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2021 Week 5 Preview: Army Black Knights @ Ball State Cardinals

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Ball State attempts to climb out of its slump against an unbeaten Army squad.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 02 Western Illinois at Ball State Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Game Notes

  • Time and Date: Saturday, October 2 at 5:00 p.m. ET
  • Network: ESPN+
  • Location: Scheumann Stadium — Muncie, IN
  • Spread: Army (-10)
  • ESPN FPI: Army has 77.7% chance to win
  • All-time series: Series tied, 3-3
  • Last meeting: Army 33, Ball State 24 — October 4, 2014

Setting the scene

Ball State’s follow up act to its 2020 MAC championship has been a far cry from the inspiring run the Cardinals concocted in the fall of 2020. After entering the year as the first MAC team to garner preseason AP Poll votes since 2016, the Cardinals are off to dreary 1-3 start and dropped their conference opener to Toledo last week.

In the final non-conference game for any MAC team this year, Ball State is slated to face quite a challenge. Army enters Muncie, IN with a spotless record while fielding one of the country’s premier rushing attacks and an elite run-stopping unit. But completing an upset bid could be the turnaround Ball State needs to salvage its season.


Did you know?

One extremely fun fact about this matchup is that it is referenced in a rap song. Action Bronson & The Alchemist released the track “Just the Way It Is” in 2019, and one of the rhymes in the song is as follows:

This is Jericho, no jheri curl

Put the pedal to the metal, make the Chevy twirl

Peace to my man Sean, All State

I put 100K on Army versus Ball State

According to the odds set by Bovada, a $100,000 moneyline bet on Army would net approximately $27,027 if the Black Knights emerge victorious on the road. Applying that six figure bet to the Ball State moneyline could net a ridiculous $285,000 if the Cardinals pull off the upset. It is unclear which team Action Bronson financially supported, but perhaps that verse was inspired by Ball State and Army meeting on the field five times from 2009 to 2014.


Ball State Cardinals outlook

The season started with hopes of crashing the New Year’s Six as a dark horse candidate, but Ball State is simply searching for a win by any means necessary at this point. The Cardinals first showed signs of concern in the opener after scraping by FCS competition by 10 points, and they haven’t won since — or come within single digits of an opponent.

Week 3’s 45-12 loss at Wyoming was a cruel wakeup call for the program. After a week to dwell on it, Ball State couldn’t swing the energy into its favor last Saturday and lost its conference opener to Toledo, 22-12. In that defeat, the same issues that have plagued the offense all season were magnified.

Ball State never reached the end zone vs. the Rockets, and failing to finish drives haunted the Cardinals, as four points were left on the board every time Mike Neu sent out the field goal unit. Just eight FBS teams have fewer red zone appearances than Ball State this year, and upon reaching the red zone, the Cardinals score touchdowns just 30 percent of the time.

Consistency cannot be found in either the passing attack (105th in yards per game in the FBS) or the run game (92nd in the FBS). The Cardinals did make necessary adjustments to amplify their rushing numbers last week by firmly implementing Justin Hall as a runner. The talented First Team All-MAC receiver and jet sweep artist handled five carries for a team-high 64 yards. Getting Hall more touches was a point of emphasis for Ball State after a lack of involvement in the Penn State and Wyoming games, and it paid dividends. College football’s active receptions leader handled seven catches for 97 yards against Toledo as the team’s central source of offense. Now that Hall is thriving in a larger role, the rest of the unit must step up, namely the offensive line and running backs.

The offensive line permitted four sacks and eight tackles for loss to Toledo. Run blocking didn’t prove to be much better as the Cardinals’ halfbacks attained 32 combined yards on 20 carries. With the run game consistently stalling, Ball State has turned heavily to the air this year and quarterback Drew Plitt attempted 35+ passes for the second time in three weeks.

Plitt, the architect behind the 2020 MAC champion offense, was benched early in the season after a nightmare first half against Wyoming. Still, the sixth-year senior’s potential is evident as he landed All-MAC status last season with three 300-yard outings. Plitt looks to put the first four games of 2021 in the past and revert to 2020, as he aims to surpass the 200-yard passing threshold for the first time this year.

Ball State’s defense essentially performed to standard against Toledo, save for two plays. The unit only allowed a pair of touchdowns, but they were a 69-yard pass and a 70-yard QB keeper from the Rockets. Preventing these home run plays is a must, but the Cardinals defense certainly gave themselves a chance to win by holding Toledo to 4/12 on third down attempts and forcing three punts and a turnover on downs in the first half.

