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2021 Week 10 Midweek MACtion Preview: Ball State Cardinals @ Akron Zips

The 2021 midweek MACtion slate officially kicks off in Akron, OH. Ball State searches for its first win over the Zips since 2014.

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

Game Notes

  • Time and Date: Tuesday, November 2 at 7:00 p.m. ET
  • Network: CBS Sports Network
  • Location: InfoCision Stadium — Akron, OH
  • Spread: Ball State (-19.5)
  • ESPN FPI: Ball State has 88.9% chance to win
  • All-time series: Akron leads, 12-11-1
  • Last meeting: Akron 31, Ball State 3 — October 7, 2017
  • Current streak: Akron, 2 (2016-17)

Setting the scene

It’s the moment we’ve waited an entire season for. The stadium lights turn on, the national TV crews trucks roll into town, and the sportsbook activity in Vegas skyrockets. The annual November tradition of Midweek MACtion is finally upon us.

Last season, the Akron Zips officially kicked off the midweek slate with a bang. Akron elected to launch the MAC’s abbreviated 2020 season with an onside kick, which although recovered, was called back due to penalty. The Zips may have an opportunity to replicate the viral moment Tuesday as the Ball State Cardinals roll into town.

Akron (2-6, 1-3 MAC) is on the verge of missing bowl season for the fourth consecutive year. The Zips will battle the reigning league champion Ball State (4-4, 2-2 MAC), which hopes to gain separation in a crowded MAC West which features five teams with 2-2 conference records.


Ball State Cardinals outlook

A season which seemed primed to be one of the best in Ball State history suddenly turned into a roller coaster of events. The Cardinals entered the year with a slew of preseason AP votes, becoming the first MAC team to garner such recognition in four years. They rebounded from a disastrous 1-3 start with three consecutive wins against teams which currently feature winning records — Army, Western Michigan, and Eastern Michigan. However, Ball State’s turnaround couldn’t sustain for a fourth week and the Cardinals fell to Miami (OH), 24-17, in their prior outing to become .500 overall and in conference play.

With the strength of the nation’s 107th ranked rushing attack wavering on a week-to-week basis, Ball State has established its offensive identity through the air. Quarterback Drew Plitt has been a member of the program since 2016, and the veteran’s spike in play is responsible for turning around the Cardinals’ season. After zero 200-yard performances in his first four outings, Plitt has crossed the threshold on four consecutive occasions, leading Ball State to a 3-1 record over the timeframe. Taking care of the ball also translates to winning football and the 2020 All-MAC quarterback has delivered nine touchdowns and zero interceptions in victories, compared to two touchdowns and four interceptions in losses.

The receiving corps is loaded with viable talent, including Cincinnati transfer Jayshon Jackson and Yo’Heinz Tyler, whose increase in production correlated with Ball State victories. But the most lethal threat is Justin Hall, who currently claims bragging rights as college football’s active leader in receptions and yards. With two receptions Tuesday, Hall passes four MAC legends — Josh Davis (Marshall), Eric Page (Toledo), Jordan Davis (Western Michigan), and Antonio Brown (Central Michigan) — to move into the top 10 in the history books.

Hall’s playmaking isn’t limited to snagging deep balls and improvising on tunnel screens. The jet sweep artist plays a recurring role in the rushing attack and he has captured three scores from the ground this year. Additionally, Hall leads the FBS in kick return average by accumulating an absurd 35.6 yards per runback — complete with one touchdown.

When Ball State lines up defensively, the Cardinals trot out more reigning All-MAC defenders than any team in the conference. The position group of emphasis is certainly linebacker, where all four starters in Tyler Stockton’s 3-4 defense landed all-conference honors in 2020. Jaylin Thomas has been especially threatening to opposing offenses, as the inside backer has picked up a team-best 63 tackles with four tackles for loss and a pair of interceptions in a monstrous campaign.

While his hitting technique can cause him to be mistaken for one of the linebackers, free safety Bryce Cosby has brought the juice to this defense by recording seven tackles for loss and four sacks from the free safety position. He leads a unit which is in the upper third of the FBS in forcing interceptions, totaling eight on the season.


Akron Zips outlook

Akron’s rebuilding project is taking on signs of life. While the Zips haven’t escaped the basement of the conference, there are plenty of promising takeaways from year three of the Tom Arth era. So far, Akron has generated two wins, signifying the most for the program since 2018.

Injuries have forced Akron to repeatedly shuffle its cards at quarterback, but the Zips have witnessed impressive play from the most important position on the field. Between D.J. Irons, Zach Gibson, and Kato Nelson, Akron has completed 65.5 percent of its passing attempts this season with a striking ratio of 15 touchdowns to just five interceptions.

The starting role for Tuesday likely belongs to Gibson or Irons, who split playing time in the recent 45-10 loss to Buffalo. Gibson has six touchdowns without a pick this year and leads the team in completion percentage. Irons has spent the most time in action this year and also leads the entire team with 300 rushing yards. But increased protection could go a long way for both quarterbacks.

Extreme improvement is required in the trenches for this program to take the next steps in the rebuilding process. Akron allowed 11 sacks in its Week 8 loss to Buffalo, marking the most allowed by an FBS team since 2019... when Akron allowed 12 sacks to Miami (OH). It’s no surprise the Zips rank dead last in the FBS in yielding sacks by permitting an average of 5.88 per game — the next closest is Southern Miss at 4.75.

On the other side of things, Akron struggles to produce sacks on a consistent basis. Racking up 1.5 per contest, the Zips sit in the bottom 20 in the country in getting to the quarterback. The defense is looking for playmakers in the pass rush and on the defense in general. Akron’s reliable inside linebacker Bubba Arslanian missed the entirety of October due to injury after producing 43 tackles in four games.

Cornerback Tyson Durant looked to be an emerging star after gathering a sack, an interception, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery in a Week 6 win at Bowling Green which landed him MAC Defensive Player of the Week honors. However, Durant has yet to make an appearance since that performance, and Akron’s defense has not witnessed a showing nearly as stellar since.


Prediction

The midweek MACtion opener features quite a lopsided matchup. The reigning MAC champions have a lot of firepower in their passing game, as well as the linebacking and safety groups, and that potential was finally witnessed during the recent 3-game win streak. Meanwhile, Akron enters Tuesday coming off its third loss of 2021 by 35 points or greater, and while the gap between Akron and the rest of the MAC has closed, there’s still ground to be made up.

Without ample pass protection, the Cardinals blitzers should have their way against the Zips offensive line. On the other side of things, Plitt and his receivers should catch fire against a defense which allows opposing quarterbacks to complete 70.5 percent of passes — the second highest rate in the nation.

Ball State reverts back to above .500 territory with a convincing win at InfoCision Stadium.

Prediction: Ball State 38, Akron 13