With two weeks in the books, this Indiana team has been tested in two different ways. Week one is always a challenge, but Florida International presented an odd road environment that exposed IU to potential defensive flaws. FIU forced Indiana to play on its heels in a way that was rare during 2017. Anthony Johnson raced his way to 91 carries on 15 carries, and the Hoosiers could have been in trouble if the Panthers possessed a competent aerial attack.
Virginia was different. Indiana faced, arguably, one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in Bryce Perkins amidst seriously challenging weather conditions. The Hoosiers generally contained Perkins, yet again limited big plays, and did enough to pass both tests — albeit barely.
Indiana’s task with Ball State on Saturday is also different. Quite frankly, Tom Allen’s defense has not played against a quarterback that can throw the football successfully. That will change with Ball State quarterback Riley Neal.
“Riley Neal’s the best quarterback in terms of passing and everything,” head coach Tom Allen said Monday. “He can run, he’s athletic and a big old guy and he’s the best, most complete one we played yet.”
While Indiana’s defense has concerned itself almost exclusively with the run game during the last 120 minutes of football played, Neal presents an entirely separate dimension of tests. Not only can he throw, but Neal has also proven himself as an experienced leader, managing a near upset on the road last weekend in South Bend. Muncie’s 6-foot-6 signal-caller is a dual-threat quarterback in the truest form, not in the sense of Perkins.
What Neal has, that Indiana’s previous opponents lacked, is an arm. And a good arm at that. The offense was surely on display at full strength in Ball State’s week one trouncing of FCS-opponent Central Connecticut State, but Muncie is buzzing after the Cardinals almost staged a comeback against No. 8 Notre Dame last Saturday. Though Neal didn’t have a stellar day, it’s easy to see what’s there in terms of the pure confidence which the redshirt junior possesses.
“You can tell he’s very poised back there,” IU safeties coach Kasey Teegardin said Monday. “You try to get him off the spot but he can still roll out and throw where he needs to.”
The Irish admitted this week that they underestimated what Ball State is capable of, on both sides. Neal has a fair share of targets, starting with tight end Nolan Given and 6-foot-3 wideout Yo’Heinz Tyler, who have both caught two touchdowns this year. Riley Miller and Justin Hall have also both surpassed 100 yards on the season, two weeks in.
Saturday’s game at Memorial Stadium could come down to Indiana’s secondary. Neal’s weapons have height, and IU’s defensive backs aren’t necessarily the tallest. Ball State came close in South Bend, and another game against an in-state Power Five opponent can be a salivating opportunity.
“Games-wise, we’re very inexperienced,” Teegardin said. “Our guys are really going to have to focus hard on eye discipline, make sure we’re driving the right guys in the right times, and play everything top-down.”
Neal is a legitimate threat to run. In week one, the quarterback rushed six times for 37 yards and a touchdown, and has proven capabilities of doing more than that. Most significantly, it also produces an intangible effect — just another thing for a defense to worry about every time he’s on the field. Virginia’s Perkins was the better runner, no doubt. But Tom Allen is completely correct when labeling Neal as the most complete quarterback Indiana has faced to date.
“If something breaks, we’ve gotta down the ball,” Teegardin said. “If we don’t down it, then we’ve gotta make that runner adjust his path at the least. I think we’ve done a good job of that.”
Without any sight of Indiana’s defensive line pressuring the quarterback, the Hoosiers’ secondary will have to play sound on Saturday. With time in the pocket, Neal has the sheer talent to pick apart a defense. Indiana has one sack in two games, tied with Wisconsin for worst in the Big Ten. Expect Neal to find success early, and the Hoosiers having to adjust.