Of all MAC games on the schedule this season, this one didn’t seem like a MAC Championship preview before the season began. Ball State (4-3, 3-0 MAC) and Ohio (3-4, 2-1 MAC) find themselves at the top of their respective divisions, looking to build on momentum-building wins when they square off in Muncie, Indiana.
Ball State is back, FOLKS!
The Ball State Cardinals are on a mission. They’re a team we haven’t heard much from since 2013, when they rattled off 10 wins and a 7-1 MAC record under third-year head coach Pete Lembo.
But heading into Week 9, the Cardinals are tied for the fewest overall losses in the conference and sport the MAC’s only undefeated record at 3-0. And Ball State hasn’t exactly been beating up on the cellar dwellers. The Cardinals have solid wins over several contenders — Northern Illinois and Eastern Michigan on the road and Toledo at home. Their latest showing was a dominant masterpiece which caused quite a stir amongst college football fans.
Ball State didn’t just beat Toledo, the presumed MAC favorite heading into last week. The Cardinals obliterated the Rockets, 52-14, bolting out to a 38-0 halftime lead and never looking back. Ball State’s offensive “Big 3” each shined on the day, with quarterback Drew Plitt passing for three touchdowns, Caleb Huntley rushing for 119 yards, and wide receiver Riley Miller catching two long first quarter touchdown receptions in an 87-yard outing.
Each of these skill position players poses a threat to the Ohio defense, a unit which despite a victory, allowed Kent State to break out for 38 points last Saturday. Ohio’s defense is 96th nationally in points allowed per game and 115th in the FBS in yards allowed, equally struggling at containing both the run and the pass. With Ball State’s offensive versatility this season, the Cardinals could continue some of the offensive groundwork they laid versus Toledo last week.
Riley Miller will face one-on-one coverage against Ohio cornerback Marlin Brooks. With 36 tackles and an interception, Womack is one of the top solo coverage men in the MAC. Miller is fifth in the conference in receiving yards in a follow-up act to an All-MAC season, so his battle with Brooks should be the main focus when the Cardinals have the ball.
Huntley is facing a defense which allowed 5.5 yards per rush each of the last two weeks. He’s pieced together 328 rushing yards in his last three outings, and with assistance from Malik Dunner in the backfield (90 rushing yards against Toledo), Ball State’s ground game has grown into one of the strongest in the conference.
Ohio looks to gain rhythm
Ohio found itself embroiled in yet another one-possession conference game last Saturday. The three Bobcats’ MAC matchups have been decided by a combined 11 points, with one ending on a walk-off extra point in overtime and another concluding on a clock-expiring field goal.
But Ohio’s offense came up clutch last week and proved it has the ability to take over and close out games. Quarterback Nathan Rourke shined with his best performance of the season, totaling 342 passing yards, 79 rushing yards, and contributing four total touchdowns in a 45-38 victory. Rourke averaged 12.2 yards per drop back and didn’t suffer a single sack to the Golden Flashes. With plenty of time, he was able to establish an effective deep ball, which allowed sophomore wide receiver Isiah Cox to enjoy a 115-yard performance as the top target of Rourke’s eight recipients.
Ohio kept the rushing attack versatile with Rourke getting his reps and strong contributions from the running back duo of De’Montre Tuggle and O’Shaan Allison — 131 yards and two touchdowns combined. Ohio will attack Ball State with plenty of speed option plays, but the Cardinals’ defense has greatly improved at limiting runs to the outside. After displaying a disastrous defense the past couple seasons, Ball State is allowing just 135 rushing yards per contest.
Even if Ohio meets expectations offensively, the key to this game resides on the Bobcats’ defense. The unit allowed 39 and 38 points in the past two weeks and has been relatively inconsistent this season. Free safety Javon Hagan will have to escalate the defense, especially the run-stopping unit, with middle linebacker Jared Dorsa’s status in question. Dorsa, the team’s star tackler missed the Kent State game due to an injury after compiling 48 tackles in six games. Hagan is the team’s leader with 59 stops, and he’ll have an increased role in manning the secondary and stopping Huntley if Ohio’s depth remains limited.
This game is a pivotal one for the Bobcats. Ohio started 2018 with a lackluster 3-3 record but turned things around, especially on the defensive end, and won six of its last seven, including a bowl game. If Ohio can step up its defense and knock off the lone undefeated team in MAC play, the Bobcats can gain the necessary momentum they’ll need to claim their first MAC East title since 2016 — and perhaps meet Ball State once more.
Time and Date: Saturday, October 26 at 2 p.m. ET
Location: Scheumann Stadium — Muncie, IN
Spread: Ball State (-2.5)
ESPN FPI: Ball State has 67.5% chance to win
All-time series: Ball State leads, 15-10
Last meeting: Ball State 52, Ohio 14 — October 25, 2018
The Bobcats have won two-straight and last year’s meeting wasn’t particularly close. Ball State most recently downed Ohio in 2012, 52-27. Since Frank Solich stepped on campus, the Bobcats have a 4-2 record over the Cardinals. Ball State enjoyed a particularly prolific period from 1985-1996, winning 11 of 12 in the series.
The MAC is difficult to predict this year, more than ever. Ohio seems destined to finally experience its breakthrough moment and go on a run similar to its 6-1 finish from a year ago. Offensively, the Bobcats are finally clicking with Nathan Rourke returning to Nathan Rourke of old and the running backs finding open lanes and picking up sizable gain after sizable gain. But this whole game depends on whether Ohio’s defense can generate stops, something it did for the most part in the second half against Kent State last week.
Ball State will need a dominant performance from either Drew Plitt or Caleb Huntley. Plitt has been quite inconsistent this year, as he recently followed up a 57-attempt, 333-yard game with a 14-attempt, 34-yard one. With Huntley on a roll and recently-turned wide receiver Malik Dunner returning to the backfield, Ball State may have to rush their way to victory given the high volatility of the Cardinals’ passing game.
But in the end, Ohio has Nathan Rourke and Frank Solich’s team is going to finally snap the Cardinals’ perfect MAC record and set both teams at .500.
Prediction: Ohio 41, Ball State 38