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2023 MAC Football Week 12 Game Preview: Ball State Cardinals vs. Kent State Golden Flashes

The Cards and Flashes won’t be fighting for much more than pride on Saturday, but sometimes that’s all you need.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 30 Miami (Ohio) at Kent State Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Ball State Cardinals (3-7, 2-4 MAC West) get set to host the Kent State Golden Flashes (1-9, 0-6 MAC East) for an increasingly rare Saturday matchup in November, as the two sides look to build momentum for the 2024 season with wins late in the year.

The Cardinals have been in pretty good form over the last month, having won two contests against teams they were expected to lose to in Central Michigan and Northern Illinois, while taking Toledo and Bowling Green to the wire. That’s been enough to show what this team could have been despite early injuries and malfunctions, especially since the run began once Kiael Kelly was given the reins of the offense.

The Golden Flashes, meanwhile, have struggled immensely. It was expected to be a scorched earth rebuild after the loss of Sean Lewis to Colorado, but to this point, Kent State has won just once (against FCS Central Connecticut State) and have been outscored 197-86 over six MAC contests (all of which resulted in losses.) They’re looking for any positives they can get to end the 2023 season.

Neither of these teams are in the bowl hunt, but there’s still reason to expect they’ll try their hardest to take a win on Saturday, as the opportunities to do so continue to shrink.

Game notes

  • Time and date: Saturday, November 18th, 2023 at 2 p.m. Eastern time
  • Network: ESPN+ (A valid subscription is required.)
  • Location: Scheumann Stadium in Muncie, Indiana
  • Gambling considerations: Ball State is a 13-point favorite, with an over/under of 42, per DraftKings.
  • All-time series and streak: The Cardinals hold a 22-8 lead in 30 meetings dating back to 1977. The teams have split the last four games.
  • Last meeting: Ball State bridged an early 13-0 gap and took away a triumphant 27-20 weeknight win on Nov. 1, 2022, thanks to a career performance from former running back Carson Steele.

Getting to know the Cardinals

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

As mentioned prior, Ball State has looked like a completely different team over the last month of games since a change at quarterback against Toledo back on Oct. 14. Mike Neu entrusted the offense to redshirt sophomore Kiael Kelly and a read-option offense meant to take advantage of the team’s strengths.

The gamble on offense has largely worked out, as the Cards have gone 2-2 over the last four games after a 1-5 start. A side effect of the new offense has been the defense tightening up to keep the Cards competitive, as they’ve gone from 33 points per game allowed in the first six weeks to 17.7 points per game allowed over the last four weeks.

One could argue this is a symptom of the conference schedule, but if you look at the three weeks prior to the Toledo game, it’s clear the improvement stared in early October. Ball State lost by margins of 40-3 to Georgia Southern, 42-24 to Western Michigan (who had one win to that point) and 24-10 to Eastern Michigan before that fateful Toledo game.

Since then, BSU has allowed (and scored) 17.7 points per game, an improvement of about one point per game on offense and nearly 16 points on defense. Now the Cards look forward to showing their full potential against a team who has been prone to allowing explosive offenses.

Kiael Kelly has been the catalyst of the new-found Cardinals, rushing 99 times for 500 yards and five touchdowns, while completing 48-of-91 for 415 yards, a passing touchdown and an interception.

Marquez Cooper is the workhorse back, re-discovering his all-MAC pedigree in recent weeks, sitting at 767 yards (fifth in the MAC) and three touchdowns. Over his last three games, Cooper has rushed for no fewer than 90 yards, including a 162-yard breakout vs. Central Michigan. The receiving game is largely an afterthought, but there’s still a few dangerous players on the outside, with tight end Tanner Koziol (32 receptions, 269 yards and a team-high three touchdowns) proving to be a reliable red zone threat and Qian Magwood (team-high 37 receptions, 335 yards, one touchdown) has been the security blanket receiver.

Defensively, the Cards have managed to live without defensive leader Clayton Coll, who suffered an injury early on in the season. Keionte Newsom, who started the year at safety, has since converted to linebacker in his place and excelled, leading the team with 70 total tackles. Newsom has also collected 4.5 tackles-for-loss, 1.5 sacks, two pass break-ups, a forced fumble.

Newsom is just one of a trio of potential all-MAC linebackers, with Sidney Houston Jr. (49 tackles) leading the team in both tackles-for-loss (12.5), QB hits (five) and sacks (3.5), and Cole Pearce (67 tackles, 8.5 tackles-for-loss, three sacks) also putting up fantastic numbers in the heart of the defense. Mikhari Sibblis has been the main threat on the defensive line, with 32 tackles, 4.5 tackles-for-loss and three sacks.

Ball State has traditionally had excellent defensive back play and this season is no different. True junior safety Jordan Riley leads the secondary, with 56 tackles, three tackles-for-loss and a team-high six pass break-ups. Thailand “Thai” Baldwin, Tyler “Red” Potts and Damion Charity have held it down at the corner spots with nine pass breakups and two interceptions. The team is 55th in the NCAA in pass yards allowed (221.3), with just 146.25 yards per game allowed over the last four weeks.

