forward will be Jack Milas. Unfortunately, we didn't figure that out that until we had run our record to 1-4. The prediction that BSU will finish 4th in the division is fair, but the worst case scenario. With a veteran offensive line and explosiveness at the receiver position, best case scenario is a MAC West title and a spot in the conference championship game. Ball State is the toughest MAC team to predict entering the 2015 season.

Bill Connelly Says...

SB Nation college football guru Bill Connelly has been maniacally churning out previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here's an excerpt from his Ball State Preview on the Cardinals' offensive philosophy:

If Ball State ever has bad sack rates, you know things have fallen apart. The system Lembo and offensive coordinator Joey Lynch crafted revolves around quick passing that stretches out a defense from side to side.

Keith Wenning completed between 64 and 65 percent of his passes in each of three years under Lembo (when Lynch was just tight ends coach), and while Milas and Mann combined to complete 57 percent, they remained upright. With help from the system, BSU again had one of the best sack rates in the country.

The run stats were horrendous. BSU fell from 85th in Rushing S&P+, 87th in Adj. Line Yards, and 53rd in Stuff Rate in 2013 to 116th, 109th, and 93rd, respectively. And this was with the same set of backs. Without all-conference guard Jordan Hansel and left tackle Matthew Page, the line was not nearly as successful.

BSU returns all five starters on the line (combined career starts: 101), along with a couple of senior backups. This isn't going to be an amazing line, but it should be closer to 2013 levels.

Final Thoughts

Can you say trap game? This is Northwestern's last non-conference game, and sits between the game at Duke and the game against Minnesota. Also Northwestern learned just last year that you shouldn't underestimate teams from the MAC. If Ball State's offense is running on all cylinders by week four, this could potentially be a shootout between two teams with young quarterbacks. Finally, the Cardinals go hard in the weight room, and certainly won't lack motivation being 14-point underdogs in primetime.

Okay, so that's the devil's advocate argument for a potential upset here, but overall Northwestern should be able to handle Ball State's offense and pretty much have their way against the Cardinals' defense. This game could even serve as a confidence-builder heading into Big Ten play for Clayton Thorson (or whoever is starting), if he can put up some big numbers. An upset isn't out of the question, but this should be one of the more stress-free games of the year.

The Game

Date: Sept. 26
Time: 7:00 p.m. CT
Home/Away: Home
TV: BTN
Betting Line: Northwestern -14