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For Ball State to clinch bowl eligibility, it all starts with offensive balance

After loss to Toledo, the Cardinals must strive for better passing performances in order to secure that elusive sixth win.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 01 Ball State at Tennessee Photo by Bryan Lynn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Ball State has a treasure. The Cardinals lost a horde of veteran talent from their 2020 MAC Championship Game this offseason, yet the team hasn’t taken a step back. One reason why is running back Carson Steele, who has become a midweek MACtion sensation for all spectators.

Steele ranks fourth nationally in rushing yardage with 1,280, and the true sophomore continues to elevate his game every week. In his first midweek MACtion contest of 2022, Steele produced a career-high 192 yards to lead Ball State to a 28-21 road win over Kent State. Seven days later, he shattered that total en route to a new personal-high of 198 yards. Steele rides a streak of five consecutive 100-yard rushing games and has produced eight this season. His emergence into an upper echelon running back is keeping Ball State highly competitive despite significant offseason turnover.

“He runs hard every single snap that he has,” Ball State head coach Mike Neu said. “It’s amazing to see how hard he goes about it. Every single snap that he gets, he wants the ball in his hands and he gets stronger and stronger and stronger and everybody in the stadium knows that he’s gonna get the ball. The opponent knows he’s gonna get the ball. And he’s a warhorse.”

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 01 Ball State at Kent State
Ball State running back Carson Steele has reset his career-high in rushing twice during midweek MACtion. He posted 192 yards on Kent State and 198 on Toledo.
Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Steele was off to a spectacular start in his latest outing against Toledo. Just two-and-a-half minutes into the third quarter, the star running back obtained 171 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 18 carries — utilizing his impressive weight room numbers and incredible balance to shed tacklers on his touchdown runs.

But despite holding a lead for the majority of the second half, Ball State did not beat Toledo. After Steele torched the Rockets’ defense for over two quarters, Toledo adjusted its gameplan to force Ball State to win by any other method. Just like the Cardinals did to counter a ground-oriented Buffalo team in the 2020 MAC Championship Game, Toledo took a page out of that playbook and conspicuously stacked the box. It worked, and Steele finished the contest with 27 yards on his final 10 carries.

“They were putting more dudes in the box,” Steele said. “We had to get our passing game going a little bit too and being more balanced really needed to show for us and it didn’t in the last fourth quarter, and that’s what really bit us in the foot.”

Ball State wasn’t able to make Toledo pay when the Rockets keyed on the run game last Tuesday. Battling the 14th ranked aerial defense in the nation, the Cardinals were unable to find any success when dropping back to pass. They completed just 13-of-35 passes (a 37 percent completion clip) for 94 yards and an interception. Overall, that sums to an average of 2.7 yards per attempt.

“We’ve got to have better balance. There’s no question about it,” Neu said. “It’s great to be able to run the ball. Carson Steele is special, but we’ve got to have balance. We’ve got to have better balance and we have to improve. With the time we have left here, we have to improve from a passing game standpoint.”

In addition to the undesirable passing numbers, there was a steady stream of pressure from Toledo. Ball State’s offensive line had been fairly sturdy until last Tuesday night, allowing just eight sacks in its first nine games. Toledo racked up five sacks on starting quarterback John Paddock. So in addition to improving from an accuracy standpoint, Ball State must amend the issues which arose from a pass protection standpoint in the prior game.

“It was a little bit of everything,” Neu said. “(Toledo) did a good job of getting pressure on the quarterback. When we did have an opportunity to make plays in 50-50 situations, we weren’t able to make any plays. They did a good job defensively from a pass defense standpoint. We couldn’t get that figured out. It was disappointing.”

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 08 Ball State at Toledo
Ball State quarterback John Paddock has three performances eclipsing 300 passing yards in his first season as the Cardinals’ starter.

Ball State punted 12 times and finished 5-of-20 on third downs in last week’s road loss to Toledo. The Cardinals were thrust into countless third-and-long situations, but the lack of a consistent passing attack ultimately caused the punter to take the field more times than ever before.

“We just need to be able to move the ball down the field,” Steele said. “We were punting the ball in and out and our defense was luckily helping us out a lot. But the offense needs to definitely step up, take a better role, and be able to be more balanced and get the ball down the field.”

The good news for Ball State: Paddock and the offense have shown the ability to take over games through the air before. In a 44-38 double overtime victory over Northern Illinois which featured a 21-point comeback, Paddock tallied 403 passing yards on a 69 percent completion rate, firing three touchdowns in the rivalry win. Ball State eclipsed the 300-yard passing mark in three of its first five contests. In those games, the team averaged 27.6 points per game. In the five games since, the Cardinals average 21.2 points per game, only once crossing the threshold of 180 passing yards during that span.

Ball State trots out the conference’s best running back, but in order to allow Steele to thrive in an optimal manner, the Cardinals must re-establish the offensive balance they enjoyed earlier in the season. The defense has been spectacular in generating consistent stops as of late, but increased balance in the offense can go a long way in determining bowl eligibility for a Ball State team which needs to win one of its final two contests.

“We’ve got to bounce back. We have a lot left that we can get accomplished here. We sit at 5-5, 3-3 in the conference right now. We’ve got a good football team in Ohio coming into our place. It’ll be the final home game for a lot of guys... We’ve got to pick our head up, we’ve got to regroup, and we’ve got to respond.”