Defense wins championships. And good defense wins MAC championships, as demonstrated by recent MAC Championship Game underdogs such as 2018 Northern Illinois and 2020 Ball State.
Under the bright lights of Ford Field, the Cardinals solved Buffalo’s juggernaut of a rushing attack like no other team in 2020. They loaded the box, contained the outsides, and funneled running backs into a physical meeting with the linebackers. Ball State’s defensive domination in Detroit ultimately handed Mike Neu and his program the team’s first MAC title since 1996.
Then, the defense proved it was up for a challenge again in the Arizona Bowl. Facing a San Jose State offense which doused Boise State with 498 yards of offense in the Mountain West Championship Game, the Cardinals didn’t flinch. They yielded just one offensive touchdown to the Spartans and forced four turnovers in the 21-point triumph.
After improving week by week over the course of 2020, the entire cast of characters are back in the front seven. Now, Ball State aims for its veteran defense to rise to the occasion in order to replicate the 2020 end-of-year success.
Most of the tackling in Ball State’s defense was handled by the linebackers and safeties, but Jack Sape led all defensive linemen with 16 last season. The 3-game starter managed 4.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, also leading all Cardinal defensive linemen in that category as well. For the first time since joining the program in 2018, the defensive end’s number was called to the starting lineup in the season opener against Miami (OH), and he visibly improved as each week progressed.
Sape’s partner in crime will be defensive end Chris Agyemang, who banded well with the Ball State defense as a grad transfer in 2020. Agyemang arrived in Muncie after success at the FCS level, and his experience translated into 15 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss at the FBS level. Standing at 6’4”, he has a knack for batting down passes at the line of scrimmage. He managed to record his first career interception off a tipped pass against Western Michigan last December — a play which turned the tide of the game and led to 17 unanswered Ball State points, allowing the Cardinals to clinch the MAC West.
At the nose tackle, Justin Ramsey started in all seven of the Cardinals’ victories last season. The Merrillville, IN native logged seven tackles and earned a share of his first career sack in the Arizona Bowl against San Jose State.
The key reserve in the defense line is Joshua Tarango. As a sophomore in 2020, he remained a productive role player by chipping in 13 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss across eight games last season. Just like Agyemang, Tarango transferred into the program from a lower division and made a strong first impression on the MAC last season.
Merely an assortment of inexperienced players from different backgrounds a year ago, Ball State’s defensive line returns in 2021 as a more fortified unit. But much more experience lies within a linebacking group which features All-MAC selections across the board, and that’s what allows the Cardinals to exhibit one of the top defenses in the conference.
Ball State’s defense features the best linebacking unit in the MAC and one of the premier groups in the entire FBS. And the group was deservedly showered with a litany of awards during the Cardinals’ unforgettable 2020 season.
The Cardinals’ linebacking corps produced two First Team All-MAC selection, one Second Team All-MAC selection, one Third Team All-MAC selection, and the 2020 MAC Championship Game MVP. The unit is so talented that there aren’t even starting linebacker spots for all five of these backfield menaces.
The First Teamers are inside linebacker Brandon Martin and outside linebacker Anthony Ekpe. Martin stepped into a starting role last year and instantly clicked as the team’s leading tackler, producing 90 tackles and 6.5 tackles for loss in a phenomenal breakout campaign. Ekpe landed in Muncie after three seasons of on-field action at Rice and made an immediate impact bolstering Ball State’s pass rush. He produced team-highs in a multitude of categories including five sacks (second in the MAC), seven tackles for loss, and two forced fumbles. With Ekpe’s presence in the lineup, the Cardinals elevated their sack output from 1.2 per game into 2019 to 1.9 in 2020.
The lone Second Teamer was Christian Albright, who lines up on the opposite side of Ekpe at outside linebacker. Albright generated 31 tackles, six tackles for loss, and two sacks, but his signature play of the 2020 season transpired in Ford Field in the conference championship. While Buffalo trailed by seven within the final minute of the first half, Ball State inside linebacker Jimmy Daw stripped sack Buffalo — the only sack the Bulls allowed in their 7-game season. Albright, head on a swivel, scooped up the ball off one hop and sprinted to the end zone untouched for a 34-yard touchdown to make it a 14-point advantage.
Speaking of Daw, the MAC Championship Game a coming of age moment for the veteran looking for a chance to prove himself. A member of the roster since 2017, the reserve inside linebacker only started three of the Cardinals’ eight games last fall, but his importance was particularly felt by opposing offenses. Daw was the only defender in college football to produce a sack against Buffalo’s stingy offensive line all season, and he produced three tackles for loss against Buffalo’s No. 3 rushing offense in the country in that victory. He was rewarded Defensive MVP for his efforts and continued his surge in the Arizona Bowl. To cap off the season, Daw intercepted a pass and recorded five tackles while lifting Ball State to its first bowl win in program history.
Rounding out the starters is All-MAC Third Team selection Jaylin Thomas, who is currently the leading active tackler in the conference with 289 career tackles. Thomas has been a consistent threat on the Cardinals defense in the Mike Neu era, tallying 97 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss in 2019 before following those numbers up with 78 tackles and 5.0 tackles for loss in 2020. The inside linebacker is one of five “super seniors” on the projected starting defense, first donning the red and black as a redshirt in 2016.
If the Cardinals prefer to start all five of these accomplished linebackers, they could feasibly move Ekpe to defensive end and slide Daw to the outside in order to maximize the playing time of the quintet. Even if Ball State keeps the lineup as is, all five will earn ample playing time and receive their share of the bread like they did in 2020.
Overall, Ball State’s defense features a mass array of returning production. With the amount of experience and championship pedigree returning from the No. 23 team in the nation last year, the Cardinals are presented a golden opportunity to clinch consecutive MAC titles for the first time in school history.