There are a lot of names to like in this Cardinals’ group. Defensive end Tavion Woodard has been the breakout star, and his presence has been felt by quarterbacks this season with a team-best 4.5 sacks. All-MAC selections Jaylin Thomas and Bryce Cosby have also stepped up as the team’s leading tacklers in this physical defense. Ranking 111th in scoring defense does not do justice for how potent this unit has been at times. But the offense needs to stay on the field longer for this group to perform at its optimal level.


Army Black Knights outlook

You’ll have to go back to 1996 to find the last Army team with a 4-0 record. Back then, the team was known as the “Cadets” and they finished 10-2 with a No. 25 AP Poll ranking that year.

In the Jeff Monken era, Army is renowned for eating clock and scoring on long, methodical possessions. While those aspects are still present within the Black Knights’ triple option offense, they’ve been able to score at a rapid pace this season. On five occasions through four games, Army has scored touchdowns on drives spanning three plays or fewer. Last week, the Black Knights handled a fellow MAC opponent in Miami (OH) by logging two touchdown runs of over 70 yards in the first half.

Quarterback Christian Anderson was responsible for both long scampers en route to a career-high 236 rushing yards in the 23-10 victory. Speed is the defining attribute of Anderson’s game, and if his blockers allow him to move outside of the tackles on an option play, the end zone is a common destination.

Anderson also proved through the first three games that Army can pass with reasonable success when electing to drop back. The quarterback caught WKU off guard in Week 2 by completing 5/6 passes for 77 yards and a touchdown. Anderson netted 39 or more yards on three of his 15 passing attempts this season, and he also has three passing touchdowns to show for it. If teams sell out at the line of scrimmage, Army has the ability to keep defenses honest with the occasional air strike.

As expected in a triple option based offense, the wealth gets spread around the backfield. Tyrell Robinson, Anthony Adkins, and Jakobi Buchanan all handle a bulk of handoffs and pitches in Monken’s scheme. With a noteworthy 11.3 rushing average, the speedy Robinson leads the group in yardage this season. Adkins (6’1”, 245) and Buchanan (6’1”, 260) present more power and break-tackle ability, and they serve as viable options when powering it up the gut. With those two power backs leading the charge, Army has converted 10 of 12 fourth downs this year. Never afraid to gamble on short yard situations, Army only trails Ole Miss in most fourth down conversions this year.

The primary name Ball State’s offense must be weary of is outside linebacker Andre Carter. The talented pass rusher ranks second in the country in sacks by recording 5.5 through a third of the season. Carter stands a monstrous 6’7” and 250 pounds and definitely presents an intimidating challenge to opposing blockers. For a Ball State line yielding three sacks per contest, Carter and the Black Knights have the potential to cause a lot of damage in the backfield.

Additionally, the Black Knights smother the run better than almost any program in the nation. Holding opponents under 60 rushing yards per game, Army checks in at fourth in the FBS in containing the ground. Miami (OH) was the latest victim, and not a single RedHawk rusher attained more than 11 rushing yards against this defense. Army counters halfbacks with an elite linebacking corps featuring Carter, inside linebacker Spencer Jones, and outside linebacker Arik Smith. The trio combines for 45 tackles and 11 stops in the backfield entering Saturday’s matchup.


Prediction

Rule No. 1 of playing Army: never get down two scores in the second half.

Ball State’s offense absolutely must be on its game in order to have a chance in this one. The Cardinals’ lack of success in the run game and in protecting quarterback will not bode well against Army’s tenacious front seven. Thus, to secure the upset bid, Drew Plitt will require a spectacular day through the air. The Black Knights’ only close game this year was against WKU and the Hilltoppers utilized the air raid to manage 435 passing yards in a 2-point loss. Thus, Ball State wide receivers Justin Hall, Jayshon Jackson, and Yo’Heinz Tyler must ramp up the production and chip away at the Army secondary for the most promising result.

The Cardinals’ defense should be stout enough to hold Army below five touchdowns. But all the Black Knights’ triple option attack needs is one fortunate play to dishearten a defense. Army is tied for the FBS lead in 70+ yard plays this season, and after allowing two long touchdowns against Toledo, safeties Bryce Cosby and Brett Anderson have their work cut out for them as the final line of defense against the triple option.

Army will jump to 5-0 with a convincing win in Muncie. But Ball State’s strong front seven, combined with a lack of offensive output from the Cardinals, should keep this matchup on the lower scoring side.

Prediction: Army 28, Ball State 13