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2020 Mid-American Conference Football Week 13 Preview: Ball State Cardinals @ Toledo Rockets

The Huntley-led Cardinals and the Koback-led Rockets aim to jump to 3-1 and gain separation in a crowded MAC West race.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 31 Ball State at Toledo Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Game Notes

Time and Date: Saturday, November 28 at 12:00 p.m. ET

Network: ESPN3

Location: Glass Bowl — Toledo, OH

Spread: Toledo (-9.5)

ESPN FPI: Toledo has 76.9% chance to win

All-time series: Toledo leads, 24-20-1

Last meeting: Ball State 52, Toledo 14 — October 19, 2019

Current streak: Ball State, 1 (2019)

Ball State won in a massacre last October that Toledo would like to forget. The Cardinals went into halftime with a 38-0 lead over the Rockets and led by as many as 45 points. Ball State rushed for 374 yards in the victory, which situated the team at 3-0 in conference play and atop the MAC West standings.


It’s separation Saturday in the MAC West.

Midway through the abbreviated 6-game schedule, Western Michigan appears to be the frontrunner in the division with the lone 3-0 record. But there is a horde of valid contenders at 2-1 and Ball State and Toledo share that résumé heading into the Glass Bowl this Saturday.

Both teams are one heartbreaking loss away from perfection. Ball State threw an interception on a potential game-winning drive against Miami (OH) in its season opener, while Toledo failed to recover an onside kick and blew a 10-point lead to Western Michigan in the final minute in the second week of MAC play.

One team remains in contention with a victory this Thanksgiving weekend. In a matchup which features star running backs, talented cornerbacks, and a cast of capable wide receivers, this will be the must-watch MAC game as the conference enters the final stretch of the 2020 season.


When Toledo has the ball

The major question heading into this matchup concerns who will play quarterback for Toledo. The Rockets’ starter, senior Eli Peters, suffered a lower body injury on a sack in the late second quarter of a 45-28 win over Eastern Michigan. He eventually returned to the sidelines but Carter Bradley stepped into the role for the remainder of the night. Ten days separate the Eastern Michigan game from Saturday’s matchup with Ball State, so Peters has more time to recover.

If Peters is unable to go, Bradley maintains his status as the starter. He received significant playing time in last year’s matchup against Ball State, completing 14/34 passes for a career-high 137 yards. In a limited sample size against Eastern Michigan, Bradley appeared to improve drastically as a passer. He connected on five of eight passes for 108 yards, enjoying his first multi-touchdown game as a Rocket. Bradley moved about the pocket well and finished with one 13-yard rush and zero sacks taken.

Whether it’s Bradley or Peters lining up in shotgun, the cast of targets remains the same. Toledo has been incredibly balanced in its passing game this season and six different players currently hold between 90 and 170 receiving yards. Some of the newer faces, Isaiah Winstead and Ronnie Blackmon, are leading the charge as frequent targets on screen passes. Their speed makes them dangerous around the edge in the open field. The Rockets also utilize veterans Danzel McKinley-Lewis and Bryce Mitchell, having four solid receivers featured in the offense.

There’s no easy draw for them against Ball State’s secondary. The Cardinals are loaded in this unit more than most MAC teams, with free safety Bryce Cosby leading the charge with 23 tackles. The cornerbacks, Amechi Uzodinma II and Antonio Phillips, are sound in the coverage game too. Phillips has four pass breakups while Uzodinma carried an interception 71 yards to the house in the win over Northern Illinois.

Toledo, operating with a substantial lead, primarily ran the ball during the series with Bradley at quarterback, but he proved to have the tools to be a capable starter for this pivotal MAC West matchup.

If Toledo leans heavily on the running game, the Rockets have several lethal weapons to work with. Bryant Koback, a 1,000-yard back in 2019, piled 149 yards on Eastern Michigan’s defense last Tuesday. Toledo also likely returns power back Shakif Seymour, who did not travel with the team to Ypsilanti, MI, for personal reasons. Ball State managed to handle the duo a year ago, limiting Koback and Seymour to 40 yards on 16 carries, but the unit receives an additional barricade to run behind with All-MAC center Bryce Harris back in the lineup this season.


When Ball State has the ball

The MAC is absolutely stacked at the running back position this season and Ball State is a contributor to the movement.

While Toledo presents Bryant Koback, Ball State counters with Caleb Huntley — who has thrown his name into the hat for the conference’s MVP this season. Dating back to 2019, Huntley has attained the 100-yard rushing mark in seven straight games, becoming the first player to do so in Ball State history. When a crunch time win was needed against Eastern Michigan, Huntley stepped up with a monstrous stat-line of 34 carries, 204 yards, and three touchdowns. He’s a workhorse running back that seems destined to be fed early and often in the backfield, and Toledo may recall allowing him to run free for 119 yards last October.

In the passing game, Ball State sends out gunslinger Drew Plitt who emerged as one of the better downfield passers in the conference last fall. This year, Plitt has been slightly more sporadic with his throws, tallying three interceptions through three games. Still, he’s a dangerous quarterback capable of dropping 300 passing yards on an opposing defense at any time, and he is surrounded by a heap of viable targets.

Justin Hall is the team leader in receiving yards with 252, and his success will likely draw him a matchup against Toledo’s shutdown cornerback Samuel Womack. Womack ranked second in the entire FBS in pass breakups in 2019 and already has registered four this year. But he’ll naturally witness a decrease in this area because teams aren’t throwing his way much anymore. If Womack gives Hall fits in the anticipated matchup, Ball State is still set with Yo’Heinz Tyler (238 yards, 2 TD) and Antwan Davis (197 yards, 1 TD) in the aerial attack.

Toledo’s Jamal Hines deservedly took home MAC West Player of the Week honors for his efforts against Eastern Michigan. The defensive end was everywhere, forcing 1.5 sacks and five tackles, in addition to intercepting a shovel pass and taking it 20 yards to the house. Hines will be a key feature on Toledo’s defensive line, which features another formidable pass rusher in defensive end Terrance Taylor.

The Rockets’ pass rush may play a major factor when going against a Ball State offensive line which allowed 12 sacks through three games this year. Since no team has reasonably contained Huntley, pressuring Plitt has been the formula to slowing down Ball State’s offense and Hines and Taylor must be on top of shedding blocks in order to win the battle in the trenches.


Prediction

It is shocking that the Vegas spread is Toledo (-9.5) in this one. The Rockets looked impressive against Eastern Michigan a week ago while Ball State only beat a struggling Northern Illinois program by six at home.

Still, the Cardinals often play in close games. The first two Ball State contests this season were 38-31 final scores decided in the final seconds. Mike Neu’s team might be the most exciting team to watch in college football given the results of its 2020 games. They have yet to be blown out or blow out a team this season, but the Cardinals proved they’re capable of piling on the points in the 52-14 win over Toledo last fall.

There’s plenty of uncertainty with Toledo at quarterback right now, which makes it difficult to pick it to win — even if the game is at the Glass Bowl. The Rockets are a solid team and it took a mathematics-defying loss to prevent them from a 3-0 record. Still, how is Toledo going to stop Caleb Huntley? The Rockets had no issues with Eastern Michigan’s running game a week ago, but containing Huntley is a different animal.

Combine that with Plitt’s incredibly deep cast of targets and if he can avoid Toledo’s pass rush, the recipe for the upset is in place this Saturday. Expect plenty of points in this one too.

Prediction: Ball State 45, Toledo 41