Western Michigan beat Ball State 42-24 on Saturday when the Broncos were favored by one point coming into the game. Ball State came into the game with three losses (all against FBS teams), getting outscored 129-20 in those contests. It’s not been an easy schedule for the Cardinals to start 2023, but the point differential really expresses how poorly the games have gone.
Western Michigan came home with similar issues. They just gave Toledo as much as they wanted but failed to convert the win. A week before that, the Iowa Hawkeyes scored 41 points on the Broncos. That’s probably going to be their season high as Brian Ferentz tries to keep his job.
Points were always possible with each team coming into the game struggling to get consistent stops, but the offenses were consistently overmatched as well. Western Michigan scored 21 points in the second quarter to take control of the game. How did they do it and what does it mean for the rest of the season? Let’s look into it!
What Decided the Game
Ball State opened the scoring with a field goal, but then Western Michigan took over. They scored on their next drive to take the lead. The Cardinals punted on their next possession and pushed the Broncos back to their own eight-yard line, but they scored again.
With the score 14-3, Ball State needed points to stay in the game. In three plays, they were in Western Michigan territory with a defensive pass interference, a one-yard run and a 13-yard completion from Layne Hatcher to tight end Tanner Koziol. On third-and-seven, Hatcher found his favorite receiver, Qian Magwood, for a 12-yard gain on an out route to the left sideline. This should have put the Cardinals at the Western Michigan 33-yard line and in scoring position.
The problem was a holding penalty on an offensive lineman moved the ball back across the 50 for a third-and-17 attempt. This was the play that changed the game. Neither team was able to stop the other once they were in scoring position. I have no doubt that Ball State puts points on the board, cutting the deficit to one possession. Instead, they are faced with a near-impossible third down to convert.
That play went about as poorly as it could have. Hatcher dropped back into the pocket but was forced to step up. As he did so, defensive lineman Corey Walker punched the ball out from behind. Linebacker Demari Roberson recovered the fumble and got the stop that Western Michigan needed.
The Broncos converted their best field position into another touchdown to extend the lead to 18 points. That ended up being the difference in the final score. Every time Ball State scored, Western Michigan would respond. Sometimes it took a while, but the lead was never smaller than 11.
Stats That Tell the Story
The stats were surprisingly close for a game that was decided by 18 points. Their offensive success rates were about equal, they averaged the same starting field position to the yard, Western Michigan held a 0.7 yards-per-play advantage and the penalties were ten for Ball State and nine for Western Michigan.
Both teams scored every time they got into scoring position, but the Broncos created six scoring opportunities to Ball State’s three. They kicked a field goal and scored two touchdowns after achieving a first down inside the opponent's 40 for an average of 5.7 points per opportunity. They added one touchdown on a 57-yard touchdown pass to complete their scoring.
Western Michigan was a perfect six touchdowns in six scoring opportunities. Their ability to finish drives separated them from the Cardinals in this game, as well as WMU’s ability to limit Ball State’s opportunities.
The Broncos stayed ahead of the chains and owned third and short situations. The Broncos were 5-of-11 on third down with all five coming on third down and six or fewer to go. That’s what allowed the Broncos to create six scoring chances and kept the Ball State defense on the field. Ball State on the other hand was 2-of-6 on third down and six-or-less to go. They were forced into seven (!!!) third and seven-or-more situations by the Bronco defense.
The Bronco defense created ten negative plays and six sacks which either put the Cardinals behind the chains or forced their third down attempt to fail. Four of the ten tackles for loss came on third downs, including two of the six sacks.
Important Going Forward
Western Michigan has avoided the injury bug so far this season, but Jalen Buckley left the game twice with a noticeable limp. The second time, he made it to the sideline and sat down before the benches with a worse limp than early in the game. The Broncos didn’t utilize him early like they have in previous games, so the offense showed they can make it work without the workhorse in the backfield.
Still, his health status shifts the game plan dramatically. Especially in games where the Broncos think their line is going to have success creating running lanes. Buckley has hit them harder and faster than any other back the Broncos have. Without him, the Broncos' passing game is very horizontal to get the ball to their playmakers in high-percentage catches. It worked against Ball State, but will it work against the next defense now that there is game film?
Through the first five games of the season, the Western Michigan offense has found itself. There are two questions they need to answer for the rest of the season:
- How consistent can they be?
- Can they win a shootout if they need to keep pace?
They have had two good showings against MAC opponents, but is that going to continue? So far there’s no reason to think it won’t, but nothing is a guarantee. The defense has had it’s struggles and with games against Miami and Ohio still on the schedule, the offense will need to hold serve.
On the Ball State side, Layne Hatcher gets his first start at his fourth stop in his college career. Is he the guy going forward? It seems like he’s earned it as long as the sacks can be fixed. I’m a firm believer that sacks are a quarterback stat, but sometimes the offensive line doesn’t help.
Outside of the six sacks, Hatcher has thrown for the highest per-pass average (7.0 yards per pass) and the highest completion percentage (67.7%) of the two quarterbacks that Ball State has given a real look at. Those are good numbers and he should be able to get the ball to Qian Magwood and the power tight ends, Tanner Koziol and Brady Hunt. Hunt will be a major addition whenever he’s finally healthy enough to play.
In the meantime without him, Magwood and running back Marquez Cooper need to be maximized. We know what Cooper can do from his time at Kent State and outside of 177 yards against FCS Indiana State, he’s struggled to get moving. His next best game was this one when he had 136 all-purpose yards on 19 touches. He has 70 total yards in the other three games. Magwood leads the Cardinals in receptions and averages 10 yards per catch. He seems like the best option at receiver to get the ball to for the Cardinals.
The Cardinals' biggest problem is their defense. They have played four games against FBS teams and given up at least 40 points to all of them. Georgia and Georgia Southern are each top 35 offenses according to SP+, and Kentucky isn’t a slouch ranked 53rd. On top of that, Kentucky is an SEC team that’s going to have a physical advantage over MAC schools. The Broncos are 115th in offensive SP+. Giving up 42 points to them is a bad indicator of what is to come. With a string of physical MAC teams coming up, they need answers and they need them quick.