If you like a little bit of title game intrigue with your weeknight #MACtion kickoff game, well, you’ve certainly gotten your wish.
The Ball State Cardinals (4-4, 3-1 MAC) travels to Kalamazoo to face the Western Michigan Broncos (5-4, 3-2 MAC) to try and keep their all-important divisional lead after surprising everyone by going undefeated in their first three games of the conference season.
To say the least, having Ball State be the leader of the West is an unexpected, if intriguing, turn to what has otherwise been a down year in the Mid-American Conference as a whole.
The Cards came in to 2019 as perhaps the most unpredictable of the teams; with key starts from 2018 graduating or transferring, they were left largely with a young, inexperienced core, especially on offense. Now, they’re in control of their own destiny as the weekight games begin to affect the course of the conference.
Meanwhile, the Broncos were one of a handful of teams considered to be in the running for the MAC Championship in the preseason, just behind Toledo and Ohio in terms of title talk. They find themselves in a must-win situation, having lost to Toledo and EMU in the early running with only three games left on their schedule.
It’s a recipe for an old-fashioned donnybrook under the Tuesday Night Lights.
When Ball State has the ball
The Ball State offense has been one of the more creative and effecient offenses in the league so far in 2019, only dipping below 27 points once this season in MAC play.
They’re lead in the passing game by Drew Plitt, who was expected to be an experienced backup prior to Riley Neal’s transfer to Vanderbilt. Plitt has 1,977 yards and 16 passing touchdowns this season, with only six interceptions through eight games. Riley Miller (32 rec., 457 yards, five touchdowns) and Justin Hall (44 rec., 449 yards, three touchdowns) have been the major targets for Plitt, although Yo’Heinz Tyler and Antwan Davis (three touchdowns apice) have also proven tobe good in certain formations.
The real core of the offense is in the running game. Caleb Huntley (152 rush, 723 yards, five touchdowns) and Walter Fletcher (72 rush, 387 yards and three touchdowns) handle the ball the majority of the time with the offensive scheme, and present two different running styles for the Cardinals. Huntley fills the role of powerhorse back, a back who falls forward for yards and gets stronger as the game goes on. Fletcher, meanwhile, gets looks in passing situations, as he’s a speedier receiving back. In fact, Fletcher is the fifth-leading receiver for Ball State, with 160 yards and a touchdown.
The Cardinals rank 37th in total offense, averaging 441.5 yards per game, good enough for third-best in the MAC (directly behind fellow MAC West foe Toledo, who they beat soundly, and... Western.) They’re certainly not going to be a slouch to defend, especially with their emphasis on ball control. If there’s one problem they face, it could be converting on third down; they’ve only converted on 39 percent of their attempts so far this season. With how WMU’s offense schemes on offense, it could be rough sailing to get the ball back if you’re punting or attempting a field goal two of every three attempts.
The WMU defense could be assessed as “average” at best, giving up 430.6 yards per game (and 5.84 yards per play) through eight contests in 2019, placing them just outside of the bottom third defenses in the country. WMU is 4-4, and part of the reason is because their defense just plain gives up touchdowns; the opposing touchdowns to offensive touchdowns is an even 1:1 ratio.
Those stats aren’t for lack of effort. The Broncos boast one of the best linebackers in the league in Treshaun Howard, who has racked up 106 tackles, five sacks, a forced fumble and recovery. He’s joined by battery mate Drake Spears (73 tackles, two interceptions, one defensive touchdown) and safety Dustin Tranquill (60 tackles, three pass break-ups, two interceptions) to create an intriguing middle of the defense.
Ali Fayad (35 tackles, 5.5 sacks, three forced fumbles) has proven to be one of the better ends in the MAC this season, while Tim Collins (34, 3.5 sacks, one forced fumble) has emerged of late to help form a great pass rush.
The one soft spot on the Broncos defense is the secondary, which has been gashed through the air for an average of 252.3 yards per game and about 10.61 yards per completion (7.12 yards per attempt,) with 15 touchdowns. With teams completing 67 percent of passes on the Broncos, it’s been pretty easy to move the ball over them, especially since they allow third-down conversions at a 45 percent clip.
