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2021 Mid-American Conference Week 6 Football Game Preview: Ball State Cardinals at Western Michigan Broncos

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Western Michigan enters this match up on a three game win streak, while Ball State seemed to right the ship last week against Army.

NCAA Football: Army at Ball State Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s rewind just 10 months back, to Saturday, December 12th, 2020.

Ball State entered their final game of the season on a four-game win streak. On the other sideline that day at Scheumann Stadium was the 4-1 Western Michigan Broncos. The game was a de-facto division championship game, with the winner heading to Ford Field to take on Buffalo for the MAC crown. It was as highly anticipated of a game as either team had experienced in a number of years.

We all remember what happened next, though Broncos fans may wish they could forget.

After Western dominated the first three quarters of the game, Ball State stormed back with a 17-0 fourth quarter rally to escape with a 30-27 victory. The final play of the game is one that will live in MAC lore forever, as the Broncos used what appeared to be a miracle to score the game winning TD on the final play of the game, only to see it called back after one of WMU’s seven laterals on the play was determined to be an illegal forward pass.

This is a game that neither team or fan base will soon forget, which sets up quite the intriguing match up this Saturday in Kalamazoo.


GAME NOTES

  • Time and Date: Saturday, October 9, 2021, at 3:30 p.m. Eastern Time
  • Network: ESPNU (A valid cable subscription is required.)
  • Location: Waldo Stadium, Kalamazoo, MI
  • Spread/Total: Western Michigan -11, O/U 57.5
  • All-time series: Western Michigan leads, 26-21

Ball State (2-3, 0-1 MAC) enters the game off the back of a strong performance in a 28-16 victory over Army this past weekend. After looking listless for the first month of the season, the Cardinals seemed to figure some things out against the Black Knights, and they remain hopeful that they can regain their 2020 form.

On the other side, Western Michigan (4-1, 1-0 MAC) has looked the part of the best team in the conference through five weeks. After impressive non-conference victories over Pitt and San Jose State, the Broncos opened MAC play with a workmanlike 24-17 at Buffalo last Saturday. While the offense is usually the star of the show for the Broncos, it is the defense that has really stepped up the past two weeks.

Both of these teams still have all of their goals in front of them, and this game is especially crucial in the MAC west. The winner of this game will have the inside track to get to Ford Field, though Ball State would need some help, having already lost to Toledo.

For the Broncos, a 2-0 start in the conference would solidify them as the team to beat in the west. Ball State is already 0-1 in the league, and another loss here would all but end their hopes of defending their 2020 MAC title. Let’s take a look at what each team will need to do to pull out a victory in this one.


When Western Michigan has the ball

Ever since a disappointing loss to Michigan in Week 1, where the Broncos were not competitive beyond the first quarter, this offense has been as advertised. QB Kaleb Eleby has performed efficiently and effectively, currently leading the MAC with 1,181 passing yards and nine TDs through five games. Perhaps the best part about his performance thus far? Zero interceptions.

Ball State’s pass defense has been very average this year, coming in seventh in the MAC at 211.8 yards per game. Safeties Bryce Crosby and JT Wahee form a solid tandem on the back end, and the Cardinals defense has managed four interceptions through their first five games of the season.

Outside of the Penn State game, this will be the best set of skill position players that the Cardinals defense has faced this year. Broncos WR Skyy Moore leads the MAC in receptions (33) and receiving yards (404), and his versatility has been paramount to the Broncos passing attack. With that said, he cannot be the sole focus of the Cardinals secondary, as Corey Crooms and Jaylen Hall have emerged as legitimate playmakers as well. On the season, the trio has combined for 71 receptions, 992 yards, and seven of Eleby’s nine TD’s. This is the deepest receiver room in the conference, and the Cardinals secondary will have their hands full.

With all of that said, I think the Broncos blueprint to success in this one may actually start with the ground game. Consider Ball State’s game against Toledo two weeks ago. The Cardinals secondary was rather effective in shutting down the Rockets passing attack, limiting QB’s Carter Bradley and Dequan Finn to 172 yards on 12 of 20 attempts, to go with a TD and an interception. That is a very modest stat line, and would suggest that the Cardinals defense was successful.

The problem was, the Rockets gashed the Ball State defense for 272 yards on the ground on 44 carries, good for 6.2 yards per rush. Now, to be fair, that did include a 70 yard score from Dequan Finn. Regardless, even if you remove that outlier from the equation, the Rockets still averaged 4.7 yards per carry.

