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2019 MAC Football End-of-Season Brief: Ball State Cardinals

If a couple bounces went their way, the Cards might have made some noise in the MAC West.

NCAA Football: Ball State at North Carolina State Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

The Ball State Cardinals had a tough task ahead of them going into 2019. With Toledo and WMU as the media favorites in the MAC West, and several teams (namely, CMU and NIU) expected to be in a rebuild, the opportunity was there to make a miracle run to the divisional title.

Optimism was low for the first month of the season, as the Cardinals returned uneven results in the out-of-conference slate. That changed with a monster run to start the MAC season, culminating in a beatdown of the media favorite Toledo Rockets on Homecoming. The ensuing backswing of the schedule was violent, resulting in Ball State falling out of bowl eligibility, even despite picking up a win against the eventual MAC champion Miami RedHawks.

2020 will be a pivotal year for Mike Neu and staff, as fans are justifiably waiting for the results to start coming down positively. The Cards are left as the only MAC program to never win a bowl game, with Kent State and Buffalo picking up their first wins this postseason, and if BSU doesn’t at least qualify for the postseason next year, it could be lights out on the Neu era.

That makes a look into what happened in 2019 a very fascinating one.

The Schedule

Date Opponent Result
Sat., Aug. 31 Indiana (in Indianapolis) L, 24-34
Sat., Sept.7 v. Fordham W, 57-29
Sat., Sept. 14 v. Florida Atlantic L, 31-41
Sat., Sept. 21 @ NC State L, 23-34
Sat., Oct. 5 @ NIU W, 27-20
Sat., Oct. 12 @ EMU W, 29-23
Sat., Oct. 19 v. Toledo W 52-14
Sat., Oct. 26 @ Ohio L, 21-34
Tues., Nov. 5 @ WMU L, 31-35
Sat., Nov. 16 vs. CMU L, 44-45
Sat., Nov. 23 @ Kent State L, 38-41
Fri., Nov. 29 vs. Miami W, 41-27

(If table doesn’t work, click here.)

To say the Cardinals had a roller coaster season would be putting it lightly.

Ball State came out of the out-of-conference schedule 1-3 in four weeks, with two narrow losses to Power Five opponents (one on the road), as well as a painful blown lead to Florida Atlantic. It was a team which felt very much like a wild card to contend for the MAC West, even despite the slow start.

They started the MAC slate with their hair on fire, winning their first three conference games and taking the West division lead as the only team undefeated in league play. The first two games were squeezed out, but they announced themselves to the world with a huge blowout of Toledo on Homecoming.

The bottom fell out from there, with two perplexing losses in a row to directional Michigan teams and a humiliating loss to Kent State to knock them out of bowl contention with a game to go in the season.

It was a fairly tough schedule for the Cards in 2019, with seven teams qualifying for postseason bowl games. FAU ended the year as Conference USA Champion, with an 11-3 record. They split games with Miami and Central, the divisional champions, and were never really blown out in any game, with their worst loss being a 14-point one to WMU.

This was a team which lived in the margins all season, and it showed, both on the field and the box score. Ball State was left sitting at home in the postseason despite outscoring their opponents by an average of 3.4 points per game and outgaining opponents by an average of 39 yards per game. It’s a disparity which is even more perplexing given their defense’s deftness at causing turnovers, with 24 on the season in 12 games (15 interceptions, nine fumbles lost [16 forced.])

High Points

  • Indiana (in Indianapolis): The game was a loss on the scoreboard, yes, but it was also Ball State’s first chance to show their competitive nature. They were never very far away in this contest with what would become an eight-win Indiana team on a neutral field, coming within one score twice late in the game and forcing the Hoosiers to play their way to an uncomfortable win. This was the first indication the Cardinals could play with anyone they wanted to. (Recap by Ball State Athletics)
  • Northern Illinois: Ball State stumbled out of the gates vs. NIU to start this road rivalry game, giving the Huskies 14 points in the first seven minutes of action. They also ended up going into the locker room down 17-3 in a wet, sloppy affair. It didn’t deter the Cards, who would go on to score 21 unanswered points, and 24 points overall in the second half, to snatch the Bronze Stalk for the first time in 11 years. The first of BSU’s three-straight conference wins, this game ultimately showed off their resiliency. (Recap by Dave Drury)
  • Toledo: This was non-competitive from the word “go”, as Ball State got off to a fast start on the Rockets, posting 38 first half points and giving up zero, thanks in part to almost 400 yards of offense (!!!) in the first 30 minutes of game action. Toledo, who had been MAC West favorites to start the season, was sent reeling after the game, while Ball State established its legitimacy. (Recap by Sam Barloga)

