Last December will forever be a storied run in Ball State Cardinals history. A MAC Championship Game victory over an undefeated, ranked Buffalo team was followed up by an Arizona Bowl victory over an undefeated, ranked San Jose State team. Ball State finished ranked No. 23 for its first final AP Poll ranking in program history. The Cardinals entered 2021 on a 7-game win streak — only trailing Alabama, Oklahoma, and Texas A&M for the longest in the country.
With 20 returning starters, Ball State seemed poised to do it again and the Cardinals received six preseason AP votes, becoming the first MAC team to receive any since 2016 Toledo. But the magic seemingly wore off on a Thursday night in Muncie. Ball State entered the locker rooms at Scheumann Stadium tied 7-7 against an FCS opponent Western Illinois. Although the Cardinals emerged victorious, 31-21, plenty of concerns were identified in that game that could serve as a precursor to the rest of the season.
Now, Ball State is three games into 2021 and those struggles were indeed a precursor. Not much was expected of the Cardinals in Week 2 when traveling to Happy Valley to battle a juggernaut of a Penn State team. But the 44-13 loss was uglier than the line Vegas set, and Ball State’s remaining AP Poll votes subsequently dissolved without much hesitation. However, nobody who excused the blowout loss to Penn State could do the same when the Cardinals were boatraced 45-12 in Wyoming this past Saturday.
In a game that was essentially over with a 31-0 result at halftime, here’s what went wrong for Ball State in its trip to Laramie:
Quarterback play isn’t near 2020 level
One of the more inspiring stories of 2020 was Ball State fifth-year senior quarterback Drew Plitt guiding the Cardinals to their first winning season since 2013 and eventually, all of the postseason accolades listed above. Plitt returned for his sixth season in Muncie, and unfortunately, 2021 hasn’t been as kind to the All-MAC quarterback.
Plitt was benched at halftime Saturday after an 8/14 showing which featured 60 passing yards and one interception. That pick was returned by Wyoming for a touchdown, marking the second touchdown pass Plitt has tossed to the defense this season. On the other hand, Ball State’s offense has only hauled in two passing touchdowns in three games and both were against Western Illinois on opening weekend.
The lack of accuracy and the inability to strike downfield weren’t Ball State’s only issues in the passing game. Plitt was subject to five sacks in one half and he was unable to escape from the onslaught of Wyoming defenders that chased him around for the first 30 minutes of action. The veteran quarterback faced 28 sacks and threw six interceptions a season ago, but when Plitt isn’t connecting downfield with accuracy like he did in 2020, Ball State’s offense takes a massive hit.
Backup quarterback John Paddock checked in for the second half, only to mirror Plitt’s first half performance. Paddock also averaged around four yards per attempt and fired a pick six in the second half. Plitt likely secures the starting job for Week 4, where he’ll face a Toledo defense he has picked apart in the last two meetings. Ball State needs to replicate one of those performances in order to start MAC play on the right foot offensively.
Hall needs more involvement
Players like Justin Hall only come around Muncie, IN once in a generation. He is 39th in college football history in receptions and is distinguished as the FBS active leader in receptions and receiving yards.
Hall only caught three passes and fielded two handoffs Saturday. Five touches for an athlete of that caliber is not ideal for Ball State. Hall operates better in an open field than any player in the MAC. That was demonstrated Saturday by his 72-yard kick return which was Ball State’s only play longer than 22 yards all game. The Cardinals’ offense needs to get him in the ball by any means necessary. Even if opposing secondaries are blanketing the All-MAC superstar past the sticks, jet sweeps, swing screens, and quick slants are still effective means to deliver touches to No. 11.
In fact, utilizing more Hall in the running game could be advantageous for a Ball State team in desperate need of a spark there. The Cardinals averaged under three yards per carry in each of their last two games. Meanwhile, Hall is managing 5.4 yards per run, and in each of his three previous seasons he averaged over 6.5 yards per carry — with a sample size of 20+ in each year.
Ball State’s only strong offensive showing of the season was heavily attributed to a standout Hall performance. He caught eight passes for 137 yards and two touchdowns against Western Illinois. Prioritizing Hall’s production should be the main point of emphasis going into the revealing MAC West showdown against Toledo this Saturday.
Final takeaway: force takeaways
Ball State is getting hammered in the turnover battle this season. The Cardinals have yet to win one in three games and are a collective -5 in turnover margin this season. Ball State’s lone takeaway thus far was an interception against Western Illinois, and the team has totaled zero points off turnovers this season.
On the contrary, Ball State opponents cashed in for 31 points off turnovers this season, and Wyoming squeezed every drop out of the three turnovers the Cardinals committed Saturday. Wyoming amassed 14 points on pick sixes alone and another seven points after a Ball State fumble led to a short field for the offense. Thus, the brutal loss isn’t necessarily on the defense, despite the 45-point showing from the Cowboys.
But the defense lacks playing a hand in the turnover battle. One interception by cornerback Nic Jones in the opening week is all the Cardinals have to show, and this lack of takeaways can’t keep up with the mistakes the offense is making. This output pales in comparison to the 2020 squad which ranked 15th in the FBS in turnovers forced per game, the same team which picked off San Jose State four times in the Arizona Bowl.
The defense need to heighten the sense of aggression in order to improve the adverse turnover margin and relive the glory days of 2020.