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2023 MAC Football Week 4 Game Preview: Ball State Cardinals vs. Georgia Southern Eagles

The Eagles’ high-flying offense faces off against a Ball State defense which found renewed vigor last week.

NCAA Football: Georgia Southern at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Game notes

  • Time and date: Saturday, September 23rd, 2023 at 2 p.m. Eastern time
  • Network: ESPN+ (A valid subscription is required.)
  • Location: Scheumann Stadium in Muncie, Indiana
  • Gambling considerations: Georgia Southern is a 6.5-point road favorite, with an over/under of 60.5, per DraftKings.
  • All-time series: Georgia Southern has won the only match-up between the two teams.
  • Last meeting: As mentioned prior, Georgia Southern won the Battle of the Birds in September 2022 by a final score of 34-23.

Getting to know the Cardinals

NCAA Football: Ball State at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Cardinals took care of business and got on the left side of the record column with a through dismantling of a woebegone Indiana State squad last week.

In the effort, running back Marquez Cooper was finally able to unleash his talent after two brutal matchups to start the season, tallying 177 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries, pacing the Cardinals offense on the day. The former Kent State Golden Flash, who was a first-team all-MAC performer last season, will be the player to key in on for Ball State as an X-factor, given his talent. Rico Barfield (14 carries, 72 yards, one touchdown; four catches, 38 yards, one score) will rotate with Cooper, serving as a passing-down back.

The Cards will lean on Cooper and the run game while true freshman Kadin Semonza (39-of-59 for 357 yards, three touchdowns, three interceptions) settles in at the quarterback position. Semonza’s rise has been a pleasant surprise, as the frosh beat out both Texas State transfer Layne Hatcher and incumbent returnee Kiael Kelly to earn the job vs. Georgia.

Tanner Koziol is the security blanket for the offense at tight end, hauling in 18 catches for 150 yards and a touchdown. Fellow tight end Brady Hunt (46 rec., 498 yards, five touchdowns in 2022) is listed on the depth chart, but will be questionable for the contest after suffering a leg injury prior to the start of the season. If he can play, he’s the best receiver on the team. In the receiver room, Quian Magwood is the possession threat on the outside, leading the team with 12 receptions for 84 yards. Nick Presley and Malcolm Gillie (six combined receptions in 2022) are the other listed starters this week.

Defensively, they’re still missing their leader in linebacker Clayton Coll. Keionte Newsome converted from safety to linebacker to make up the numbers and compliment Cole Pearce (13 tackles, one tackle-for-loss) in the middle of the field. Newsom has been ferocious in that role, with 16 tackles, a pass break-up, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a defensive touchdown. Sidney Houston is the team’s best pass-rusher, collecting four tackles-for-loss and two sacks from the EDGE position.

In the secondary, Tyler “Red” Potts holds two of Ball State’s interceptions and also has two pass break-ups. He and fellow corner Damion Charity (nine tackles, pass break-up) will have a busy day against a GASO team who likes to toss the ball around. Safeties Aljareek Malry (10 tackles, interception) and Jordan Riley (four tackles, two pass break-ups) will help provide coverage as well. This will be the unit to look out for due to the match-up.

Getting to know the Eagles

NCAA Football: Georgia Southern at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

This ain’t your daddy’s Eagles.

Georgia Southern made their reputation on the triple-option, running the look to several national titles and dominance in their conference at the FCS level prior to their joining the Sun Belt— where they continued to find success. Legendary option-based coaches Paul Johnson, Jeff Monken and Willie Fritz all got their starts at GASO, cementing the Eagles as a unique staple in the college football landscape, as one of the few non-service academies to run the old-fashioned offense.

That came to a screeching halt in 2022, as the Eagles shockingly hired former USC coach Clay Helton, whose high-flying offense was the diametric opposite of everything GASO had done up to that point (outside of a disastrous Brian VanGorder tenure in the mid-1980s.)

There was some initial skepticism that the Helton experiment would work, and it did have its growing pains in 2022, but the team still finished 6-6 in the regular season, earning a Camellia Bowl bid.

Georgia Southern’s new clothes fit them well; they’re 12th in the NCAA in passing offense, with exactly 1,000 yards and six touchdowns on 103-of-140 passing (73 percent)— though it should be noted they’ve also tossed seven interceptions.

Davis Brin leads the offense after the departure of former Buffalo QB Kyle Vantrease, with 945 yards on 98-of-135 passing with five touchdowns and seven interceptions. The Eagles have five receivers over 100 yards, with their leader Derwin Burgess Jr. up top of the charts with 22 recpeitons for 275 yards and two scores. Khaleb Hood (20 rec., 176 yards), Jjay McAfee (13 rec., 105 yards) and Anthony Quessley (12 rec., 113 yards) also each have a touchdown, while Dalen Cobb has 10 rec., 115 yards through the air and 24 yards on the ground.

The Eagles do utilize a two-back system, with Jalen White (34 rushes, 184 yards) and OJ Arnold (22 rushes, 166 yards) splitting the duties.

Defensively, this team utilizes a 4-2-5 defense, with linebacker Marques Watson-Trent averaging 10 yards per game thus far in 2023. He’ll be the highlight player for GASO after a 114-tackle campaign in 2022.

K-State transfer TJ Smith has the team’s one interception from the safety spot, while junior d-lineman Justin Rhodes leads the team with 3.5 tackles-for-loss. The team as a collective has struggled to contain opponents, garnering just two sacks as a unit. They’re 90th in total defense at present, with 380 yards allows per game on average and 10 touchdowns against, and especially struggle in defending the run, ranking 103rd in the country with 497 total yards and eight touchdowns against in just three games.

Overall, Georgia Southern will hope to score quickly and force three-and-outs or turnovers in order to get the victory. It’s been a tried and true method for them as the defense has struggled to play conventionally; they were 4-4 in 2022 in one-possession games, with the offense’s 32.7 points per game often carrying them to wins.