Special teams have been pretty good in Muncie in 2023. Punter Lucas Borrow ranks sixth in the MAC in punting average (41.6 yards per punt) and ranks second in the MAC in punts inside-the-20, a vital part of Ball State’s defensive gameplan. Jackson Courville is a top-five MAC kicker, going 10-of-15 on field goal attempts. He kicked a game-winner last week from 36 yards out.

Getting to know the Golden Flashes

Syndication: Akron Beacon Journal Jeff Lange / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Golden Flashes are in a true Year 0 situation, as the entire offense from the prior season turned over and the defense continues to develop as the last pieces of the prior regime start to age out.

First-year head coach Kenni Burns has had his struggles in trying to assemble a competitive group this season, but he can take heart in the fact his team has shown great promise in situational play. A few weeks back against Akron, Kent State held a two-plus score lead in the fourth quarter and was ready to land a knockout blow. They ultimately lost in a fierce rivalry game, but when they’re on, they’re on. Ball State will be the closest team talent-wise to Akron they’ve encountered all season, so there’s the potential they can show off some progress here.

It’ll be a bit of a hill to climb; the Flashes are 127th in the NCAA in total offense (278.3 yards per game) and 78th in total defense (387.3 yards per game), with 46 opposing touchdowns allowed (sixth-worst in the NCAA) and a -2 turnover margin.

Tommy Ulatowski, who proved to be a weeknight #MACtion hero in 2022, has replaced former Purdue transfer Michael Alaimo at quarterback, after the latter threw for just two touchdowns and four interceptions on 54 percent completion in eight games. Ulatowski is currently 57-of-111 passing for 721 yards, seven touchdowns and two interceptions, while also picking up 100 yards (fourth on the team) and a touchdown on the ground.

The Flashes depend on a trio of running backs to generate the majority of their yards, with Gavin Garcia (110 rushes, 431 yards, two touchdowns) splitting responsibilities with Jaylen Thomas (112 rushes, 414 yards, two touchdowns) in the majority of carries, while Xavier Williams (42 rushes, 152 yards, one touchdown) is a relief back. Ulatowski also figures into the run game, as previously mentioned.

The most explosive player on the field for either side is wide receiver Chrishon McCray, who leads Kent State in receptions (41), yards (610), touchdowns (four) and yards per catch (14.8). The five-foot-10, 163 lb. redshirt freshman has emerged from nowhere to lead the team— but suffered a brutal injury two weeks ago against Akron, and did not play against Bowling Green. This leaves him questionable for the game vs. Ball State. Without McCray, the Flashes lose a vital playmaker who can take the top off of opposing defenses.

They’ll try to replace his production with a number of players, most importantly Trell Harris (20 catches, 335 yards, one touchdown) and Luke Floriea (27 catches, 284 yards, three touchdowns.)

Defensively, this is a group who is prone to giving up points despite their relatively decent yards per game numbers. The Flashes have allowed 46 opposing touchdowns and 34.4 points per game (118th in the NCAA), with their biggest weakness coming against the run, where they’ve allowed 24 touchdowns and 1,570 total yards on the ground through 10 games.

Graduate safety Bryce Sheppert, formerly of Notre Dame College, leads the way in tackles (61 total), while proving to be a proficient cover man, with six pass break-ups (second on the team.) The dual CJs (defensive lineman West and linebacker Harris) are two of KSU’s best penetration threats, with the duo collecting an identical 31 total tackles for 5.5 TFLs and two sacks each. Capone Blue continues to pace the secondary from his outside corner spot with a team-leading nine pass break-ups.

Andrew Glass is one of the most accurate kickers in the MAC, converting 12-of-14 attempts, with a long of 48 yards this season. KSU has Josh Smith at punter. He averages 41.21 yards per boot, and has trapped 12 punts inside the 20.

Game outlook

On the surface, there’s not a lot of intrigue here.

Ball State are 13-point home favorites, and Kent State is coming off two-straight disheartening losses in rivalry games (which they lost in two very different ways.) Neither team is playing for the postseason either, so there aren’t even bog average casual stakes attached to the contest. Being behind a paywall means you’ll have to actively search for this game.

But it’s a Saturday game, and both teams have something to prove against one another. BSU hasn’t beaten anyone soundly with their new-look offense and want to build some confidence moving forward with a convincing win. Kent State doesn’t have a lot to play for, and will likely be out-talented, but they still have that goal of getting their first win against an FBS team on the season. It would not be surprising if they pulled out lots of tricks from the bag in order to give the Cards something to sweat about.

By no means are we suggesting this will be a close, wire-to-wire contest. That said, neither team will go down without a fight. It’ll certainly be a contest of runs as both teams try to show they can string together a consistent attack.

That desperation to prove themselves will be enough to make this an interesting game.