2013 GoDaddy Bowl
Ball State Cardinals (10-2, 7-1 MAC) vs.
Arkansas State Red Wolves (7-5, 5-2 Sun Belt)
Ladd-Peebles Stadium -- Mobile, Ala.
Jan. 5, 2014 -- 8:00 p.m.
The final bowl game to feature a Mid-American Conference team in the 2013 season will take place in just 48 hours. The Ball State Cardinals and Arkansas St. Red Wolves will fight for one last bit of gridiron glory as the season comes to a conclusion. Many seniors will be taking the field for the final time in their life, while others -- most notably Keith Wenning -- have one final full-game opportunity to impress National Football League scouts. Let's take a look at both teams...
Ball State arrives in Mobile with a 10-2 overall record and a 7-1 mark in conference games. The Cardinals' only losses this year were to North Texas, who won the Heart of Dallas Bowl on Wednesday, and Northern Illinois, who finished 12-2. Their best win against a fellow MAC school was their 31-24 win at home over Toledo. Outside of the league, Ball State throttled Virginia on the road, 48-27. The Cardinals are playing in a bowl for the second consecutive year and fourth time in seven years. Overall, Ball State has played in six bowl games, but they are still seeking their first-ever post-season win. They have played in this bowl once, five years ago, when the game was known as the GMAC Bowl. The Cardinals lost 45-13 to Tulsa in that game.
Arkansas State finished the 2013 season with a 7-5 record, and they won five of seven games against Sun Belt competition. The Red Wolves started the season 3-4 but saved their bowl hopes by winning four of their final five games. However, their only wins outside of the Sun Belt were against Idaho and FCS opponent Arkansas-Pine Bluff. They lost to Auburn by 29, Memphis by 24, and Missouri by 22. Arkansas State is playing in their third consecutive GoDaddy Bowl and their fourth bowl game in the last ten years. Prior to that, ASU had not been to a bowl game since 1970. The Red Wolves have split their two GoDaddy Bowl appearances, by beating Kent State last year 17-13 after losing the previous game to Northern Illinois, 38-20.
This will be the first time that Ball State and Arkansas State have ever played against each other. Arkansas State is 7-13 in their history against other MAC opponents.
Arkansas State is a run-first team. In fact, if you take away sacks, ASU ran the ball on exactly 60 percent of their 855 snaps in 2013. They're pretty effective at it, too. Again when you eliminate sacks (which count against rushing yards), Arkansas State averaged over five yards per carry. They also use a multitude of backs to get the job done. Quarterback Adam Kennedy has the most carries (147) and (even with sack yards) totaled 514 yards and two touchdowns. David Oku added 511 yards and six touchdowns after 141 carries. Michael Gordon is a burner as the team's leading rusher and was named second-team All-Sun Belt. He averaged 6.8 yards for each of his 106 carries to total 717 yards and ten touchdowns. They can also turn to Sirgregory Thornton, who has 60 carries and averages 5.7 yards per touch. All told, ASU averages 206 yards per game and has 30 rushing scores in 2013.
Despite all of that, the most dangerous player on the Red Wolves' offense is J.D. McKissic. McKissic was actually named first-team All-Sun Belt twice -- both as a wide receiver and as an all-purpose special teams performer. McKissic is as diverse as you can get. He has 73 catches for 590 yards and four touchdowns. He also has 16 catches for 118 yards and another score, and he threw a six-yard touchdown pass during the regular season. As a returner, he brought back 21 kickoffs and averaged 30 yards per return. That included a 98-yard touchdown return, but he totaled 629 yards for the season. He also averaged 8.4 yards per punt return with a long of 43 yards. He averaged 122.7 all-purpose yards per game.
Of course, you have to get the ball to McKissic when the offense is on the field, and Kennedy (an honorable-mention All-Sun Belt selection) does an excellent job. Kennedy throws fewer than 30 times per game, but he's got very accurate touch and completed 69.4 percent of his passes in 2013. He totaled 2,349 yards and 11 touchdowns while throwing just six interceptions. Kennedy's completion percentage is the best in the Sun Belt and fourth among all FBS quarterbacks. With his play, ASU averaged 208.2 yards per game through the air and 414.2 total yards. Unfortunately, their plodding nature did not lend itself to a lot of point, as the Red Wolves averaged just 29.7 points per game, but that did increase to an average of 36 per game during their final four contests.
Ball State is essentially the polar opposite on offense. The Cardinals are led by all-everything senior quarterback Keith Wenning. Wenning has is 67 yards shy of 4,000 passing yards this season and has a 34-6 touchdown to interception ratio. He's also very efficient, as he's completed 65.2 percent of his 454 pass attempts. Wenning is in the top ten nationally in several categories -- total offense (331.5/game), points responsible for (19.5/game), passing TDs (34), passing yards per game (327.8) and completions per game (24.67). He's also 12th in pass efficiency. Need more? The career Ball State leader in all major passing categories is also the only quarterback in FBS to have thrown for at least 299 yards in ten games during the 2013 season. In other words, the kid is good.
Now, Wenning does need players to catch his passes, and he's just lucky enough to have one of the best receivers in the nation: Willie Snead. Snead has 97 catches, 1,429 yards and 14 touchdowns. He averages 14.7 yards per catch and 119.1 yards per game. Snead is also fourth in FBS for touchdown receptions and receiving yards per game, as well as eight in receptions per game. In fact, Snead has an outside chance to become the national leader in receiving yards -- he needs 242 to surpass the current leader. So, Snead is Wenning's only weapon, right? Nope. He also has Jordan Williams, who earned 1,016 yards and ten touchdowns in just 68 receptions, and Jamill Smith. Smith is just 5-8 and 140, but that didn't prevent him from catching 63 passes for 855 yards and eight touchdowns. Try not to have nightmares covering those three guys.
