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2023 MAC Football Week 8 Game Preview: Ball State Cardinals vs. Central Michigan Chippewas

Roles are reversed from last season, but you can’t take anything for granted when these two teams are on the field.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 02 Ball State at Kentucky Photo by Jeff Moreland/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Central Michigan Chippewas (4-3, 2-1 MAC) travel westwards to Muncie, Indiana (which we’ve been told is a lovely city) to face off against the Ball State Cardinals (1-6, 0-3 MAC), in a contest the hosts will absolutely feel the pressure to win.

It’s Homecoming Weekend for the Cardinals, marking the second-straight season these teams have marked each other for such a festivity. It’s a testament to just how much intensity there is in this division matchup’s history. Matter of fact, it’s such a bit deal for BSU, they’re holding a pre-game concert prior to kickoff.

This weekend has two significant storylines to watch. A loss for the homestanding Ball State would result in elimination from postseason contention, and could bring into question the job security of Mike Neu. A loss for CMU would knock them out of the MAC West title chase, as they’re currently in a four-way tie for second in the division— and a Toledo loss would open the West right back up.

It’s a must-win for both sides in Week 8.

Game notes

  • Time and date: Saturday, October 21th, 2023 at 3:30 p.m. Eastern time
  • Network: ESPN+ (A valid subscription is required.)
  • Location: Scheumann Stadium in Muncie, Indiana
  • Gambling considerations: Central is a 4.5-point favorite, with an over/under of 41.5, per DraftKings. The series is dead even, sitting at 27-27-1 in 55 contests dating back to 1939. The last four contests have swapped between the two, with Ball State winning last season.
  • Last meeting: Ball State spoiled Homecoming for CMU in a game where they went 0-for-13 on third-down and punted nine times, taking home a 17-16 win on Oct. 8, 2022.

Getting to know the Cardinals

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 30 Ball State at Western Michigan Photo by Joseph Weiser/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Ball State has looked languid since the start of the league season, losing their last four contests and falling to 1-6 just halfway through the 2023 campaign.

It’s hard to pinpoint an exact reason; their preseason projections indicated a team which probably could have thorny at the very least. With a first-team all-MAC running back in Marquez Cooper and an experienced FBS starter Layne Hatcher transferring in, an experienced offensive line returning intact and a young defense which showed promise, Ball State could have really made a run at a bowl game.

Instead, defensive leader Clayton Coll got injured early, Hatcher couldn’t win the starting job despite the staff giving him the green light all the way through camps and Cooper has largely struggled behind an offensive line which has regressed considerably. It’s all gone wrong very quickly.

Last week saw a dead cat bounce for Ball State at home, as the Cards brushed off a 24-10 drubbing by EMU to take the MAC leading Toledo Rockets to the final possession in a very physical, back-and-forth contest predicated on defensive stops. They ultimately lost 13-6 due to defensive breakdowns and a bad drop dooming what would have been BSU’s reply drive at game’s end.

Ball State’s offense is one of the worst in the country, ranking 126th in total yards per game (287.9). Kiael Kelly, a scrambler archetype QB, was handed the keys to the car vs. Toledo, rushing for 98 yards on 18 carries— but struggling immensely to throw the ball in the pouring rain, finishing 4-of-16 for 38 yards and the game-ending INT. It’s to be determined if he will be the stater or if one of Layne Hatcher or Kadin Semonza reclaim the spot.

Marquez Cooper leads the rushing attack with 422 yards and a score, while Kelly (50 carries, 279 yards) keys in as well from the QB spot. Ball State has three receivers with over 200 yards, as Qian Magwood (260 yards, one score), Tanner Koziol (217 yards, two scores) and Ahmad Edwards (212 yards, one score) have pulled in the vast majority of receptions.

For all of Ball State’s difficulties, they do have a fairly reliable defense, which ranks about the middle in the NCAA (66th) with 374.4 yards per game allowed on average.

