It’s a new year, and a Neu Ball State.
Mike Neu’s Ball State Cardinals pulled off their second-consecutive road upset last Saturday to rise to 2-0 in MAC play, the lone team in the West division to remain undefeated in conference. Ball State came back down two possessions in the second half of both games. First, they won their first Bronze Stalk trophy in 11 years by clawing back down 14 at Northern Illinois, and last week, they forced four turnovers to slide past Eastern Michigan in Ypsilanti.
The Cardinals have yet to register a bad performance this year. For a program that hasn’t qualified for a bowl game since 2013, 10-point losses to Indiana and Florida Atlantic, and 11-point loss at NC State are not results to fret about. Instead, they’re showing the growth of the program which is finally coming to fruition in year four of the Neu era.
But the season’s at the halfway mark, and nobody is ready to crown Ball State the new king of the MAC West yet — especially not the visiting Toledo Rockets. Despite only winning the division once this decade, Toledo is a consistent contender in the division with the conference’s best overall record (50-21) in the College Football Playoff era. This year, the Rockets are rolling along as usual at 4-2, but considering what happened last week, it’s not a satisfying 4-2.
In a similar manner to Ball State finally breaking a 10-game losing streak to Northern Illinois, Toledo lost its first matchup in a rivalry trophy game to Bowling Green this past weekend. As 26.5-point favorites, the Rockets posted a mere seven points in a 13-point loss. The stunner snapped Toledo’s four-game win streak, which included one-possession wins over BYU, Colorado State, and Western Michigan — all won on defensive stands.
The Rockets’ defense has made its presence felt this year, especially in the secondary. Toledo cornerback Samuel Womack is one of the best cover corners in the MAC, defending 11 passes and recording two interceptions midway through the regular season. Womack’s matchup Saturday should be one of the most talented wideouts in the conference, Riley Miller. Miller hasn’t played a large role in the past several weeks, but the Rockets know what he’s capable of. On Halloween last season, Miller torched the Toledo secondary for 101 yards and a touchdown. But with safeties Kahlil Robinson and Saeed Holt shining in zone coverage this season, the Rockets’ secondary has amplified its game.
Miller isn’t the only formidable target in the Cardinals’ receiving corps. Ball State boasts two other 20+ reception, 300+ yard receivers in Justin Hall (second in receptions in the MAC) and Antwan Davis. The engineer behind the receivers and the offense is quarterback Drew Plitt. In his first year as the primary starter, Plitt has impressed. He’s 14th in the FBS in passing yards, averaging 277 per game, and he’s thrown 13 touchdown passes in a much-improved unit.
But Ball State’s offense isn’t one-dimensional. The Cardinals have seen equal success in the rushing department this year. The go-to man is junior Caleb Huntley, eight yards shy of 600 yards on the season. Huntley’s ground production is the primary reason Ball State’s offense has erupted in the second half of each of its last two games, as he posted a combined 309 rushing yards and two touchdowns in DeKalb and Ypsilanti.
On the other side, Toledo counters with just as lethal of a rushing attack, but a more versatile one. The front man is Bryant Koback, listed at ninth in rushing yards with an average of 114.7 per game and 6.6 per carry. Koback presents a dangerous combination of power and speed, which was on full display when he ignited for 228 yards against Colorado State and 177 versus Western Michigan. In addition to Koback, running back Shakif Seymour sees frequent touches out of the backfield. But Toledo’s running game is even more dangerous considering their quarterback is one of the most mobile in the FBS.
Mitchell Guadagni has 1,099 passing yards and 332 rushing yards this season, but his status for Saturday’s game in Muncie is unknown. The senior quarterback left a game for the second time this year when struck with an undisclosed injury in the Bowling Green. Backup Carter Bradley also left the game with an injury, leaving Eli Peters to finish the game. Peters has plenty of experience for a third quarterback, considering he started the second half of Toledo’s season in 2018 including the Bahamas Bowl. Last season, Peters managed 1,837 passing yards and 18 touchdowns in six starts. Any one of the three quarterbacks could earn the start against Ball State, which could keep Cardinals’ film room study sessions interesting.
For Ball State, the defense has improved for the second consecutive season. Two seasons removed from allowing over 40 points per game, the Cardinals are allowing just 30.2. Forcing turnovers has been a particular forte of the defense, an area in which the team ranks third with 2.5 takeaways per game.
Time and Date: Saturday, October 19 at 2 p.m. ET
Location: Scheumann Stadium — Muncie, IN
Spread: Toledo (-1)
ESPN FPI: Toledo has 59.1% chance to win
All-time series: Toledo leads, 24-19-1
Last meeting: Toledo 45, Ball State 13 — October 31, 2018
Toledo has won five in a row over Ball State, with each of these wins occurring by multiple scores. Last season, Plitt passed for 340 yards, while Peters countered with 327. In an overall ugly event, both teams committed five turnovers. However, the offenses still combined for nearly 1,000 yards, but on the scoreboard, Toledo jumped to a 21-0 lead and never looked back. The Cardinals most recently emerged victorious in 2013, led by quarterback Keith Wenning in a 31-24 win — Ball State’s most recent season attaining bowl eligibility.
It’s never an easy pick when the quarterback lining up under center for Toledo is unknown. Guadagni gives the Rockets the best chance to win this game on the road, and Toledo is 0-2 in games which he has left due to injury. In other matchups, the Rockets are 4-0.
Even without Guadagni, Toledo should earn plenty of yardage with Koback and Seymour sharing the backfield. Another Rocket to watch is Bryce Mitchell. Built like a tight end, the wide receiver has been the Rockets’ top target this season. If Peters is the quarterback Saturday, he gets plenty of air underneath many of his throws and Mitchell (22.1 yards per reception) could benefit from some of Peters’ deep looks.
Ball State still hasn’t beaten an FBS team at home this year, but the only opportunity was against a strong Florida Atlantic team. The Cardinals’ key is mainly on the defensive side of the ball. In each of Toledo’s two losses — Kentucky and Bowling Green — inopportune turnovers and a limited running game were the ingredients contributing to defeat. Ball State must capitalize on those items to improve to 3-0 and win a crucial tiebreaker in the MAC West.
That being said, Jason Candle re-gathers the troops and bounces back from a soul-crushing victory, thanks to a stellar day from Koback and the secondary — to regain control of the division and the conference.
Prediction: Toledo 27, Ball State 20