The Broncos do not possess a dual threat QB in the mold of Finn, but they do have an established running back rotation with La’Darius Jefferson and Sean Tyler running behind a veteran offensive line. The Ball State front seven has been suspect this season, and the Cardinals are currently giving up 194.4 yards per game on the ground (ninth in the MAC). Jefferson is the lead back for the Broncos, producing 370 yards and seven TD’s on 85 carries. Tyler is not far behind, however, with 362 yards and two scores of his own on 65 carries.

Establishing the ground game early will allow Eleby to work off of the play action pass game and allow the Broncos stable of receivers more room to operate against the Cardinals secondary. This game will prove to be a test for the Ball State defense. Which unit will show up – the unit that stymied Army last week, or the unit that gave up almost 300 yards on the ground to Toledo? The answer to that question could go a long way towards determining the winner in this one.


When Ball State has the ball

Ball State’s offense has not looked right all year. Even last week against Army, they were spotted a 7-0 lead when Justin Hall returned the opening kickoff 99 yards for a TD. The Cardinals first offensive play of the game produced a 44-yard TD to Jayshon Jackson, his first as a Cardinal after transferring from Cincinnati. The Cardinals produced 101 yards of offense and 21 points in the first quarter against the Black Knights. For the remaining three quarters, they could only manage 168 yards and seven points.

The run game has been especially disappointing for Ball State, as they currently sit second-last in the conference at just 112.2 yards per game and 3.3 yards per carry. This match up favors the Broncos heavily, as WMU currently sits third in the conference in rush defense, giving up only 129.4 yards per game. Freshman Carson Strong has been a bright spot for the Cardinals as their leading rusher, producing 200 yards and four TDs on 45 attempts through the first five weeks. Coach Mike Neu will certainly try to get him established in this contest, but you would be right to question how much success the Cardinals offense will have with that strategy.

Another concern for the Cardinals should be how their offensive line holds up against the Broncos relentless front seven. Western Michigan currently leads the MAC with 16 sacks, and the Cardinals have given up 13 sacks of their own through five weeks. If Ball State wants to have any success in this one, it is imperative that this offensive line gives Drew Plitt time to throw in the pocket, as the passing game seems to be the only thing working for the Cardinals at times this season.

Speaking of the passing game, there is one advantage that Ball State will have this week, and will have for the remainder of their games this year: Justin Hall, most of the time, is going to be the best player on the field.

After a slow start to the year, Hall has reminded us in these last two weeks why he is the active leader in receptions in all of the FBS. After a seven catch, 97-yard performance against Toledo two weeks ago, Hall opened the game last week against Army with the aforementioned kick return for a score. Just for good measure, he paired that kick return with another seven catch performance, this one for 78 yards.

Though Hall has not scored through the air since week one against Western Illinois, this Broncos defense has struggled against the big play. That has been well established, and the Cardinals offense is well equipped to take advantage of that weakness. Three of Plitt’s four TD passes this year have been longer than 40 yards, and again, this Broncos secondary can be had.

It all comes back to the offensive line. If Plitt has time to throw in the pocket, Hall, Jackson, and Yo’Heinz Tyler will have time to get open down the field. That is a recipe for potential disaster for the Broncos defense. You can be certain that the WMU defensive line, led by Ali Fayad and Ralph Holley, will do everything they can to prevent that from happening. In my opinion, this is the match up that will determine the game.


Prediction

A week ago at this time, I would have predicted a blowout here. Ball State was a team headed in the wrong direction, and nothing was working for the Cardinals offensively. The performance against Army last week was encouraging, though the offense did struggle after the first quarter. On the other sideline, Western Michigan is full of confidence and full of momentum after grinding out a victory against Buffalo. The Broncos are receiving votes in the top 25, and they’ve looked the part over the past three weeks. I also don’t think the revenge factor can be discounted in this game, as the Broncos certainly still have last years’ defeat on their mind.

Say what you want about how Ball State has opened this season, but they are still the defending MAC champions and they won’t give up on this season without a fight. I anticipate a tight match up in this one, though I do ultimately think the Broncos will prevail on the strength of their defensive front seven. Keep an eye out for the WMU ground game in this one as well, as I think the two headed monster of La’Darius Jefferson and Sean Tyler could be in for a big day.

Western Michigan 28, Ball State 23