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2016 MAC Football Preview: Ball State Cardinals vs. Miami RedHawks

Bowl eligibility and a potential MAC East title are on the line in Oxford Tuesday.

NCAA Football: Central Michigan at Miami (Ohio) Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami RedHawks (5-6, 5-2 MAC) can complete the process on in Oxford Tuesday night as they host the Ball State Cardinals (4-7, 1-6 MAC) coming off of 10 days of rest while the Cards had six days to prepare for the newly christened Redbird Rivalry. Miami can lock up a bowl bid with a win and, with a Ohio loss to Akron, can clinch a MAC East championship for the first time since the 2010 when they won the MAC.

The RedHawks will have their hands full as Ball State boasts one of the best running backs in the MAC in James Gilbert, who has 1,215 yards and 12 touchdowns on 233 carries this season. Riley Neal has been anything but the “real deal” this year as he has thrown for 2,353 yards, 12 TDs, and 11 interceptions on a completion percentage of 61.1%. A possible X factor in this game could be Ke’Vonn Mabon with not only his receiving skills (74 receptions, 850 yards, two scores), but also as a threat in the wildcat with 12 rushes for 64 yards and a touchdown.

Defense has been a struggle for the Cardinals as they are last in the league in pass defense, scoring defense, and total defense in MAC games. Despite that, Sean Wiggins has the second-most tackles in conference play with 74 and fellow linebacker Aaron Taylor has made some plays as well with 8.5 tackles for loss in that span. Marc Walton can wreak some havoc on Miami’s offense as he has three INTs so far this season.

The ‘Hawks, winners of five straight games, have been picked up on offense since Gus Ragland has taken command of the quarterback job, with 1,124 total yards, 14 total scores, no interceptions, and is the third-most efficient QB in the MAC behind Logan Woodside and Zach Terrell. Ragland also had help from a strong running game, which had 200+ yard rushing performances in each of the last four games. The Red and White also have a number of targets to go to through the air with receivers James Gardner and Jared Murphy accounting for 71 catches, 1,068 yards, and 10 scores while tight end Ryan Smith has made some plays with 23 receptions for 265 yards and four TDs.

Miami’s defense has been an absolute force this season as it is first in the MAC in total defense, second in run defense, and third in scoring defense in league play. The ‘Hawks has had some strong play up front as J.T. Jones and Austin Gearing have accounted for eight sacks in MAC games, while De’Andre Montgomery has been a beast in the back end with four picks, six pass break-ups, and a defensive TD against Buffalo.

For Ball State to pull off the upset, the Cardinals have to get pressure on Ragland; he has the lowest sack rate among Miami QBs this season so getting him off schedule and into bad down-and-distances would be huge for the Cards. Offensively, Neal has to deliver the goods and make big-time passes under the lights against a great defense in order to come out of Oxford with the win.

The RedHawks can continue their incredible run if they’re able to take Gilbert away and make Ball State one-dimensional on offense. The Red and White need to be able to run the ball as well with as much trouble as BSU’s defense has had in stopping the run and #BigGameGus has to continue to manage the game well to put the team in the best position to win. With a bowl bid, a possible MAC Championship trip, and history all on the line, look for Chuck Martin’s group to play as hard as they have all season Tuesday night.