The Ball State Cardinals (1-3) head to Kalamazoo to take on the Western Michigan Broncos (1-3) on Saturday in a game that looks like it might decide the bottom of the MAC West. Both teams enter with their sole wins against FCS teams. Outside of FCS games, both teams have been both overmatched and overwhelmed.
Western Michigan opened with a home win against Saint Francis, got their doors blown off against Syracuse, gave up 41 points to a terrible Iowa offense and couldn’t hold a lead against Toledo. They gave Toledo short fields in the second half and the Rockets turned that into 49 points.
Ball State lost by 30 to Kentucky to open the season, lost to the two-time defending champions Georgia 45-3, beat Indiana State convincingly and never got the offense in gear against Georgia Southern. The Cardinals lost 40-3 with 197 yards of offense and two turnovers.
Both teams come into the game on Saturday thinking this is a game they have to have for their season to go the way they want it to. So what separates these teams? Let’s take a look at what should be a close game.
- Time and date: Saturday, September 30th, 2023 at 3:30 p.m. Eastern time
- Network: ESPN+ (A valid subscription is required.)
- Location: Waldo Stadium in Kalamazoo, Michigan
- Gambling considerations: Western Michigan is favored by 1 point and the over/under is set at 51.5, per DraftKings Sportsbook.
- All-time series: Western Michigan leads the all-time series 27-22, including six of the last nine.
- Last meeting: Western Michigan won the 2022 game 37-30 in Muncie on a 60-yard touchdown run by Sean Tyler.
When Ball State has the ball:
The first five games have not gone well for the Ball State offense. True freshman quarterback Kadin Semonza had some of the worst interception luck I’ve ever seen.
On the season, Semonza has thrown five interceptions and not all of them have been this flukey. They have come in bunches, three against Georgia and two against Georgia Southern, so ball security is an area for improvement for this freshman. (Or maybe Semonza specifically has terrors against Georgia-based teams.)
One player that the Cardinals really hope they can get going is running back Marquez Cooper. He transferred out of Kent State after Sean Lewis left to be the offensive coordinator for Colorado, and Ball State scooped him up. Kentucky’s and Georgia’s defensive fronts are a pair of the most physical in the SEC and the nation, but 27 carries for 41 yards is not what they wanted.
To Cooper’s and the offense’s credit, when they could take advantage of a lesser opponent, he exploded for 177 yards with an eight-yards-per-carry average. The next week against Georgia Southern —notably not an SEC defensive line— he was limited to 16 yards on nine carries. The Western Michigan front seven has been pushed around two weeks in a row and is a great chance for Cooper to get loose.
Havoc rate isn’t an opponent-adjusted stat, but Western Michigan should be able to create problems for the Cardinals. The Broncos create a havoc play (basically any defensive play resulting in no gain, a loss or a turnover) at a top-20 rate, and Ball State has been susceptible to them. The Broncos have had a hard time making them stick and getting off the field.
The Cardinals have largely avoided the sacks this season, but pressure may factor in the five interceptions. Western Michigan has not generated pressure frequently enough but has gotten into the passing lanes. The Broncos have intercepted two passes in each of the last two games.
On the flip side, WMU has given up big passes at the highest rate in the nation. Ball State hasn’t shown they are equipped to take advantage, but all it takes is one big touchdown pass to change the game.
Outside of Marquez Cooper, Rico Barfield has 13 rushes for 34 yards and five catches for 72 yards out of the backfield. Pass catching backs aren’t common in the MAC so that could give the Broncos some trouble. Qian Magwood leads the Cardinals in receiving yards and is tied with tight end Tanner Koziol for the lead in receptions. They have missed their regular tight end Brady Hunt who hasn’t appeared this season due to injury. It’s unclear when he will return.
Safety Tate Hallock has asserted himself as one of the best players on the WMU defense. He leads the team in interceptions, pass breakups and tackles. He had both of his interceptions last week against Toledo. Keni-H Lovely also had a career game against Toledo last week, with five tackles, a pass break-up, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery touchdown. He’ll be a bright note for a defense with few of those.
The front seven has had a difficult time forcing opponents to pass and when they do, they’ve struggled to generate pressure. Defensive end Marshawn Kneeland missed the Toledo game while he recovers from a late injury at Iowa. That’s a significant hole to fill on the defensive line.
When Western Michigan has the ball:
I’m not saying that Western Michigan’s offensive line and run game is on the same level as the opponents Ball State has faced, but the Broncos have been productive and there is a lot of tape that shows the Broncos what to attack.
Jalen Buckley has been the offensive star on this WMU squad and leads the MAC in rushing yards. He’s sixth in the nation with 501 yards and four touchdowns and generally doesn’t go backward or side to side. He’s a downhill runner who shoots through gaps and can slip by linebackers if they don’t get to their run assignments. Ball State has allowed opponents consistent yardage against the run through four games. The leader of the Ball State defense, linebacker Clayton Coll, left their first game and the emotions displayed suggest his return is not imminent.
Jalen Buckley is set for another big day.
Western Michigan has run the ball at the sixth-highest rate in the nation. Only the service academies, West Virginia and Jacksonville State rush the ball at a higher rate. It’s what works for the Broncos and they’ve done a good enough job to limit the negative plays. Ball State has struggled to create negative plays against FBS opponents and might struggle to knock Western off schedule.
If the Cardinals can force WMU into passing situations, the Broncos are one of the least efficient teams in the nation. That is when the Broncos hit their big passes, but Ball State keeps teams in front of them through the air. It’s been far from a good season for the Cardinals in any phase, but they aren’t getting hit for big plays repeatedly. Their relative strength is in the pass defense, although teams have tested that this season. Teams have thrown on them at the 13th highest rate in the nation. Western Michigan will not do that.
The numbers paint a picture that says WMU has a great chance to be consistently productive if they stick to their bread and butter and don’t get cute. Throwing the ball in general has been a bit of a problem and when they asked a running back to do it, it got worse.
Treyson Bourguet has won the starting job and his stat line isn’t that different than Semonza’s, except the turnovers. Bourguet has taken care of the ball and doesn’t force the ball to receivers often. Receiver Kenneth Womack and tight end Austin Hence are the usual targets, but the big-play receiver is Anthony Sambucci. I don’t have an explanation for it, but defenses tend to lose him in space in the secondary.
Tyler Potts and Jordan Riley have been breaking up passes for the Cardinal’s secondary, and in Potts’ case intercepting them. Linebacker Sidney Houston Jr. doesn’t lead the team in tackles but he does make the most impactful tackles. He has 4.5 tackles for loss this season including 2.5 sacks.
This is a close game, and there isn’t an obvious edge for either team. They are probably going to find ways to score points on defenses that are down this year. That assumes that both offensive units get out of their own way and that’s not a guarantee. Semonza will throw and interception and the Broncos turned the ball over four times against Toledo.
Turnovers and penalties will be a huge factor on Saturday as both can kill drives. I think the Broncos are going to adjust from their loss on the road to Toledo and at least take care of the ball. Ball State has struggled with every FBS team they’ve played. I think Western Michigan will find a way to get the win in Waldo Stadium.
Ball State 27
Western Michigan 30