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2023 MAC Football Week 1 Game Preview: Ball State Cardinals at Kentucky Wildcats

The Cardinals fly south into SEC country to face off againsdt the Wildcats.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 08 Ball State at Toledo
Clayton Coll (32) and Cole Pierce (40) return to lead the 2023 defense

Ball State (5-7 in 2022) and Kentucky (7-6 in 2022) had some success last year, but were unable to finish strong, each losing multiple games down the stretch.

Turn the page to 2023 and both programs have optimism that an offseason of portal moves and development will be the difference in a championship run.

We take a look at each squad heading into the contest and offer our prediction.

Game notes

  • Time and date: Saturday, September 2nd, 2023 at 12:00 noon ET
  • Network: SEC Network (subscription required)
  • Location: Kroger Field at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington, Kentucky.
  • Gambling considerations: Kentucky is favored by 26.5 points, with an over/under of 49, per DraftKings.
  • All-time series: Kentucky leads 1-0, with a 28-20 win in 2001.

Getting to know the Cardinals

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 01 Ball State at Kent State Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

BSU lost four, one-score contests last season to some of the MACs best teams including a one-point loss to Miami RedHawks in the season finale that left them one win short of bowl season.

Entering this season, the Cardinals return a core on both sides of the ball that almost made them bowl eligible in 2022 while reloading at key positions via the portal or grooming from within.

We take a look at where BSU stands heading into week one and some things to look for versus Kentucky.


The Cardinals had some major changes on offense in the offseason, with a new starting crew at quarterback, running back, and wide receiver.

BSU hit the portal to replace 2022 starter John Paddock, who transferred to Illinois as a walk-on this season, landing one of the most experienced signal callers in the FBS in Layne Hatcher. The new Cardinal has been primarily a pocket passer in college, with impressive production through the air. Hatcher has completed almost 62 percent of his 1287 career passes for 10,080 yards with an 84:35 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

The Cardinals were 91st in the FBS last season with 21 turnovers, so anything Hatcher can do to take care of the ball could be the difference in flipping a few of those 2022 close losses to the win column.

Hatcher has at his disposal a pass-catching tight end tandem among the best in the Group of Five in sophomores Brady Hunt and Tanner Koziol, who combined for 81 catches for 871 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2022. Look for BSU to run regular two tight end formations, moving the duo in tight or flexing them out. Hunt banged up an ankle in camp and could be a game-time decision for Week 1, but it shouldn’t affect him too much over the rest of the season.

With the pair standing around six-foot-six and 240+ pounds with good athleticism and hands, look for both also to be major red zone threats.

The running back room transformed at the top with departure of Carson Steele to UCLA, but landed a transfer of their own in former Kent State Golden Flash Marquez Cooper. While physically different than Steele who stands six-foot-two and weighs 225 lbs. to Cooper’s five-foot-eight, 189 lbs., Cooper is a workhorse back in his own right with 285 carries last season for 1,326 yards and 13 rushing scores.

BSU’s new-look wide receiving corps will replace multiple graduates with a couple of transfers and some returning options. Former Colorado Buffalo Ty Robinson brings SEC size at six-foot-three and JUCO transfer Malcom Gillie has two all-conference nods to his name,. while Qian Magwood is a young player with some developing play-making ability.

Look for this matchup to be interesting as Kentucky is breaking in a few new starters at cornerback.

Blocking things up for Hatcher and company will be an offensive line that returns three all-conference caliber options in center Ethan Crowe, right tackle Damon Kaylor and left tackle Corey Stewart. Look for Kentucky to test the guards early as left guard John Mucciola transfers in from Sacred Heart (FCS) for his first FBS start while redshirt freshman Taran Tyo makes his first career start.

The Cardinals will trot out a 3-4 base defense the known strength of which heading into the 2023 campaign is the front seven with several established players.

DE Tavion Woodard is an all-conference caliber player in his prime with good size at six-foot-four and 260 lbs.

The heart of the defense is the linebacking corps led by inside linebackers Clayton Coll and Cole Pearce who combined for 195 tackles and seven sacks last year. Coll finished on the second-team all-MAC squad last season, with a 110 tackles, 7.5 tackles-for-loss, two sacks and two forced fumbles.

Woodard and Cole were banged up a bit in camp and are a game week decision for the game versus UK.

