Ball State will welcome MAC West foe Toledo to Muncie on Saturday in a battle of the divisions top two teams.
Entering week five of the college football season, Ball State (2-2, 1-0) leads the MAC West. The Cardinals are improving offensively and are on the upswing after an inspiring performance against nationally ranked Northwestern and its top-ranked scoring defense.
Toledo (3-0, 0-0) comes into Muncie hot off a 30-point win over slumping Arkansas State. The Rockets are performing heroically thus far, defeating two Power-5 opponents and Arkansas State en route to a perfect 3-0 start. After standing in the rain watching their first game of the year against Stony Brook getting soaked and cancelled, Head Coach Matt Campbell and the Toledo football team walked into Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium during week two and took care of business against ranked SEC bully Arkansas. Following the upset, Toledo faced off with Big 12 member Iowa State at home, and came away with a thrilling double-overtime victory before mashing the Redwolves in week four.
Offensively, Toledo's output has come in the form of its rushing attack. Junior tailback Kareem Hunt is commonly known as one of the midwest's best running backs, but was suspended for the first two games of the season due to a violation of team rules. In his absence, Damion Jones-Moore and Terry Swanson carried the load coming out of the Rocket's backfield. The two backs have accounted for 234 yards and five scores through the first three games. Kareem Hunt was able to play against Iowa State, and carried 24 times for 129 yards before upsetting his hamstring. He did not play against Arkansas State. His status for the game against Ball State is questionable due to the lingering hamstring injury.
Toledo's offense is led by Phillip Ely, whose completion percentage hovers around 50%. This isn't the most impressive by any means, but the passing game hasn't been counted on. When Ely has been on, he's found his talented receivers in open space, making way for the advancement of the rushing attack.
On the outside, the Rockets offense features playmaking wide receivers. Corey Jones leads the team in receptions with 17, but the bigger threat to the Ball State secondary may come from Cody Thompson, who's averaging 20.5 yards per catch. The speedster may prove to be a difficult match for the more-physical Ball State safeties to provide help on.
Toledo's defense has been better of late. The Rockets are 79th in the FBS, allowing 402 yards per game, but only allowing opponents to score an average of 14 points. Senior defensive tackle Orion Jones has been the man causing the havoc for opponents of Matt Campbell's bunch. Jones has five sacks this season, tying him with eight other players for 6th in the nation. The Toledo defense has ten sacks in total, placing them second in the MAC behind Kent State.
Not a whole lot has changed for the Ball State offense since falling to Northwestern. The BSU assault didn't crumble against (at the time) the nation's leading defense. Quarterback Riley Neal threw for 178 yards and two scores. Neal's only negative statistic? Twenty one incompletions. The ground game helped the completion percentage by racking up 181 yards, including 74 from Neal himself. Darian Green and James Gilbert looked comfortable against a strong defense when they had room to run. Wide receiver Jordan Williams looked impressive against Northwestern. Williams caught eight passes for 133 yards and two touchdowns. At times, it looked as if Riley Neal was throwing to Williams or throwing to nobody. This tunnel vision may work out at times due to the athleticism and catching ability of #8, but this can't develop into a habit of the young quarterback.
Looking forward, we all have the same question about the Ball State defense. When are the Cardinals going to stop giving up long pass plays? VMI, Texas A&M, and Northwestern all beat the Ball State secondary with deep passes for scores. Against Northwestern, it was the middle of the field that saw Wildcat receivers wide open. In either one or two safety looks, the secondary was unable to contain the streaking pass-catchers. BSU ranks 116th out of the 127 FBS teams in passing defense, allowing 282.2 yards per game. This is something that must improve before further conference play, including this weekend.
Against the run the Cardinals haven't been as bad. Yes, BSU allowed 290 yards on the ground against Northwestern, but the defense didn't allow the breakaway plays for long scores. When all is said and done, the defense must improve heading into the heart of a MAC schedule that includes multiple rushers that are more than talented. A potent rushing crew from Toledo, even if Kareem Hunt isn't 100%, isn't an easy place to start.
Over the past ten seasons, the series between Ball State and Toledo has been split 5-5. In its last five appearances at Scheumann Stadium, the game has gone the Rocket's way three times, although Ball State got the better of the matchup in it's most recent meeting at The Scheu, winning 31-24 in 2013.
Saturday's Homecoming game is scheduled to kick off at 3:00pm EST, and will be broadcast on ESPN3.