- Time and Date: Saturday, October 23 at 3:30 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPN+
- Location: Scheumann Stadium — Muncie, IN
- Spread: Ball State (-5)
- ESPN FPI: Ball State has 67.2% chance to win
- All-time series: Miami leads, 20-13-1
- Last meeting: Miami 38, Ball State 31 — November 4, 2020
Setting the scene
Nothing spices up a rivalry like the presence of a trophy, which serves as tangible evidence of accomplishment and an object to hoist on the field during the postgame celebration. One of the newer rivalry trophies in college football is the one which supplements the Red Bird Rivalry. In 2017, the Ball State Cardinals and Miami RedHawks battled for the first stint with the trophy, and the team from Oxford, OH emerged with the victory. Since the hardware’s inception, Miami has won three of four meetings including last year’s 38-31 win in the MAC opener — the only blemish in Ball State’s 7-1 conference championship season.
Now, Ball State looks to exact revenge and book a one way ticket for the trophy to stay in Muncie, IN for the next year. Both teams control their own destiny for a MAC Championship Game appearance, but that changes for the red bird which doesn’t fly as high Saturday afternoon.
Miami RedHawks outlook
It may have been a sluggish start to non-conference play, but the RedHawks (3-4, 2-1 MAC) have crawled out of a 1-3 hole with a promising start to MAC play. Miami’s only slip-up against a conference foe was a 1-point loss to Eastern Michigan. Still, Chuck Martin’s team controls its own destiny to win its second division title in three seasons.
The most inconsistent facet of Miami’s game this year is who lines up under center. The RedHawks seemingly shift between Brett Gabbert and A.J. Mayer on a weekly basis, and last week, Mayer was QB No. 1. Gabbert is still recovering from his second injury of the year, one which was sustained in the MAC opener win over Central Michigan. Both quarterbacks have posted similar stats this year, as Gabbert averages 8.2 yards per attempt on a 52.2 completion rate with seven touchdowns and two interceptions, while Mayer averages 7.6 yards per attempt on a 54.4 completion rate with six touchdowns and two interceptions. A healthy Gabbert typically serves as the starter, but until he recovers, Mayer will fulfill the QB duties.
Mayer enters Week 8 fresh off his strongest showing of the year. On efficient passing, he delivered three touchdowns and 229 yards in the 34-21 win over Akron. Stepping up in Gabbert’s place is nothing new for the sophomore who provided relief duties in the 2020 opener against Ball State. Mayer tossed three touchdowns passes to hand the Cardinals their only loss of the season
Part of the reason both Gabbert and Mayer share success in the pocket is Miami’s remarkable talent at receiver. Jack Sorenson is the evident leader of the group and enters Saturday’s matchup on a streak of consecutive 100-yard receiving performances. The sixth leading receiver in program history enjoyed a dominant showing against Ball State’s defensive backs last November, accumulating 139 yards on seven receptions in the win.
Sorenson was the overwhelming No. 1 option last year, and while he still retains a bulk of Miami’s receiving production, the wealth has diversified. Penn State transfer Mac Hippenhammer has shown out with 24 receptions and 440 yards in his second season with the RedHawks. Additionally, the offense features heavy utilization of tight ends. Jack Coldiron is fourth on the team with 160 receiving yards while Andrew Homer has corralled three touchdown passes in the month of October. Whether the quarterbacks are targeting receivers or tight ends, it’s a rather vertical offense — six of Miami’s top seven receivers average over 15 yards per reception.
The run game is more of a work in progress, as the RedHawks haven’t settled on a feature back. Kansas State transfer Keyon Mozee appeared to have a stranglehold as the No. 1 halfback earlier in the year, but the 2019 tandem of Jaylon Bester and Tyre Shelton recently returned from injury, adding more faces to the backfield. Last week, five different halfbacks earned between three and eight touches on the ground, so running back by committee appears to be the method for the nation’s 81st ranked rushing offense.
On the defensive side, Miami is no stranger to bringing pressure. The RedHawks are tied for second in the conference in averaging 2.7 sacks per contest. Most of Miami’s sacks stem from the defensive line in its 4-3 scheme. The trio of Lonnie Phelps, Kameron Butler, and Ben Kimpler combines for 11.5 sacks on the season. Phelps and Butler have been especially violent toward opposing backfields, racking up a combined 14.5 tackles for loss for a team which ranks 10th nationally in the category.
Miami raided the backfield with six sacks in last November’s meeting against Ball State. However, the Cardinals offensive line is making massive strides each week and quarterback Drew Plitt is coming off his first game against an FBS opponent without taking a sack since becoming the full-time starter.
The RedHawks defense has been slightly above the national average this year, but there is one issue which continues to plague the unit. Miami struggles to force turnovers and has only collected five through seven games. The RedHawks will look for aggressive playmaking from rising star outside linebacker Ivan Pace Jr. and longtime stalwart Sterling Weatherford from the safety slot in order to create havoc plays to flip the field.
