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2021 Mid-American Conference Football Week 4 Game Preview: Toledo Rockets vs. Ball State Cardinals

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MAC play officially begins Saturday with Ball State and Toledo desperate to get on the right footing.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 31 Ball State at Toledo Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Game Notes

  • Time and Date: Saturday, September 25 at 2:00 p.m. ET
  • Network: ESPN+
  • Location: Scheumann Stadium — Muncie, IN
  • Spread: Toledo (-5)
  • ESPN FPI: Toledo has 71.0 percent chance to win
  • All-time series: Toledo leads, 24-21-1
  • Last meeting: Ball State 27, Toledo 24 — November 28, 2020

Setting the scene

Entering the 2021 season, the Cardinals and Rockets were labeled with the highest odds of winning the MAC West division. But suddenly, after three weeks, instead of a marquee MAC West matchup, both teams are aiming to save their seasons from a disastrous 1-3 start. Not many programs in college football endured rougher Week 3 performances than these two. Ball State, the reigning conference champion, fell to Wyoming 45-12 in a game that was essentially over by halftime. Meanwhile, Toledo got shocked at home by a winless, struggling Colorado State program by the not-so-close final score of 22-6.

Ball State (1-2) controlled the last two iterations of this matchup, but Toledo (1-2) is hoping to spoil the Cardinals’ season this Saturday in Muncie, IN. This will be the first conference matchup between MAC opponents this year, so the winner earns an early head start at the top of the standings — one step closer to the goal that is a December appearance to Detroit.


Ball State Cardinals outlook

Ball State entered 2021 appearing to be a continuation of the 2020 squad which won the MAC Championship Game, won the Arizona Bowl, and finished with a national No. 23 ranking in the AP Poll. Those six preseason AP votes attached to the Cardinals’ name are long gone by now after a 1-2 start.

The concerns first arose after a non-convincing win over FCS opponent Western Illinois on opening weekend. Although the 44-13 loss to a dominant Penn State team can be seen as excusable, the 32-point loss to Wyoming last Saturday certainly wasn’t.

Nothing has gone right for the Cardinals’ offense this season, and Ball State is seeking massive improvements in quarterback play and the rushing game heading into this pivotal week. Ball State benched longtime starter Drew Plitt after enduring a 31-0 deficit at halftime last week, but Plitt has the golden opportunity at a bounce-back performance this week. He dropped over 300 passing yards on a 74 percent completion rate against Toledo last year and will aim to replicate those numbers to shake off a rough start to the 2021 season.

Targeting star receiver Justin Hall should be an area of emphasis for this team. Hall carried the offense against Western Illinois to the tune of eight receptions, 137 yards, and two touchdowns. In the two games since, Hall has been limited to nine receptions for 55 yards. The Cardinals must get the ball to the All-MAC senior playmaker the ball by any means necessary — whether it be on jet sweeps or dump passes — because his success is highly correlated with team success. Since 2018, Ball State is 5-1 when Hall attains over 100 receiving yards.

Another reason why Ball State’s offense is stalling is the lack of protection up front. Plitt took five sacks last week and he didn't even play in the second half. Facing high pressure on a consistent basis is one defining factor which causes Ball State to be the only MAC team to average at least two turnovers per game this year. Opposing defenses have caught as many touchdown passes from Ball State quarterbacks this season as Ball State receivers — a problem that can’t persist if the Cardinals want any shot at repeating.

On the other side of the ball, the Cardinals aren’t forcing turnovers either. Their only takeaway this season is a Nic Jones interception in their opening win. This was a Ball State team renowned for applying pressure with its linebacking corps and reaping the benefits last year, as evidenced by producing four interceptions in the Arizona Bowl victory over San Jose State.

Ball State is allowing plenty of points off of short fields and turnovers, but the defense hasn’t been as shoddy as scoreboards have suggested. The Cardinals haven’t been as relentless as last season in defending the pass or the run, but they still present plenty of noticeable firepower in a linebacking corps which features 2020 All-MAC selections Jaylin Thomas, Brandon Martin, and Christian Albright and 2020 MAC Championship Game MVP Jimmy Daw.


