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Opponent Q&A: Previewing Ball State with Hustle Belt's Sam Barloga

Ball State comes to Evanston with a 2-1 record, a two-quarterback system and some questions on defense

Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Every Thursday during football season, we'll be reaching out to opponent SB Nation sites or opponent beat writers to give readers another perspective on Saturday's upcoming game.

This week, No. 17 Northwestern is back home to take on the Ball State Cardinals (7 p.m. CT, Big Ten Network). Sam Barloga from MAC SB Nation site Hustle Belt takes our questions.

Inside NU: Thus far, Ball State has employed two quarterbacks: redshirt sophomore Jack Milas and true freshman Riley Neal. Should Northwestern fans expect to see both on Saturday? If so, what are the strengths and weaknesses of each, and how much will each play?

Sam Barloga: Neal has been the better quarterback so far, as the freshman has gone 35-47 for 312 yards and a touchdown, with no picks. Last week, he was inserted after Jack Milas started 0-5, and the Cards trailed 17-0 in the second quarter to a Eastern Michigan team that was pretty much a consensus pick to finish last in a strong MAC West. After the switch, the Cardinals scored twice before halftime, as well as twice in the second half. Neal was given the ability to throw the football several times in that one, and he didn't miss often. Neal finished 24-28 for 196 yards in the 28-17 comeback win. Also, Ball State's weekly depth chart came out on Tuesday, and Riley Neal is at number one for the first time this season, but that doesn't mean we won't any of Milas on Saturday.

Milas is more of a pocket quarterback, who sometimes uses his legs, while Neal likes to run around and make plays with his legs and his arms. He has already run for 143 yards on the season.

INU: The Cardinals seem to have somewhat of a three-back system in place, with Darian Green, James Gilbert and Teddy Williamson all getting touches. How will their workload be divided up, and what is the playing style of each?

SB: Darian Green has emerged from that three-way race with the number one spot in his pocket. Gilbert is a bigger back who is more likely to been seen in third down and short yardage situations. Coming into this year, I thought we would see more of Williamson, but he was outplayed over the offseason, and will probably be non-factor in Saturday's affair. He actually has fewer yards on the ground than quarterback Neal.

Green has been the most effective by far, running for almost 7.5 yards per carry, as well as over 111 yards per game so far. Gilbert is averaging 4.5 and Williamson is at a touch under four per carry.

Pete Lembo is going to need serious production out of his backs in this one if Ball State is going to keep it close, so all three will have an important role on Saturday: Set up easy second and third downs for the young quarterback.

INU: Pat Fitzgerald noted in his press conference Monday that Ball State has several skilled, speedy wide outs. Who will be the primary targets of Milas and Neal, and what do they bring to the table?

SB: Two wide outs come to mind: Jordan Williams and KeVonn Mabon, both of whom have been Ball State's biggest producers over the last two seasons. Last year's starter for five games, Ozzie Mann, preferred Mabon to Williams, but this year Williams is on pace for a repeat of his outstanding 2013 numbers because Milas and Neal both enjoy targeting Williams.

Corey Lacanaria also has nearly 100 yards on 12 catches on the season, and will be a factor in the passing game as well.

INU: Ball State's defense has struggled early this season, but so has Northwestern's offense. Who should we look for to stand out on the Ball State defense?

SB: This is a tough one, for sure. I've written two pieces this year on the Ball State defense so far this year. The first was after two games, as BSU's passing defense was flat-out awful in those first two games. The Cardinals gave up 447 passing yards to VMI, a basement-dwelling FCS school that finished 2-10 in 2014. So, that wasn't good. The Cards also struggled versus Kenny Hill and Texas A&M, but did well to stop Brogan Roback and Eastern Michigan last Saturday.The Eagles' starter finished 19-39 for just 196 yards on the day, a huge improvement over the first two games. The rush defense has done pretty decently for Ball State, but did give up 293 yards on the ground to the Aggies in week two.

Sean Wiggins and Dedrick Cromartie are the only Cardinals who have amassed 20 tackles or more on the season. Wiggins also has two picks and a sack at defensive back. Two-time defensive captain Ben Ingle has also done pretty well at linebacker this year, with 17 tackles, but only four of those have come unassisted.

INU: In the preseason, Ball State was picked to finish somewhere in the middle of the MAC this year. Through three games, does that projection still hold true? What will have to happen if the Cardinals want to be contenders?

SB: I think that's still true. Third or fourth place in an extremely competitive MAC West is still probably the end result. Although, Western Michigan hasn't impressed very many early, and Central Michigan's season is up in the air after they nearly knocked off Oklahoma State and followed it up two weeks later by losing to Syracuse (not the worst thing in the world, but still).

The MAC's two top teams are in the West division: Northern Illinois and Toledo. Both teams are exceptionally skilled, as the Huskies went into Columbus last Saturday and lost to the #1 Buckeyes by just seven points, 20-13. Toledo already has pair of Power 5 wins so far.  The Rockets pulled an upset over #18 Arkansas two weeks ago, winning 16-12 on the road in an upset that actually had "#MACtion," as the number one trend worldwide on Twitter, and last week at the Glass Bowl, UT beat Iowa State 30-23 in double overtime.

If Ball State is going to get near the top of the conference, the Cards will need to get maximum production out of Neal, as well as consistent stops from the defense throughout MAC play. Ball State will also need to beat both Toledo and NIU in DeKalb, which likely isn't happening, I'm sorry to say.

INU: What's your prediction for Saturday's game?

SB: I think this is going to be a much closer game than many in both fan bases think. Neal will keep Ball State in the game, and the Cards will be fighting in this one deep into the second half. In the end, I'm going to take the Wildcats in this one, though. 30-19 Northwestern.