Ball State Cardinals outlook
It was the worst of times. It was the best of times. Ball State’s season can perfectly be encapsulated by the first two sentences of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, but in reverse order. The Cardinals entered 2021 with high expectations, but a disastrous 1-3 start appeared to alter the team’s trajectory to MAC basement dwellers.
But convincing wins over potent Army and Western Michigan teams brought Ball State back to .500. Last week, the Cardinals rattled off their third victory in a row by upending Eastern Michigan on the road. Like Miami, Ball State clawed back from a 1-3 record and currently controls its destiny to appear in the MAC Championship Game.
It’s unquestionable that the rise of the reigning MAC champions is highly correlated with the play of quarterback Drew Plitt. Plitt never exceed the 200-yard passing mark in the first four contests. During the Cardinals’ three losses, he threw zero touchdown passes and three interceptions. On the current three-game win streak, Plitt collected seven touchdowns and tossed zero interceptions, and his efficiency numbers have improved. Also, improved pass protection by Kaleb Slaven and the veteran o-line is one major factor allowing Plitt to return to his 2020 All-MAC form.
Plitt isn’t the only member of Ball State’s offense to experience an epiphany after the 1-3 start. Wide receiver Yo’Heinz Tyler, a major contributor in the 2020 MAC Championship Game and Arizona Bowl, started the season surprisingly quiet on offense. Since, Tyler has breathed new life into the unit by consistently finding openings on the boundaries and snagging four touchdown receptions in the last three games.
Wide receiver Justin Hall is always a crucial difference maker for the team, whether operating at his primary position, serving as a rusher, or returning kicks. Hall caught a season-high 10 passes against Eastern Michigan and ran the ball five times for a pair of touchdowns. The FBS active receptions leader aims to replicate his performance from last year against Miami’s secondary, when he posted 124 receiving yards, one receiving score and one rushing score in the conference opener.
Ball State deviated from its run game to focus on getting the ball to Heinz and Tyler in recent weeks, but the Cardinals finally experienced long-awaited success on the ground against Eastern Michigan. Carson Steele became the first Ball State player to cross the century mark this year with 138 yards rushing. Ball State hopes to generate more performances like this from Steele and secondary back Will Jones on the ground, but Mike Neu’s team has no issue assuming an aerial identity and calling 35 passes a game for Plitt.
Defensively, Ball State exhibits as veteran as a unit as there is in the MAC. Recently, the Cardinals returned 2020 First Team All-MAC selection Anthony Ekpe, and his impact is already showing up in the stat sheet. Ekpe has recorded two sacks in his last two games and he contributed five tackles in the Week 7 win. Three other All-MAC linebackers from 2020 grace the defense, including inside linebacker Jaylin Thomas who is on track for the recognition in 2021. Thomas leads the team with 55 tackles and has thrived all over the field with two interceptions and three tackles for loss.
The Cardinals’ cornerbacks didn’t have their best week against Eastern Michigan, or against Miami last fall, but the secondary remains a force due to the star safety tandem in Bryce Cosby and Brett Anderson. Cosby accumulated a team-high 10 tackles last weekend and he’s been dominant all season with four sacks, seven tackles for loss, one interception, and one forced fumble to complement 53 tackles. Shadowing Sorenson downfield with an extra defensive back should be a point of emphasis for Ball State, so Cosby should be tasked with plenty of zone coverage snaps against Miami’s pass-friendly offense.
Expect a storyline similar to the 2020 matchup to unfold when the red birds meet in Muncie. There will be no shortage of passing in this game, as both teams experience the most success when relying on their quarterbacks and talented groups of receivers.
Miami’s front seven will apply plenty of pressure in order to replicate its 6-sack performance from 2020, but if the offensive line can hold sturdy, Drew Plitt should be able to find his talented receivers on islands downfield. After Eastern Michigan’s top two wideouts amassed plenty of production on the RedHawks’ secondary, Justin Hall and Yo’Heinz Tyler should be in for stellar showings.
Last week, Ball State’s run defense proved it has the firepower to eliminate that aspect of opposing offenses, and Miami hasn’t fielded a 100-yard rusher all season. Thus, the RedHawks should be the more one-dimensional of the two teams, and the quarterbacks’ combined completion percentage of 53.5 percent leaves questions about how efficiently this offense can move downfield. Ball State’s four All-MAC linebackers and the presence of Bryce Cosby should keep the defense from letting Miami explode for its first 40-point performance against FBS competition.
Meanwhile, Ball State remains one step ahead offensively throughout the second half and proves more than capable of scoring 40 points for the second time in three weeks. The Cardinals improve to 5-3 with its fourth consecutive victory and the Red Bird Rivalry trophy remains in Muncie when the dust settles Saturday.
Prediction: Ball State 41, Miami (OH) 28