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2017 Week 9 Preview: Toledo Rockets at Ball State Cardinals

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The Rockets look to stay undefeated in conference. Ball State just wants a win.

Kenneth Bailey

Toledo and Ball State will clash in Muncie on Thursday night on opposite sides of the spectrum.

The Rockets sit at 6-1, the best record in the conference. Their lone defeat occurred in Week 4 at Miami (FL) in a game Toledo controlled through halftime.

The Cardinals are 2-5 and have lost four-straight contests. Ball State's most embarrassing defeat occurred last Saturday on their home turf, a 56-9 shellacking from Central Michigan.

The MAC frontrunners

Toledo received a vote in the AP poll this week, thanks to David Briggs of the Toledo Blade. The Rockets haven't exactly faced quality competition this season but their lone loss was to the No. 8 team in the nation, in a game that seemed closer than the 52-30 result would indicate. The Rockets led 16-10 at the midway point before the defense crumbled and Mark Walton blasted Toledo away on the ground.

But the Rockets have looked excellent against a pair of 4-4 MAC teams in the past two weeks. In a game where Logan Woodside didn't even need to throw for 100 yards, Toledo decisively defeated Central Michigan 30-10 in Mount Pleasant, keeping the Chippewas away from the end zone for nearly 59 minutes of game time.

Woodside, along with running back Terry Swanson, continued to excel for the Rockets in Week 8. Toledo handed the Akron Zips their first MAC loss of the year in 48-21 fashion behind Woodside's five passing touchdowns.

The matchup with Ball State is one of Toledo's easiest games left on the schedule. The Rockets will attempt to make their first trip to the MAC Championship Game since 2004 by beating Northern Illinois, Ohio, and Western Michigan — arguably the top three teams in the conference — in a four-game stretch to end the year.

The hope has faded

For the third consecutive season, Ball State has started on the right foot: a 2-1 record. The Cardinals nearly opened 2017 at 3-0 but lost in the final minutes at Illinois. But Ball State responded with a 51-31 victory over a UAB team that looks bowl bound as of now.

But since quarterback Riley Neal suffered a leg injury during Week 3, the Cardinals have yet to find a reason to celebrate. Ball State nearly upset Western Kentucky under quarterback Jack Milas one week later but gave up two touchdowns in the final two minutes.

Since, Mike Neu's program has yet to score a touchdown. Ball State has been uncompetitive the entire month of October, dropping a game to Western Michigan 55-3, losing 31-3 to Akron, and getting obliterated on homecoming weekend by Central Michigan 56-9. It's been all field goals on the scoreboard and it doesn't get any easier for Ball State, who will face the MAC's most formidable opponent on Thursday night.

Players to Watch

Logan Woodside, QB, Toledo

Woodside continues to be Toledo's star and continues to display efficiency in the pocket. The senior quarterback has completed 64.2 percent of passes this year and has tossed 16 touchdowns opposed to just two interceptions. Woodside threw for 300 yards for the fourth time this year last weekend, finishing with an impressive five touchdowns in the lopsided victory. Woodside only needs to average 113 yards per game in his final five matchups to pass Bruce Gradkowski as the program's all-time passing yards leader. Also, he'll need five touchdowns to rank first in that category as well.

Terry Swanson, RB, Toledo

Terry Swanson achieved his fourth 100-yard game on the ground last week, averaging 6.2 yards per carry against the Akron run defense. Swanson particularly starred at Central Michigan, leading the team with 145 yards and two touchdowns on the ground in the 20-point victory. The senior should be licking his chops knowing he will play the 92nd-ranked run defense in the nation. This poses to be Swanson's third-straight 100-yard game if Toledo continues its powerful ground attack.

Jon'Vea Johnson/Diontae Johnson, WR, Toledo

The Johnson "twins" (who are actually unrelated and not twins) will be asked to increase their role with the offense after Toledo's star wideout Cody Thompson went down several weeks ago with a broken leg that will sideline him for the season.