On the back end of the defense, the Cardinals did lose three players to the NFL but return a core group of defensive backs led by safety Jordan Riley. The 2022 third-team All-MAC performer is adept against the run and pass finishing with 97 stops and 12 passes defensed last year.

Getting to know the Wildcats

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 31 TransPerfect Music City Bowl Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Head coach Mark Stoops returns for his 11th season at UK, with a 66-59 all-time record.

The Wildcats are coming off a season where they featured one of the nation’s best defenses, surrendering just 19.2 points per game in the SEC while scoring just over 20 per contest on offense, which ranked 111th in the nation.

The Wildcats made some big changes, especially on offense, which we will examine first.

In 2021, the Wildcats were one of the FBS’ better scoring offenses, ranking 38th with just under 32 points a game on average. Offensive coordinator Liam Coen departed to the L.A. Rams in 2022 to assume the same role and the offensive scoring per game regressed to 111th nationally without Coen.

Coen returns in 2023 as offensive coordinator at UK and has a talented new quarterback to lead his group.

Despite the 2022 overall offensive struggles, the Wildcats said goodbye to their starting quarterback Will Levis who was drafted by the Tennessee Titans with the 33rd overall pick of the NFL Draft.

UK hit the portal for a replacement for Levis and signed one of the better quarterback prospects in NC State transfer Devin Leary. The Wildcats’ new leader did miss the majority of 2022 with a torn pectoral but looks fully recovered for the season opener. Leary is an experienced signal caller with 27 career starts under his belt, and had a reputation for torching ACC competition in 2021 by completing 66 percent of his passes for over 3,500 yards and a sparkling touchdown to interception ratio of 35:5.

Like BSU’s Hatcher, Leary has been primarily a pocket passer so far but can move around the pocket to avoid danger and make plays.

Leary will have plenty of options in the passing game with the budding wide receiver and tight end groups.

The Wildcats boast an up-and-coming trio in Barion Brown, Tayvion Robinson, and Dane Key who hauled in a combined 127 passes and 13 scores last year.

Kentucky may go as many as four deep at tight end with Jordan Dingle leading the group in catches with 20 last year. Senior Izayah Cummings returns healthy for 2023 and flourished under Coen in 2021.

On the ground, the Wildcats got their man to tote the rock in Vanderbilt transfer Ray Davis, an experienced option who eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark in 2022. Kentucky hasn’t featured its running backs in the passing game in the last few years, but Davis is a reliable option with 61 catches and five touchdowns.

Where Ball State may find some advantages at times is its established front seven versus UK’s offensive line. The Wildcats shuffled the deck for 2023 after finishing 126 in sacks allowed and 107th in rushing yards nationally last season.

BSU will be familiar with the UK’s new left tackle Marques Cox, who started for Northern Illinois before picking up an injury during the campaign and transferring out in the offseason.

Heading into the season, the right tackle looks to be an open competition with two or three options possible at the position.

Kentucky’s defense the past few years has essentially been a brick wall under defensive coordinator Brad White, where his scoring defense ranked 26th in 2021 and 13th in 2022.

Kentucky returns the majority of those players from the 2022 squad and looks to pick up where it left off.

UK plays what can be described as a base 3-4 with multiple fronts where the fourth linebacker may resemble in stature more of a hybrid linebacker/safety or an SEC-sized linebacker with Alex Afari checking in at six-foot-two, 214 lbs. while Keaton Wade is a six-foot-five and 250 lbs.

The defensive line is led by sophomore phenom Deone Walker, who will make it tough on the running game for BSU. Walker was named first team Freshman All-American (CFN) for his performance last season which is just one of his many accolades from his first season. At six-foot-six and 346 lbs. he is a force with quickness and athleticism in short distances uncommon for his size.

At the second level, the Wildcats feature JJ Walker at linebacker, who has increased his production year, with a total of 120 stops and ten career sacks.

The Wildcats will be breaking in a few new starters on the back end at cornerback. Andru Phillips comes in with some spot starts last year while Maxwell Hairston will be getting his first start.


While Ball State has added some important playmakers to its returning core and may develop into one of the MACs better offenses in 2023, Kentucky’s defense is a tough assignment for any school in the FBS.

The Cardinals may find some success with its front seven against the reorganized UK o-line but ultimately Wildcats QB Devin Leary and RB Ray Davis will find a way to get it done.

Kentucky 45-13.