When Western Michigan has the ball
The Broncos are the best offense in the MAC by sheer numbers, and also rate as one of the most efficient offenses in the country, coming in at 28th with 461.8 yards per game on 6.67 yards per play, and 43 touchdowns. That makes them a tough out when it comes to scheming for them defensively, especially since they’re a top 25 team in third-down conversion rate, converting on 45.2 percent of their attempts this season.
Their biggest X-Factor on the offensive side of the ball is their do-it-all back LeVante Bellamy. Bellamy is second in the country in rushing touchdowns (17) and sixth in rushing yards (1,055) through nine games, and has been the catalyst which makes the WMU offense move.
Of the 461.8 yards per game on average, 205.8 of those yards come from the WMU rushing attack, which also includes Sean Tyler (52 rush, 333 yards, five touchdowns) and Davon Tucker (45 rushes, 258 yards, two touchdowns.) The rushing attack as a unit picks up an average of 5.5 yards per carry, with Bellamy and Tyler both eclipsing the 6.3 yard mark on each attempt.
Their offense is also helped by having an all-MAC quarterback in Jon Wassink (2,273 yards, 16 touchdowns and seven interceptions) and one of the country’s best vertical threat tight ends in Gio Ricci, who leads the Broncos in receptions (40), yards (551) and reception touchdowns (6.)
Skyy Moore (32 receptions, 433 yards, two touchdowns) has emerged for the Broncos as a freshman contributor, leading primary receivers excluding tight ends, while Keith Mixon Jr. (29 rec., 370 yards, two touchdowns), the Mississppi State transfer, has been a factor in both the passing game and special teams as a returner thanks in part to his ability to separate from coverage with his speed.
The Ball State defense will have its hands full with an offense designed to live in the middle of the hashes. They’ll certainly try their best to fill in the gaps, as the Cards sport a consistent rushing defense, averaging about 157.6 yards per game on the ground, with a 4.0 yard per rush average. Last week was an abborition on the pattern, however, as the Cards let up two 100+ yard rushers and 300+ yards overall in a loss to the Ohio Bobcats. They’ve been left to stew on that number through the BYE week.
Ball State will have a linebacker rotation that rivals some of the best in the conference, with Jacob White (78 tackles), Jaylin Thomas (64 tackles, one pass break-up), Christian Albright (46 tackles, 1.5 sacks, four pass break-ups, two forced fumbles and a recovery) and Jordan Williams (22 tackles, 4.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, three recoveries) all getting looks thorughout the game.
The secondary has 11 takeaways via the interception, with both starters at corner and safety logging at least two apiece. Amechi Uzodinma II has especially been a revealtion at corner, with 22 tackles, eight pass break-ups, three interceptions, one forced fumble and one recovery in his sophomore campaign. Antonio Phillips (34 tackles, four interceptions) is another lockdown corner which gives Ball State one of the better secondaries in the MAC at havoc plays. Bryce Cosby and Ray Willborn have combined for 122 tackles, four intereptions and a forced fumble as well.
- Where/When: Waldo Stadium in Kalamazoo, Michigan, on Tuesday, Nov. 5, at 8/7 p.m. EST/CST
- Weather: 35 degrees, partly cloudy with a light breeze at kickoff, per Weather.com.
- TV/streaming: The game will be aired nationally on ESPN2. A valid cable subscription is required.
- Radio: The Ball State-centric broadcast can be found at 104.1 WLBC-FM, while the WMU-centric broadcast can be found at 96.5 WSOX-FM. Online streams have been linked.
- Odds: WMU is a 6.5-point favorite at home, with an over/under of 64, per OddsShark.
It’s going to be a hell of a shootout.
Both teams are made to be efficient in the running game and take calculated risks through the air, so in many ways, these are two teams who play in identical fashions. The difference here will certainly be on the defensive side of the ball, as the team who wins the battle in the middle of the hashes will certianly come out on top here. That supposition leaves an even simpler question of if you believe more in LeVante Bellamy and his obvious talent or in a stout Ball State defense.
I tend to be a bit higher on Ball State than most media probably are in terms of this particualr matchup, but WMU has better personnel on offense and will likely come out with the win in front of their home crowd.