Jon'Vea achieved a season-high 102 yards and two touchdowns against Akron in Week 8. Diontae, the team's healthy receiving yards leader, leads the group with six touchdowns and has surpassed the century receiving yards mark twice this season. In the event Toledo wants to start up the air attack at Ball State, these two should be Woodside's primary playmakers.

Jack Milas/Zack Blair, QB, Ball State

Jack Milas is searching for several crucial statistics on the gridiron. One would be his first passing touchdown of the season, the other would be his first victory as a starter in 2017. The offense has mightily struggled under the fifth-year senior who has thrown six interceptions and taken 14 sacks this year. Protecting the quarterback has been a year-long struggle for the Cardinals' line, and Central Michigan defensive end Joe Ostman rose to first in the country by recording four sacks last Saturday.

Milas suffered an elbow injury against the Chippewas, but will start if healthy, according to Ryan O'Gara of the Muncie Star Press.

If Milas sits, freshman Zack Blair will get the nod for the Cardinals — and he'd be the team's third starter of the season. Blair has only thrown 12 career passes but has already suffered sacks on three dropbacks — a testament to the offensive line's blocking issues.

Anthony Winbush, DE, Ball State

Winbush is as good as pass rushers come in college football. The Indianapolis product ranks second in college football with 9.5 sacks, adding to his total with two in the loss to Central Michigan. Winbush has forced four fumbles this year and currently holds 13.5 tackles for loss to his name — all season-highs for the senior.

Woodside has been brought down 12 times this season, and Thursday night won't be an easy one for the Toledo offensive line when #98 is lining on the opposite side of the trenches.

Morgan Hagee, K, Ball State

He's scored every single Ball State point since September 30. Hagee began the year with a blocked game-tying attempt at Illinois. His 1-of-5 start to the season was not great for the Cardinals' special teams but Hagee's confidence has improved since. The junior kicker, who converted on over 75 percent of attempts in his first two years, has hit five-consecutive field goals in the past few weeks.

Most importantly, Hagee's avoided the Cardinals from several shutouts. His long this year is 47 yards and he has proven that if Ball State finds itself in a close game for the rest of the year, he can be relied on to score some crucial points if the Cardinals need to rely on a kicker.

Keys to the Game

  • Sack Logan Woodside every single play of the game. No seriously. Ball State has been outscored by MAC competition 142-15 and stopping Toledo will be no easy task. Luckily for the Cardinals, they are equipped with the FBS's 27th best pass rush, tallying 19 sacks on the season. Winbush and his fellow defensive linemen must step up and break through Toledo's offensive line, forcing fumbles and recording sacks constantly if Ball State wants any chance.
  • Score a touchdown. Or two. Toledo has a really easy task on Thursday to preserve its undefeated MAC record. Although on the road, the Rockets are miles ahead of the Cardinals and all Jason Candle's team needs to do is put together two stellar offensive possessions to win. All they'll probably need is about 14 points and with Woodside and Swanson, this should be an elementary objective.

Game Notes

  • Time and date: 7 p.m. EST, Thursday, October 26
  • Network: ESPN3
  • Venue: Scheumann Stadium — Muncie, IN
  • Spread: Toledo (-24.5)
  • ESPN FPI: Toledo has 92.7% chance to win
  • All-time series: Toledo leads 22-19-1. The Rockets have won three-straight including 2016's 37-19 victory over the Cardinals last November.

Prediction

Woodside will throw for under 300 yards and Toledo will mainly keep things on the ground, similar to what it did in Mount Pleasant two weeks ago. This will be a big game for all three of Toledo's main running backs — Terry Swanson, Art Thompkins, and Shakif Seymour. The Rockets' offense will cruise by Ball State, just like Western Michigan and Central Michigan have already done. Meanwhile, Ball State's touchdown skid will probably end after three games of solely field goals because Toledo hasn't exhibited the most dominant defense in 2017. But the Cardinals' points will still be awfully limited.

Prediction: Toledo 45, Ball State 10