Toledo Rockets outlook

Toledo was roughly 90 seconds from obtaining a signature program win at Notre Dame, which would have marked the Rockets’ first top 10 victory since 2003. However, the defense fell apart on a 3-play, 75-yard, 26-second drive for the Fighting Irish and Notre Dame escaped after surviving the brief scare. One week later, and Toledo follows up an almost-iconic win with a completely deflating loss.

Colorado State already got pummeled by an FCS team and lost to Vanderbilt, the only other FBS team to fall by three scores to an FCS opponent. However, the Rams overtook the Glass Bowl last Saturday and suffocated Toledo’s offense in a 22-6 victory. Toledo’s defense did its job for the most part and the only touchdown scored by either team was a 70-yard punt return for the Rams.

The offense though, was a different story. Colorado State dominated the line of scrimmage to hold the Rockets to 21 rushing yards on 28 carries and force six sacks on the hapless offense. The Rams frequently got their hands on passes, and Toledo couldn’t move down the field with any regularity. Egregious penalties also played in a major factor. The Rockets finished the afternoon with 11 penalties for 89 yards, including a holding which negated their lone touchdown of the day. Many of these flags were preventable pre-snap penalties which often made third and fourth down situations more difficult. When combining the countless sacks and penalties, it was no surprise Toledo converted just 4/18 third downs and 1/4 fourth downs.

But the offense hopes for a major bounce-back week as the program searches for its first win over Ball State since 2018. Toledo will likely sustain the two quarterback system, where Carter Bradley throws the majority of passes but Dequan Finn checks in periodically to boost the running game. The main x-factor on this team, however, is All-MAC halfback Bryant Koback. Just like Justin Hall’s performances correlate with Ball State’s results, Koback provides a similar impact on Toledo. The Rockets are 11-5 since 2019 when he generates more than 50 rushing yards and 0-5 when he fails to do so. Two of Koback’s roughest performances occurred against Ball State, and the Cardinals held him to 38 yards in 2019 and 33 yards in 2020 on 13 carries apiece.

When looking at Toledo’s aerial attack, the Rockets distribute the wealth as much as any team in the MAC. Four Rockets already account for seven catches this year, and Devin Maddox appears to be emerging as Bradley’s favorite target. Maddox currently has 254 receiving yards on 14 receptions through the year, but longtime staple Bryce Mitchell has been a reliable downfield threat as well — accruing seven receptions for 121 yards this season.

Toledo’s defense is situated well within the middle of the pack when it comes to points and yards allowed per game. The passing defense currently has the edge, and other than two drives at Notre Dame this season, that unit has been quite spectacular. Even in the Notre Dame game, Toledo’s defensive backs presented quarterback Jack Coan with some difficult coverages. They broke up five passes and cornerback Chris McDonald even jumped a route for a pick six that day.

McDonald mans one end of the field, while Samuel Womack has control of the other. Womack is an intriguing prospect due to his active hands in the secondary. He already has an interception this season and ranked fourth in the FBS in pass deflections in 2019. His matchup with Hall should be the one drawing the most eyeballs Saturday.


Prediction

Toledo is a 5-point road favorite in this battle between programs desperate for a win. That might be surprising considering Ball State won the last two games in the series by a combined score of 69-38 and the Cardinals are reigning MAC champions with roughly 20 starters back.

This year’s game in Muncie seems destined to come down to the wire. It’s hard to decide which offense to place more trust in, but I’m sensing Drew Plitt reverts to 2020 form after two difficult weeks at Penn State and Wyoming. Also, Ball State’s horde of All-MAC linebackers should be able to control the line of scrimmage against Toledo, just like Colorado State did. If Toledo isn’t able to establish anything on the ground, Ball State will have mastered the formula to stopping the Rockets for the third year in a row.

Toledo’s secondary will test Ball State’s receivers with success, so this one will be on the lower scoring side. Cardinals emerge on top by a field goal.

Prediction: Ball State 26, Toledo 23