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2018 Week 7 MAC Preview: Ball State Cardinals @ Central Michigan Chippewas

Central Michigan desperately needs to avoid sixth loss against improved Ball State team.

Central Michigan v Michigan State Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

A black cloud has covered the atmosphere in Mount Pleasant this year. At 1-5, Central Michigan is off to its worst start since the turn of the millennium. In 2000, the Chippewas began 1-8 under first-year head coach Mike DeBord before finishing 2-9.

Factoring in Central Michigan’s current trajectory, the Chippewas could be headed toward this dark area. Or, the Chippewas could use their home-field advantage to their momentum Saturday and swing their season 180 degrees in the right direction. Central Michigan is familiar with such momentum changing games, as a victory at Ball State last year ushered in a 5-game winning streak to finish the regular season.

The Ball State Cardinals (2-4), last year’s bottom of the barrel in the MAC West, are paying a visit in hopes of snatching their third win of the year. Mike Neu’s new and improved Ball State squad has already matched its win total from 2017, while the Chippewas have matched their loss total.

The Cardinals only lost by one possession against a tough Northern Illinois defense in Muncie last week. With a healthy Riley Neal and James Gilbert, Ball State has proven it has the veteran talent to hang with some of the MAC’s elite teams. In a performance that seems to get more baffling week-by-week, Ball State only allowed 24 points to currently No. 5 Notre Dame, losing to the Irish by just one score in South Bend.

When Ball State has the ball

Ball State’s become more pass-heavy this year. Last week, Riley Neal attempted a career-high 56 passes — reaching the 50-attempt mark in three of his six games this year. But the only time the Cardinals’ pass-happy paid dividends was in their 52-24 win over Kent State. In the game, Neal threw for a career-high 402 yards while tallying four touchdowns in Ball State’s most convincing performance of the year.

On the ground, Ball State primarily utilizes junior James Gilbert, also rotating Malik Dunner and Caleb Huntley into the backfield. Gilbert has yet to make a statement performance this year, but the halfback from Indianapolis has been awfully consistent. He averages 4.6 yards per carry and has scored five touchdowns this season, while modestly being used in the passing game.

Speaking of the passing game, meet Riley Miller. Miller burst onto the scene as Ball State’s breakout player in the loss to Western Kentucky, earning eight catches and 112 yards that afternoon. But against Kent State, Miller morphed into an unstoppable monster. In Neal’s career game, the junior receiver eclipsed the 200-yard mark on 11 catches, proving to be Ball State’s primary target in 2018.

What’s on the other side of Miller may be concerning to Mike Neu and Co. though.

Don’t be fooled by the Chippewas’ 1-5 record. Central Michigan is a powerhouse in terms of defending the air. The Chippewas rank fourth in the nation, averaging just 145.3 passing yards to opponents this year. Michigan, UAB, and Miami (FL), who combine for a 14-3 record, are the only teams sitting above Central Michigan in this statistical category.

A lot of Central Michigan’s prowess in the secondary can be attributed to cornerback Sean Bunting. In the past two weeks, Bunting has recorded two interceptions and often blankets No. 1 wideouts on opposing teams. Even Michigan State struggled when targeting the junior, who has recorded three pass deflections this year.

Although statistically stout in the secondary, Central Michigan fields several star linebackers as well. Inside linebacker Malik Fountain ranks seventh nationally in total tackles with 73, adding style points to his tackling ability with one sack and one interception. Hard hitter Alex Briones provides help at the outside linebacker position, recording five tackles per loss and one forced fumble this year.

Defensively, Central Michigan has held its ground this year. The team stayed within 15 points of Kentucky, 11 points of Michigan State, and 10 point of Buffalo. Impressively, the unit hasn’t even allowed more than 35 points this season.

When Central Michigan has the ball

Here’s why Central Michigan is 1-5.

The final score of the Chippewas’ lone victory, a 17-5 win over an FCS team in Maine, is all you need to know to draw conclusions. Central Michigan’s offense can’t score and it can’t move the ball consistently.

The Chippewas rank 128th out of the 130 FBS teams, averaging just 17.3 points per game. The two teams below them are UTEP, currently riding an 18-game losing streak, and Rutgers.

John Bonamego is still swapping between quarterbacks. Sophomore Tony Poljan started the year, but after a four-interception performance in a disastrous, disheartening loss to Kansas, it seemed time to switch to Tommy Lazzaro. But under the junior college transfer, there has been no sign of improvement. Lazzaro was pulled against Buffalo last Saturday after completing 9-of-23 passes, with four of those miscues resulting in interceptions. So, it’s Poljan time again — for now.

Both quarterbacks are completing passes below the 60 percent rate and both have double the number of interceptions as touchdown passes.

If the passing struggles weren’t enough, the rushing game has been abysmal too.

Running back Jonathan Ward was projected to be one of the MAC’s top offensive players after a 1,000-yard campaign in 2017. Ward’s last three games? 15 carries for 17 yards, 8 carries for 26 yards, and 7 carries for 9 yards. Last year, he was notably a terrific receiving back with 470 yards. At the halfway point of 2018, Ward has corralled just seven passes for 32 yards.

Central Michigan also sports a very young receiving corps, which hasn’t quite helped the quarterbacks yet. Changes are definitely needed in this offense if the Chippewas want to continue their bowl eligibility streak to a fifth-straight year.

After last year’s defensive debacle where Ball State allowed 55 or more points an outlandish four times in MAC play, the Cardinals have already made noticeable strides. Even after playing the likes of Notre Dame and Indiana, the Cardinals are giving up just 24 points per game. Without Anthony Winbush on the roster, the pass rush has taken a step back, but Ball State’s been decent in the secondary this year. The Cardinals’ defense has all the tools they need to contain Central Michigan’s lackadaisical offense, even in a road game against a presumably fired up team.

Game Notes

  • Time and date: Saturday, October 13 — 3:00 p.m. ET
  • Venue: Kelly-Shorts Stadium — Mount Pleasant, MI
  • Network: ESPN3
  • Spread: Central Michigan (-2.5)
  • ESPN FPI Predictor: Central Michigan has 55.6% chance to win
  • All-time series: Central Michigan leads 25-24-1

It’s been a close historical series between the MAC West foes, and Ball State will be gifted an opportunity to tie the Chippewas in the record books this Saturday. The Chippewas have claimed the last three meetings, including a lopsided 56-9 decision last season. However, Ball State won every matchup from 2010-14.

1939 was the first time the opponents met, and they’ve played every single year since 1977.

Prediction

This is probably the toughest MAC game to predict in Week 7. Ball State’s playing better football at the moment, but the Cardinals have shown plenty of inconsistencies. From nearly upsetting Notre Dame to dropping a home game to a bad Western Kentucky team to offensively obliterating Kent State, we have yet to find out which version of Ball State is the typical version.

Central Michigan’s been a lot more consistent, but the offense has been unreliable. The team’s offense definitely pales in comparison to Ball State’s, but the Chippewas are at home in their most important game of the season. A loss for Central Michigan all but ends the team’s chances of returning to bowl season. They’ll come out with fire and defensive energy, but I don’t think the offense will come out on top in this low-scoring affair.

Prediction: Ball State 23, Central Michigan 20