Ball State and Western Michigan met on Saturday afternoon in Kalamazoo, with the Cardinals pulling away in the second half for an emphatic 45-20 victory. Western Michigan entered the contest having won four games in a row, while Ball State was coming off of a victory over Army after a 1-3 start. Ball State seems to have turned things around, and the Broncos optimism has certainly been tampered a bit after their 4-1 start. There are plenty of things to take away from this match up, some good and some bad. With half of the season still left, both squads still have time to solve their issues and refine what seems to be working.
Ball State is still a contender
A lot of folks, myself included, wrote the Cardinals off after their 1-3 start to the season. The offense did not seem right, turnovers were an issue, and the defense was inconsistent. After the week four loss to Toledo, I didn’t think the Cardinals would get back to .500, and a bowl berth seemed like a stretch.
Things have completely turned around these past two weeks, and the defense was the star of the show this past Saturday in Kalamazoo. The Ball State defense forced four turnovers, after the Broncos had only given the ball away once in their first five games. QB Kaleb Eleby entered the game without having thrown an interception, and yet the Cardinals defense managed to pick him off on back-to-back drives in the second half. The genesis of all of this was the relentless pressure that the Cardinals were able to generate, recording four sacks, all of which directly led to turnovers.
With Brandon Martin having been out since Week 1, the linebacking corps has really stepped up in his absence. Jaylin Thomas had eight tackles and an interception on Saturday, and Clayton Coll has stepped into the starting lineup and acquitted himself well.
All of a sudden, Ball State is right back in the thick of things in the West. If they win out and Toledo loses again, the Cardinals will find themselves back at Ford Field to defend their MAC title. Obviously, running the table is easier said than done, but the Broncos were the presumptive favorite in the West going into Saturday. It’s hard to understate how big of a win this was.
The Cardinals need to figure out the run game
As great as the Cardinals have looked the past two weeks, the run game has still been a problem. While the passing game was great on Saturday (Drew Plitt was 15-of-25 for 310 yards and four scores), the Cardinals could only manage 65 yards on 28 carries. In five games against FBS opponents this year, the Cardinals have only topped 100 yards rushing on two occasions. Ball State is currently 11th in the MAC and 113th nationally in rushing offense, averaging just 104.3 yards per game. The Cardinals 3.2 yards per carry is not much better, coming in at 10th in the MAC and 115th in the FBS.
If the Cardinals want to return to Ford Field, they must have some semblance of balance on offense. Drew Plitt and the wide receivers have seemingly come to life over the past two weeks, but the Ball State ground game has been unable to get going along with them. Freshman RB Carson Steele has had some good moments, and has seemingly taken hold of the number one spot in the backfield. His 241 yards on 55 carries are modest, but represent the best number of any of the Cardinals backs. If they can work to establish him more consistently, the offense will benefit greatly.
The Western Michigan defense is still a problem
The Western Michigan defense had played very well for the past two weeks entering this game. The Broncos held Buffalo to almost 200 yards under their season average last Saturday and were able to sack Buffalo QB Kyle Vantrease for the first time this season. Entering Saturday, the Broncos ranked 20th in the country in total defense, giving up just over 300 yards per game.
What we found out on Saturday is that the big play, and the secondary in general, is still a problem. It seems that the Broncos success against Buffalo and San Jose State had more to do with the fact that those offensive units lacked the weapons to challenge the Broncos down the field. On Saturday, Ball State’s deep stable of receivers was consistently able to get behind the WMU secondary.
Ball State set the tone for the day on the first snap of the game, with Plitt finding WR Jalen McGaughy wide open down the left sideline for a 75 yard score. In the fourth quarter, Plitt found Yo’Heinz Tyler for a 24 yard score to put the Cardinals up 31-20, and both plays represented total breakdowns in the Broncos secondary. Neither receiver had a defender within 10 yards of them on either play.
The WMU secondary allowed Plitt to complete 60 percent of his passes and also gave up an absurd 11.9 yards per pass attempt. Those are not good numbers. With Dustin Crum and the high flying Kent State offense coming to Waldo Stadium this coming Saturday, the Broncos need to get this figured out fast.
The Broncos offensive line has to improve
On the other side of the ball, the issues that Western ran into on Saturday all stem from the offensive line. Kaleb Eleby entered this game having thrown five interceptions in his career and was picked off twice. On both plays, Eleby was under pressure, and his arm was actually hit on his first give away. Eleby also lost two fumbles, both of which were the result of Ball State sacks. The first fumble came when Eleby was hit by Ball State safety Bryce Cosby, who blitz from the edge and was completely untouched. Eleby was running for his life all day, and the Broncos must keep him upright if they want to have any success on offense.
Western Michigan was also unable to establish the ground game on Saturday, managing only 119 yards on 49 carries. Running backs La’Darius Jefferson and Sean Tyler both were held to under four yards per carry, and there were no run lanes for either for most of the game.
Coming into this season, the Broncos veteran offensive line was viewed as one of the best in the conference. Their performance thus far has been underwhelming. Eleby has been sacked 16 times through six games, and WMU is averaging only 3.5 yards per carry on the ground. This is a bit concerning. I am a big believer that football games are overwhelmingly won in the trenches, and the Broncos have the talent to dominate along the offensive line. Their form over the remainder of the season will go a long way towards determining the success of the team.
In the grand scheme of things, both of these teams still have the talent to win the West and get to Ford Field. Western Michigan has a few things to correct, but still have fellow West division contenders Toledo and Northern Illinois on the schedule. Ball State has already lost to Toledo, but still have to face NIU. Both teams still have a clear path to Ford Field, and whichever team can first get their issues corrected will still be in good position to do just that.