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2021 Week 12 Midweek MACtion Preview: Central Michigan Chippewas at Ball State Cardinals

The Cardinals won’t have a chance to win the MAC West, but they do have a chance to play the spoiler against CMU on Wednesday.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 02 Ball State at Akron Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Ball State Cardinals (5-5, 3-3 MAC) are all set to host the Central Michigan Chippewas (6-4, 4-2 MAC) at the Scheu on Wednesday night, in a game which will play a hand in determining the MAC West division title.

CMU will need to win tonight in order to keep pace with the NIU Huskies, who themselves need only to win or Central to lose to be able to clinch the MAC West title.

Ball State, who was eliminated from the divisional race due to Tuesday’s result, can still play the spoiler to CMU’s title ambitions while clinching bowl eligibility for themselves, needing just one more victory to do so in one of the next two weeks.

There will be all to play for under the weeknight lights in this recently-competitive rivalry.


Game Notes

  • Time and Date: Wednesday, November 17th, at 7 p.m. Eastern time
  • Network/Streaming: ESPNU and the ESPN App (A valid subscription is required for viewing.)
  • Audio/Internet: For the Ball State radio feed, visit 104.1 WBLC-FM. For the Central Michigan radio feed, visit 98.5 WUPS-FM.
  • Location: Scheumann Stadium in Muncie, Indiana.
  • Weather: 60 degrees and windy, with 56 percent chance of rain and 81 percent humidity at kickoff. Winds at 15 MPH.
  • Last Meeting: Ball State squashed Central to tighten their grip on the MAC West lead by a final score of 45-20 on Dec. 5, 2020.

When Central has the ball

CMU has fielded one of the hottest offenses in the MAC over the last four or so games, with running back Lew Nichols III especially emerging as an X-factor.

Nichols has been simply electric, never finishing a game below 136 yards in conference play after getting stymied by Miami to kick off the MAC season. His last game against was a career-best performance, with 43 carries for 215 yards and four touchdowns on the ground to lead the Chips in scoring. His performance last Wednesday boosted his season total to 1,297 yards and 11 touchdowns on 35 carries. Whether CMU needs one yards, five yards, or a big play, Nichols has been there for them, as evidenced by several huge fourth-down conversions last week.

He’ll be the Cardinals’ main assignment defensively, but he won’t be the only weapon to have to consider. The Chippewas also possess an excellent aerial attack, with three receivers capable of leading the offense in Kalil Pimpleton (47 receptions, 747 yards, three receiving touchdowns; 13 carries, 55 yards, two rushing touchdowns), Dallas Dixon (41 rec., 669 yards and team-high eight receiving touchdowns) and JaCorey Sullivan (35 rec., 490 yards, seven touchdowns in eight games.)

The quarterback throwing said pass-catchers is Daniel Richardson, has thrown for 991 yards on 63.75 percent completion rating and sports a 10:0 touchdown-to-interception ratio over the last month to add to his already impressive numbers after taking over from Washington transfer Jacob Sirmon.

The Cardinals have one of the top defenses in the MAC once again this season, currently fifth in the league overall with 408.5 yards and 27.8 points allowed per game on average. They’re particularly good against the running game, placing fifth in the league in rushing yards allowed (160.1.)

Bryce Cosby still mans the Cardinal defense from the linebacking spot, and is currently the leading tackler on the team, with 86 total tackles, including 8.5 tackles-for-loss and four sacks, while also picking up an interception and two forced fumbles. Joining him up top of the tackle charts are fellow linebackers Jaylin Thomas (82 tackles, four tackles-for-loss, two interceptions) and Clayton Coll (79 tackles, four tackles-for-loss, one sack, one interception.)

Tavion Woodward (20 tackles, six tackles-for-loss, five sacks) and Anthony Epke (13 tackles, four tackles-for-loss, four sacks in seven games) are Ball State’s biggest outside rushing threats defensively.

If there is somewhere to be exploited in the Cardinals defense, it’ll be through the air, as BSU ranks third-to-last in the league with 248.4 yards allowed per game on average. It’s a startling statistic, considering Ball State was one of the better pass defenses in 2020. AJ Uzodinma still patrols at least one corner, with 32 tackles, two pass break-ups and two passes defensed, while JT Wahee (53 tackles, 4.5 tackles-for-loss, one interception, six pass break-ups, seven passes defensed) plays center field as a safety.

Of their nine interceptions this season, six of them have been hauled in by linebackers, so CMU must be careful not to flirt with danger in the middle of the field if they seek success.