Low Points

  • Flordia Atlantic: In what would become a bit of a theme, Ball State jumped out to a big first-half lead before falling apart at the seams in the second half of a game with stakes. FAU looked shaken by a fast-scoring offense in the first half, but figured out BSU’s conservative look in the second, picking up two second-half turnovers to secure what was ultimately a double-digit victory from the jaws of defeat. (Recap by Sam Barloga)
  • Central Michigan: Ball State looked invincible in the first half, even stunting on CMU with a patented #FATMANTOUCHDOWN on an eight-yard screen to OL Danny Pinter. But as with the FAU game, Ball State adjusted to a conservative look to preserve the scoreboard and CMU came storming back with a different look on offense to catch the Cards off-guard, utiliizing the Tommy Lazzaro read-option to two late-game touchdowns, including the game-winner. (Recap by Sam Barloga)
  • Kent State: Whatever late-game luck Ball State had in the first part of the MAC schedule came back to bite them hard later on, as Ball State yet again gave up a halftime lead to lose in the last minute of a single-score game, this time to Kent State. BSU rolled over in the second half, scoring no points in the third quarter as KSU posted 10, before ultimately playing catch-up in the fourth quarter. It was their third-straight conference loss, and it took them out of bowl contention. (Recap by Ball State Atheltics)

Key Departures

Ball State will be without a good handful of contributors from last season’s roster in all three phases, most notably on the offensive side of the ball. This will make an already young roster fairly younger. There are a handful of prospects which could find their way to pro football rosters below, including Fletcher and White. (All numbers reflect 2019 stats.)

  • RB Walter Fletcher: 132 rush, 726 yards, five rushing touchdowns; 26 receptions, 306 yards, two receiving touchdowns
  • WR Antwan Davis: 38 receptions, 516 yards, three touchdowns
  • WR Riley Miller: 43 receptions, 603 yards, six touchdowns; all-MAC second team in 2018 and 2019
  • WR/RB Malik Dunner: six receptions for 39 yards and one touchdown; 11 rushes, 184 yards and two touchdowns; 30 kick returns for 701 yards and one touchdown. All-MAC second team kick returner in 2019 (third team in 2018)
  • TE Kyle Shrank: 11 games, three starts in 2019; 30-yard reception. Primarily a blocking tight end.
  • OL Danny Pinter: one right-yard rushing touchdown; started all 12 games in 2019, 24 as a right tackle in career, All-MAC First Team in 2019, all-MAC Academic all four years of eligibility (at TE and OL)
  • OL Zac Ricketts: started all 12 games in 2019, all-MAC Academic all four years of eligibility
  • DT Chris Crumb: started all 12 games at nose tackle; 45 tackles, one fumble forced, safety forced.
  • LB Jacob White: 117 tackles, eight tackles-for-loss, one forced fumble, one interception. All-MAC first team linebacker (second-team in 2018), started 32 games at middle linebacker over career.
  • S Ray Wilborn: Converted to safety in senior year from outside linebacker; 83 tackles, two tackles-for-loss, two interceptions, four passes defensed.
  • PK Ryan Rimmler: 15-of-22 (68 percent), 48-of-49 on extra points for a total of 92 points scored (led team).

Key Returnees

The good thing about having a young roster is that many of the returnees will have plenty of game experience to call upon in the new season. The backfield duo of Drew Plitt and Caleb Huntley return to pace the offense, while the defene will be anchored in the secondary by Amechi Uzodinma and Antonio Phillips. (All stats are from 2019.)

  • QB Drew Plitt: 238-of-370 for 2,918 yards, 24 touchdowns and seven interceptions; 91 rushes for 351 yards gained (183 lost) and five touchdowns.
  • RB Caleb Huntley: 248 yards, 1,275 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns (106.6 yards per game average); seven receptions for 65 yards. All-MAC second team in 2019.
  • WR Justin Hall: 61 receptions for 684 yards and six touchdowns; all-MAC first team in 2019 (second-team in 2018)
  • DE James Jennette III: 42 tackles, eight tackles-for-loss, 3.5 sacks in 2019
  • CB Amechi Uzodinma II: 38 tackles, five interceptions, 12 passes defensed; started four of the final five games and finished all-MAC second-team in 2019
  • CB Antonio Phillips: 43 tackles, four interceptions, two passes defensed; first-team all-MAC in 2019
  • S Bryce Cosby: 78 tackles, two tackles-for-loss, two intetceptions, five passes defensed.
  • LB Christian Albright: 71 tackles, 10.5 tackles-for-loss, 3.5 sacks, four passes defensed, five QB hits, two forced fumbles

Looking Forward

It’s too early to tell how most MAC teams will do, but it certain won’t be easy for Ball State in the out-of-conference schedule.

They open the season with FCS playoff team Maine, who has taken their last two three FBS opponents to the wire (incuding CMU and Georgia Southern), with a win over WKU in 2018.

Their schedule then takes them on the road to two Big Ten opponents in two straight weeks, with games vs. Michigan and Indiana (a rematch of last year’s close Week 1 game.)

Their last tune-up before MAC play comes agaisnt Wyoming, a Mountain West team which finished 8-5 this season even despite QB uncertainty and looks to improve under true freshman QB Levi Williams and redshirt sophomore RB Xazavian Valladay.

The MAC West doesn’t look like it will separate anytime soon either, so it will come down to plain ol’ execution in clutch moments; if Ball State can string together consistent performances and finish games, they can finish near the top of the standings. With one of the better defenses in the league and a young offense with a lot of potential returning, they could make a lot of noise in 2020.

What do you think will happen? Let us know on Twitter or below in the comments section!