That’s due to a lot of individual talent, especially in the second level of the defense. Cole Pearce leads the Cards in tackles (48), shares the lead in tackles-for-loss (six) and is second on the team in sacks (three), with battery mates Sidney Houston Jr. (38 tackles, six TFLs, team-leading 3.5 sacks) and Keionte Newson (45 tackles, 1.5 TFLs, sack) right along side. Jordan Riley and Tyler “Red” Potts have paired to be one of the better pass coverage duos in the MAC, with Riley picking up five pass break-ups and Potts nabbing two interceptions (both leading their teams respectively.)

The problem has been stopping teams from scoring, as they are 101st in scoring defense at around 30 points allowed per game. You’re not going to win many games giving up 30 when you’re struggling to reach 15 points (129th in the NCAA.)

Getting to know the Chippewas

NCAA Football: Central Michigan at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

The Chippewas will be dealing with a couple major losses as they prepare for this game. Leading tackler Kyle Moretti has a lower body injury which will have him out “for a while”, per head coach Jim McElwain. He was seen on the sidelines in a knee brace and on crutches at the end of their game vs. Akron last week, suggesting his knee might be the issue.

Offensively, leading rusher Myles Bailey (360 yards, three TDs) is also unavailable this week. Quarterback Bert Emanuel Jr. (451 total yards, five total TDs) is also not expected to play due to a shoulder injury suffered vs. Eastern Michigan.

Moretti’s loss is perhaps the most vital. His 56 tackles pace the Chippewas, and he has also been one of their best backfield penetrators, with 4.5 tackles-for-loss and two sacks. The Chips will likely play a rotation in the second level, with Dakota Cochran and Jordan Kwiatkowski the most likely candidates.

It’ll once again be up to Jase Bauer to carry the load at quarterback. Last week, he was off-target, finishing 17-of-32 for 181 yards and two interceptions (scoring once on the ground), but has shown the capability of leading the offense when everything is going right. Marion Lukes (388 total yards, one rushing TD) is set to tote the rock in place of Bailey, with either BJ Harris or Sam Hicks taking snaps as well. Bauer will also figure into the rushing attack. Jesse Prewitt III (24 rec., 356 yards, three TDs) is the leading receiver currently, with Chris Parker and Tyson Davis close by.

Defensively, CMU will have to put up a similar performance to their game vs. Akron last week. McElwain praised the defense for their efforts, declaring it “the most complete performance by a defense in his five years in charge.” The Chips dominated the Zips, allowing less than 200 total offensive yards, limiting Akron to a 3-of-13 third-down rate and picking up two interceptions. The Zips were also forced into seven punts and held the ball for just 22 minutes of the contest.

It was a nice performance for a defense which has been much-maligned; they now stand at 99th in the NCAA at 402 yards per game allowed on average, up from 115th prior to last week. Their run defense has been one of the few highlights throughout the season, limiting opponents to 129.6 yards per game on average (51st in the NCAA.) They’ll have another chance to instill some confidence in their passing defense (ranked 118th in the NCAA after last week) against a BSU team which has been, to describe it charitably, limited in the air.

Game outlook

The stakes are high in this game, even if the records might not show it; Jim McElwain voiced as much in his weekly press conference.

“I look at this as a real ownership game,” McElwain said. “Each one of us in the program, we’ve got to own what we do this week to make sure we go down and play well... We’ve got a good football team; we’ve got to go out and prove it.”

CMU has gained a reputation of outplaying their stats; they’ve won four more one-possession games than they’ve lost, accounting for all their wins— despite being in the lower third of the NCAA in all three phases of the game.

Ball State, meanwhile, is trying to navigate tricky waters. They’ll certainly use the positives of their performance against Toledo to motivate their unit in what could be the most winnable game remaining on their schedule. The Homecoming factor will also be something which could give BSU some motivation. Mike Neu will also have to pull off a 2016 Chuck Martin-esque performance to be able to get BSU into the postseason— and potentially to stay in Muncie.

Both teams know what’s on the line going into this one; combine that with a tradition of closely-fought contests over the last decade and this game has the recipe to be a desperate, claw-laden battle.

At the end of the day, I think CMU ultimately has the talent advantage and the “been-there” experience the current version of the Cardinals might not have to take away a win here.