Both Ball State and Central Michigan initiated MAC play with tough losses, but one has the chance to rebound Saturday afternoon.
The peak of the Chippewas’ season occurred in week two, on a miraculous lateral touchdown to upset Oklahoma State in Stillwater. Since, Central Michigan (3-2) has dropped two consecutive games to Virginia and Western Michigan, losing college football’s top Hail Mary catcher—Jesse Kroll—in the process.
But John Bonamego’s team receives the opportunity to defend its home-turf in Mt. Pleasant once again. This time, the challenger is Ball State (3-2), coming off of a disappointing home loss to Northern Illinois.
The Cardinals’ season started promising, winning three of four games. However, the two FBS teams they have defeated combine for a 1-8 record. Besides facing an improved Indiana team, Ball State’s schedule has been a cakewalk. Week five was a wake-up call for Ball State, who lost 31-24 to a winless Northern Illinois team. The Cardinals won the turnover battle but the lack of offensive production plagued them in the defeat. A struggling Huskies team outgained Ball State by over 200 total offensive yards. But this week, the Cardinals match up against a team facing recent defensive lapses.
Two games, 98 points allowed. Central Michigan was able to upset the powerful Oklahoma State offense by holding them to 1-for-11 on third down and 50 rushing yards. In the past two weeks, the defense has collapsed, allowing 49 points to both Virginia and Western Michigan. Virginia, who has made one bowl game in eight seasons, isn’t exactly known for a dominant offense. For instance, the Cavaliers fell to Connecticut 13-10 in week three. The Virginia and Western Michigan losses proved that Central Michigan’s defense must issue major adjustments going forward.
It all starts with pressuring the quarterback. The Chippewas sacked Mason Rudolph four times in week two, and totaled seven tackles for loss on the day. In its two losses, Central Michigan tallied zero sacks and three tackles for loss, all in the Western Michigan game. But the offensive line has also struggled preventing sacks by opposing pass rushes.
Against the Broncos, quarterback Cooper Rush experienced a harsh day in the backfield, sacked to the turf eight times.
Otherwise, Rush has played at a high-level this season. The four-year starter has been credited for his high intellect, but has also demonstrated a great ability to read defenses. Through five games, Rush surpassed the 300-yard mark three times, throwing for 15 touchdowns—six against UNLV. Rush is a pro-style quarterback who may receive an opportunity at the next level, but must show dominance against mid-level conference opponents such as Ball State first.
For Ball State, the defensive gameplan is simple. Pressure Cooper Rush to halt the Chippewa offense. The Cardinals rank seventh in the nation, first in the MAC in sacks with 18.0 in 2016. The defense has also forced nine turnovers this season, proving to be one of the more solid units in the MAC this season. Defensive end Anthony Winbush can often be found in backfields, leading the Cardinals with four sacks on the season. The junior has also recorded 13 tackles this season, and is a player the Central Michigan offensive line must keep eyes on.
Central Michigan’s offensive line will not be blocking for budding star Jonathan Ward this Saturday. The true freshman running back is out indefinitely after suffering a knee injury, adding to the Chippewas’ lingering injury problem.
Junior Devon Spalding, the team’s leading rusher, receives a greater load this week. He rushed for 135 yards in week one against FCS foe Presbyterian, but he has only totaled 131 yards in the four weeks since. Instead of the typical No. 25, Spalding can be identified in a No. 21 jersey on Saturday. He is the recipient of the legacy jersey the Chippewas distribute to honor the late Derrick Nash, a Chippewa cornerback from 2014-2015.
The all-time series between the opponents favors Ball State, 24-23-1. Central Michigan stole last year’s matchup in Muncie, but Ball State can avenge that loss to earn its sixth victory over the Chippewas in seven seasons.
The game kicks off at 3:30 p.m. ET and can be streamed on ESPN3. With both teams sharing identical 3-2, 0-1 MAC records, there is a lot at stake if either team wants to remain in contention in the competitive MAC West.