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2023 MAC Football Week 3 Game Preview: Ball State Cardinals vs. Indiana State Sycamores

The Sycamores have had bragging rights over the last nine years. Now they seek to keep the Victory Bell against Ball State.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 05 North Dakota at Indiana State Photo by David Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Ball State Cardinals (0-2) limp home after two humbling experiences in SEC country, but they’ll have to be on their guard, as they’re set to take on a motivated Indiana State Sycamores (0-2) who will be looking to prove themselves after two tough losses of their own to start the season.

This is an extremely rare FCS/FBS trophy game, with just three contests played in this rivalry since the turn of the millenium. In the last contest between these two teams, the Sycamores took home the Blue Key Victory Bell for the first time since 1987 with a one-score upset of the Cardinals in Muncie. It was the first time since 2003 the teams had met, and it allowed ISU to carry bragging rights over the last nine seasons.

Now, these two teams will take to Scheumann Stadium to seek their first win of the 2023 campaign against one another— and add another chapter to this rivalry’s books.

Game notes

  • Time and date: Saturday, September 16th, 2023 at 2 p.m. Eastern time
  • Network: ESPN+ (A valid subscription is required.)
  • Location: Scheumann Stadium in Muncie, Indiana
  • Gambling considerations: N/A
  • All-time series: Ball State leads the overall series 38-24-1 all-time.
  • Last meeting: Indiana State was aggressive early and had a late defensive stand to upset Ball State 27-20 in 2014.

Getting to know the Cardinals

Ball State v Georgia Photo by Brandon Sloter/Image Of Sport/Getty Images

The Cardinals are a hard team to get a grasp of, given the strength of the opponents they’ve played. They were a squad who hovered around .500 last season, but when your first two matches are against Kentucky and Georgia, you’re not really learning a lot about their current make-up.

What we can gather is that true freshman Kaiden Semonza has won the starting QB job after a handful of decent performances. Semonza is currently sitting at 22-of-37 for 220 yards and a touchdown against two SEC opponents, with a perfectly understandable three interceptions. This has certainly been much better than Texas State transfer Layne Hatcher (who was reduced to clean up duty vs. Georgia after being declared the Week 1 starter early) and Kiael Kelly (2-of-6, 33 yards).

Ty Robinson has been the most reliable receiver so far for the Cards, with 111 yards and a score on six receptions, while tight end Tanner Koziol (11 catches for 90 yards) has been a lovely security blanket. Brady Hunt, the bigger receiving threat at tight end, is still dealing with a leg injury suffered prior to the start of the season.

Marquez Cooper, the Kent State transfer running back, looked fairly human against Kentucky and Georgia, with 41 net yards on 27 carries. He should be able to look closer to his all-MAC form against a less-than-stellar Sycamore defense. Kiael Kelly will also get run looks when he’s in at QB.

This will be the first chance for a pretty banged-up defense to shine after facing two strong offenses to start the year. The Cardinals are going to be without tackling machine Clayton Coll, who suffered a serious ankle injury vs. Kentucky. Coll was a vital part of the defense in 2022, with 110 tackles, seven tackles-for-loss, two sacks, four passes defensed and two forced fumbles.

In his stead is safety convert Keionte Newsom, who has collected eight tackles and a forced fumble so far this season. Sidney Houston Jr. has been the team’s dynamo so far, with three tackles-for-loss and a sack to go with seven tackles. Tyler “Red” Potts has the lone interception and will be a starter at one outside corner spot for the Cards.

This week will serve as a potential proof of concept for Ball State; if they handle ISU just fine, they will figure to be at about last season’s pace. If it’s a little dicier, it could prove to raise questions about their long-term projection.

Getting to know the Sycamores

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 22 Illinois State at Indiana State Photo by David Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Sycamores are coming off two shellackings at the hands of Eastern Illinois (who lost to Bowling Green last week) and Indiana in what looks to be rebuilding year from the outside. This game will be the second leg of a three-week road trip for ISU, and they’re hoping for a good showing against their final FBS team of the slate.

This is a team who traditionally wins when they get off to a fast start. They’re 14-8 when scoring first in a game, 14-1 when leading at the half and 16-8 when outgaining opponents on the ground since 2017. For the Sycamores to have a chance in this one, they’ll need to establish the pace of the game quickly and with aplomb.

The offense is a work-in-progress, with a third-down conversion rate of just over 26 percent, while allowing seven sacks in the young season so far. Add in four fumbles (one loss), and it’s clear they’ll be looking to stick to the fundamentals.

Slated starter Gavin Screws is 13-of-26 for 116 yards and two interceptions, with backup QB Evan Olaes not faring much better in the air, going 2-of-11 for 21 yards and three interceptions. Olaes does offer more of a rushing threat as compared to Screws, with 76 yards on 21 carries to lead the Sycamore attack. They have three backs who get about even carries, with Korbin Allen, Tee Hodges and Justin Dinka all in the rotation.

Dakota Caton (eight receptions, 76 yards) seems to be the most reliable option downfield, with nearly double the receptions and yards of Harry van Dyne, the next-leading receiver. They’ll be hoping for more contributors to pop out of the woodwork in order to pull off the upset.

Defensively, this is a unit stripped down to the studs. They’ve allowed an incredible 17-of-28 third-down conversions, while also giving up 34 points and 448 yards per game. (It’s not all bad; they’ve also stopped all three fourth-down attempts against them!)

Maddix Blackwell is the lone bright spot on the unit, as the nickelback/safety has been on the FCS’ best defensive prospects so far in 2023, leading the NCAA in tackles (20), tackles per game (10.0), and solo tackles per game (5.5). He also holds the lone interception and fumble recovery for ISU, accounting for their entire turnover margin.

The Sycamores have five players with at least one tackle-for-loss so far, with linebackers Jarin Jackson and Garrett Ollendieck both notching theirs against Indiana, with Ollendieck also picking up four tackles against the Big Ten foe.

It’ll be a tough game for ISU to try and keep the trophy. They’re going to have to play a perfect game in order to pull off this upset bid, and they’ve done nothing so far to prove that. If anything, they’re hoping to find contributors to help them down the line in conference play. Any highlight performances here could go a long way to deciding their future looks.