Actually, the nightmare is the fact that Ball State can run the ball, too. Jahwan Edwards earns 5.2 yards per carry and almost 100 per game, and he fell just 63 yards shy of 1,000 for the season. He also scored 13 touchdowns. Ball State's only issue in this area is the fact that Horactio Banks is out with a knee injury, but given all the other talent, that hardly seems like it will slow down the Cardinals. Oh, and their offensive line is pretty good, too. They've only given up 14 total sacks in 12 games. All this helps Ball State score 40 points per game, which ranks among the 20 best teams in FBS, and rack up 486 yards of total offense per game.
The Arkansas State defense is led by two first-team All-Sun Belt selections: defensive lineman Ryan Carrethers and linebacker Qushaun Lee. ASU also has two second-team players in the defensive backfield, in the person of sophomore Rocky Hayes and junior Sterling Young. Carrethers led Arkansas State with four sacks and was second on the team with eight tackles for loss during the regular season. He had 87 total tackles and also notched a blocked kick. Lee led the Red Wolves with 119 tackles, six of which were for loss he was active against the pass with three pass break-ups and also forced two fumbles. Young and Hayes combined to force eight of the team's 20 takeaways. Young had two interceptions and three fumble recoveries, while Hayes added three interceptions and ten pass break-ups. Young is also third on the team in tackles.
As a team, Arkansas State was better against the run than the pass, but not by much. ASU allowed an average of 418 yards per game, with 183.6 of that coming via the running game and 234.4 by the pass. They also earned 23 sacks and 20 takeaways (which led to a +7 turnover differential). However, the team allowed over 26 points per game. The Red Wolves had a good defensive stretch during the middle of the season but gave up 33 and 34 points, respectively, in their final two games.
Ball State has a first-team all-conference player to throw at Arkansas State. Senior defensive end Jonathan Newsome has been a nightmare for opposing MAC offenses to deal with this year, and as a result, he led the team with eight sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss. He also notched an interception and two forced fumbles. Linebacker Nick Miles added four sacks, as ten different Cardinal players were credited with at least a half-sack. The Cardinals were also fantastic at creating turnovers. Jeffrey Garrett intercepted five passes for 94 yards, while Brian Jones recovered four fumbles. As a team, the defense created 30 turnovers and helped BSU to a +12 turnover differential. Seven different players had interceptions and 12 different players recovered fumbles.
The Cardinals allowed between 14 and 28 points in each of their ten wins, but Wenning and his pals always made sure that was good enough. Ball State's only two losses came when the defense allowed more -- 34 points to North Texas and 48 to Northern Illinois. Opponents gained 420.8 yards per game, including 226 through the air and 194.8 on the ground. Those 30 takeaways were certainly key to Ball State's success.
Arkansas State was generally excellent on special teams in 2013. Kicker Brian Davis was a first-team All-Sun Belt selection as he made 56 of his 59 kicks this season. Davis was successful on 44 of 45 extra points and 12 of 14 field goal tries. On field goals, he was perfect when kicking inside the 30 yard line and had a season-best kick of 50 yards against South Alabama. However, after starting 11-for-11, Davis missed one kick in each of his team's final two games.
We've already gone over how good McKissic is as a kick returner, but the team as a whole has an edge in returns. On kickoffs, ASU averages 25.2 yards per return but gives up just 19. On punts, ASU has an 8.7 yards per return average and gives up just 7.6 yards. In both areas, the Red Wolves have a touchdown return and has not given up one. Luke Ferguson and Paul Jones split punting duties, and Ferguson averaged 44 yards per punt, which was better than ASU opponents could muster (42.2).
For the Cardinals, special teams were generally a solid point for the team. Kicker Scott Secor made 58 of 60 extra point attempts and was 17-for-19 when kicking field goal attempts of fewer than 50 yards. Punter Kyle Schmidt averaged 40.9 yards per punt and had 15 kicks inside the 20, while opponents averaged only 40.3 yards per kick.
Jamill Smith, one of the triple play of Wenning receivers noted above, was the Cardinals' primary kick and punt returner. Smith returned 23 kickoffs for a very good average of 26.5 per return, and Ball State's average of 20.7 yards per return was two better than that of their opponents. Smith averaged 9.3 yards on nine punt returns, but the Cardinals also allowed nine yards for every punt return.
For the second consecutive year, John Thompson will serve as interim head coach for Arkansas State in their bowl game. In last year's GoDaddy Bowl, Thompson led Arkansas State to a 17-13 win over Kent State that marked ASU's first bowl win since 1970 and their first win over a top-25 team as an FBS member. Thompson has been Arkansas State defensive coordinator for two seasons and has experience as a defensive coordinator at four different SEC schools. He's also been a head coach at East Carolina. (Isn't it about time to just go ahead and hire Thompson already?)
Meanwhile, the Ball State Cardinals still have their head coach. Pete Lembo started 9-10 in his first 19 games at Ball State but has since won 16 of 18 games, which includes Ball State's 10-2 mark this season. Lembo is seeking his 105th career victory in just his 13th season as a head coach (five at Lehigh, five at Elon, three at Ball State). In those 13 years, he's produced winning seasons on 11 occasions and has won at least five games in all 13.
This should be a fun game that pits two teams of contrasting offensive styles against one another. Neither team is altogether great on defense, but both teams are very good at creating turnovers, thereby creating more opportunities for their offense. I have no doubt that Ball State will be able to move the ball and score points; the question here is how much will they see the field? Arkansas State will likely try to control the ball and keep Wenning on the sideline as much as possible. If Ball State can prevent that, they should win -- and hopefully, win rather handily.