Illinois vs. Ball State preview. WITH BREAKOUT.

It didn't take long for Nate Davis to take over the Ball State quarterback job.   As a true freshman last fall, Davis played in the Cardinals' first four games before earning the starting spot. By season's end, he tied the school single-season record for touchdown passes (18) and finished fourth in passing yards (1,975) and eighth in completions (150).   "Last year, I really wasn't knowing what I was doing,'' Davis said. "It's a whole different game now.''   When Illinois (5-3 overall, 3-2 in the Big Ten Conference) hosts Ball State (5-3, 3-2 in the Mid-American Conference) in the homecoming game Saturday (11 a.m., Big Ten Network), Illinois faces a challenge in Davis.   "Scouts have told me is one of the best quarterbacks in the Midwest,'' said Illinois coach Ron Zook.   The 6-foot-2, 214-pound sophmore ranks 12th nationally in passing (285.7 yards per game), 14th in total offense (304.1) and 26th in pass efficiency. Davis already broke the school record with 20 touchdown passes this season, and he's thrown only three interceptions.   Davis threw for 306 yards and four touchdowns against Eastern Michigan. In a 41-40 loss at Nebraska, Davis completed 26-for-43 for 422 yards and three touchdowns. He passed for 200 yards or more in each of the last seven games after throwing for 198 in the season opener. Illinois hasn't seen this kind of quarterback since Missouri's Chase Daniel threw for 359 yards and three touchdowns in a win over the Illini on Labor Day weekend.   "(Davis) is a thrower, a slinger,'' Zook said. "He can run the ball and get out of trouble. That's not his forte in terms of running the option. He reminds me of a more athletic quarterback than the guy we faced in the first game with his release and the accuracy.   "It's another perfect example that there's no exact science in recruiting.''   Davis emerged after a 24-23 loss to Indiana last season. Indiana found a quarterback that night in Kellen Lewis. Ball State also learned something.   "In the next year and a half, they've been running around the country creating headaches and heartaches for defensive coaches,'' Zook said.   Davis followed his brother Jose from Bellaire, Ohio, on the Ohio-West Virginia border to quarterback in the MAC. Jose Davis holds Kent State single-game records for completions (34), passing yards (551) and touchdown passes (seven.) He also holds school records for TD passes in a season (32) and career (57).   "The mental part of football is something that he's probably a little bit ahead of where we thought he might be,'' Ball State coach Brady Hoke said. "We thought he had gifts with his arm and how he throws the ball.''   Davis isn't the only story on Ball State's roster.   Sophomore Brandon Crawford is a 31-year-old defensive end who walked onto the Ball State roster after serving in the U.S. Marines. He blocked a potential game-winning field-goal attempt in the final play of regulation in Ball State's overtime win at Navy, and Crawford ranks sixth on the team with 41 tackles.   Junior punter Chris Miller, of Libertyville, leads the nation with 47.2 yards per punt. Junior wide receiver Dante Love ranks seventh nationally in all-purpose yards (196.6), 19th in receptions (6.8) and 21st in receiving yards (93.0).   John Supinie can be reached at For more coverage, read Illini Talk blog at and     A look at Ball State   Record: 5-3 overall, 3-2 in the Mid-American Conference.   So far: Lost to Miami (Ohio) 14-13; def. Eastern Michigan 38-16; def. Navy 34-31 OT; lost to Nebraska 41-40; def. Buffalo 49-14; lost to Central Michigan 58-38; def. Western Kentucky 35-12; def. Western Michigan 27-23.   Coach: Brady Hoke, 15-27 in fourth year at Ball State and overall.   Other players to watch: TE Darius Hill (19 career TD catches), RB Frank Edmonds (true frosh has 388 yards rushing), LB Bryant Haines (82 tackles).   Did you know? Former Illini QB Jeff Hecklinski is in his fourth season as Ball State receivers coach.   Quote: "We've been an up and down team. We dropped two early games by one point and another at Central Michigan where we didn't have the type of team we wanted to put on the field.'' -- Ball State coach Brady Hoke.