Ball State faced their first significant non-conference test in two years this past Saturday, as they traveled to central Pennsylvania to take on the 11th ranked Penn State Nittany Lions. After winning their last eight games, the Cardinals were excited to see how they stacked up with a Top 15 team.
Unfortunately for Mike Neu’s squad, the talent of the Nittany Lions proved to be too much for the Cardinals veteran-laden roster, and Penn State escaped Beaver Stadium with an emphatic 44-13 victory. The Nittany Lions found the end zone on each of their first two drives and led the Cardinals 14-0 before the Ball State offense posed any type of threat.
Any time a MAC team is playing a Big Ten foe in the non-conference slate, it’s going to be a tough hill to climb. It’s often hard to glean too much from these early season performances, as the talent and depth of a Big Ten roster is going to overwhelm that of a MAC squad 98 times out of 100. With that said, there are some things that the Cardinals can take away from this game, both positive and negative. Let’s take a look.
The Cardinals run game needs some work
Despite Ball State’s historic season in 2020, this high-powered offense did struggle to run the ball at times. The Cardinals averaged 177 yards per game on the ground last year, certainly not terrible, and good for middle of the pack in the MAC (the Cardinals finished 7th in the conference in rushing yards per game). That stat doesn’t look quite as good when you factor in that Ball State averaged only three yards per carry, which was last in the conference. Add in the fact that star RB Caleb Huntley graduated in the off-season, and you can see where the struggles in the run game might come from.
Through two games this year, the results have been very inconsistent. In week one, the Cardinals did run for 216 yards against FCS foe Western Illinois on 40 carries. With that said, that yardage includes two 30+ runs from Carson Steele against the Leathernecks back ups, as well as runs of 21 and 14 yards from Will Jones. If you take those four runs out (which, again, were primarily against a second string FCS unit), and the Cardinals gained 105 yards on 36 carries. That’s 2.9 yards per carry.
Given those numbers, the results against Penn State’s defense on Saturday are not surprising: 26 carries, 69 yards. 2.7 yards per attempt. Not great.
A big part of Ball State’s high expectations this year came from their veteran offensive line. Through two games, that group has struggled mightily, especially in the run game. They deserve credit for keeping Drew Plitt upright, as they gave up only one sack against the Nittany Lion’s elite defense. However, for as good as they’ve been at protecting Plitt, they must improve when it comes to running the ball. If the Cardinals don’t have some semblance of balance on offense this year, it will be very tough for them to repeat as MAC champions.
Carson Steele might be the real deal
Despite the struggles of the run game thus far, the Cardinals look to have a good future with freshman RB Carson Steele. The sample size is small, but the Greenwood, Indiana native has shown great promise in the first two games of his college career. Through two games, Steele has 97 yards on 14 carries to go with two TD’s. Most of his work came against Western Illinois in Ball State’s opener, but Steele was not intimidated in the hostile environment at Penn State this week.
On the Cardinals first scoring drive, they faced a 4th and four at the Penn State 43 yard line. Already down 14-0 and in desperate need of points, Mike Neu sent his offense back on the field. Plitt found Steele open in the flat, and he proceeded to take the ball 21 yards and set up what would become a Jake Chanove field goal. In the fourth quarter, Steele added the Cardinals only TD of the game, scampering 6 yards to make the score 37-13 (this, coincidentally, was also on a fourth down).
The fact that the coaching staff trusted Steele in these scenarios says a lot. Clearly, he has earned their trust in practice, and his early results have been promising. He is a freshman to watch moving forward.
The defense needs some work, but there is a lot to like here
The numbers from Saturday do not paint the prettiest picture for the Cardinals defense. Penn State ran the ball 48 times for 240 yards, good for 5.0 yards per attempt. The Nittany Lions used this to their advantage and were able to put together a number of long scoring drives: three of Penn State’s scoring possessions were over 10 plays, and two others came in at eight plays. These long, sustained drives wore down the Ball State defense, and by the end of the game the unit was visibly exhausted.
With that said, there were some encouraging signs on Saturday. With the notable exception of Penn State WR Jahan Dotson’s 25 yard TD catch, the Cardinals veteran secondary did not appear intimidated or outclassed by the Penn State talent at the skill positions. Nittany Lion QB Sean Clifford averaged only 7.9 yards per attempt in the game, and his multiple attempts to drive the ball vertically downfield were thwarted by the Cardinals secondary. For all of the struggles defending the run, the Ball State pass defense help up rather well, all things considered. Along with the strength of the secondary, Tavion Woodard and Christian Albright were both able to record sacks of Clifford. There were times when Clifford had ample time to throw, but Ball State was able to get pressure through blitzing.
Most of the issues that the defense encountered on this day can be chalked up to the talent disparity between the two teams, specifically along both lines. As the Cardinals move into MAC play, I predict the results will get better.
Overall, I don’t believe that it is time to panic for Cardinal fans. The first two performances of the year have certainly been less than inspiring, but this is still a veteran laden team with a ton of talent. If the Cardinals offense can get back to the level they were operating at in 2020, the defense will be there to ensure that Ball State can compete for the conference title.