When Ball State has the ball

The Ball State offense has been, in a word, inconsistent in 2021. They’re currently ranked second-last in the league in total offense (345.8 yards per game on average), with the second-worst passing attack (206 yards per game on average) and the ninth-ranked rushing attack (139.8 yards per game on average.)

But that said, they’re also good at complimenting their defensive by getting points on the board to supplement their stops, scoring about 25 points per game while only giving up around 27, meaning they do what they need to win the game.

Ball State is reliant on the deep shot to take the top off the defense, with four receivers averaging over 10 yards per target, including team leader Justin Hall (59 receptions, 606 yards, five touchdowns,) Jayshon Jackson (42 rec., 520 yards, three touchdowns,) Yo’Heinz Tyler (35 rec., 361 yards, five touchdowns) and big play threat Jalen McGaughy (three receptions, 124 yards, one touchdown), who torched CMU in their 2020 meeting.

They’re able to set that up in part with a commitment to the run game, led by freshman back Carson Steele (132 carries, 691 yards, five touchdowns) and Will Jones (81 carries, 272 yards, three touchdowns.) Mike Neu has also had no bones about using the jet sweep as a run concept, with WR Justin Hall being the third-leading rusher on the team (37 carries, 255 yards) and leading in rushing touchdowns with six scores. Steele has also been a threat with routes out of the backfield, with five receptions for 65 yards, giving the Cards some offensive versatility when need be.

They’ll go up against a defense finally starting to find its chemistry with a handful of games left in a CMU squad which ranks just under BSU overall at sixth in the MAC (418 yards, 28.7 points allowed per game on average.)

After getting gashed three times for over 350 yards in the early part of the season, the CMU passing defense has stood tall, allowing only 276+ yards through the air just twice since their game vs. Miami in early October, averaging 269 yards per game in that time. Their running defense is a top three unit in the MAC, averaging 141.8 yards allowed per game, which should provide a challenge for a unique run game.

Sicne switching to a non-traditional 4-2-5 look on defense, CMU’s defensive effort has been led by the safeties, who have shown prowess in both run support and coverage.

Gage Kreski leads the team overall in tackles (74), while also picking up 5.5 tackles-for-loss, a sack and an interception. Backfield mates Devonni Reed (64 tackles, 3.5 tackles-for-loss, a sac, one interception and five pass break-ups) and Alonzo McCoy (41 tackles, 1.5 tackles-for-loss, five pass break-ups) are the team’s second and fifth-leading tacklers, respectively.

CMU is currently led by freshman Donte Kent at the corner spot, who showed out last week vs. Kent State with four pass break-ups and a fumble recovery. He’s fourth on the roster in tackles as well, with 47. Converted safety Rollian Sturkey has also proven his worth at the corner position, with 27 tackles and two pass break-ups. Previous starter Dishon McNary will once again be out with a leg injury suffered earlier in the season.

The strength of this defense is its ferocious defensive line, which combines for 40.5 tackles-for-loss and 20 sacks amongst the rotation. Reigning MAC defensive player of the year Troy Hairston is once again putting up an all-MAC worthy campaign, with 37 tackles, 11 tackles-for-loss and five sacks in 2021, while fellow end Amir Siddiq has 32 tackles, 10 tackles-for-loss and 3.5 sacks. In the middle, Jacques Bristol paces the tackles with 32 stops, including five for losses and 2.5 sacks. Pass rush specialist John Wes Townley has 4.5 sacks and 4.5 tackles-for-loss on his 16 stops this season.

CMU will look to stop the run on early downs and force BSU into unfavorable situations on third-down, where their propensity for getting into the backfield has resulted in a 33.7 percent third-down conversion rate for amongst the best in the country. Ball State will have to be aggressive on the early downs and catch CMU off guard for their best chance of success.


Prediction

CMU and Ball State has, sneakily, been one of those competitive rivalries which has brought a lot of action, even though there’s no trophy or formal “rivalry” to speak of.

The games are typically fairly close— 2020 aside when CMU had just lost their starting QB to an injury— and are almost always entertaining. There’s no love lost when either of these teams step onto the field.

This year’s contest appears to be no different, with Vegas initially calling CMU a 2.5-point underdog on the road. But the money has recently poured in favor of the Chips, suddenly turning the line into a 2.5-point favorite in hostile territory. It’s not hard to see why, given CMU’s most recent two contests as compared to Ball State’s, but this is historically a pick-em type game, and the result will ultimately come down to who is able to execute more on the offensive side due to the relative closeness of their defensive units.

Bias as a CMU reporter aside, CMU’s offense is simply too hot to stop right now, and have their Detroit hopes on the line. They should come out swinging. CMU at -2.5 and under 57 points sounds about right for this contest.