BY MICK TIDROW | Sports Link GameDay TV Host | SL Radio on WCRD Sideline Reporter
Put non-conference play in the rearview mirror. Ball State Football has its full attention on Mid-American Conference action Saturday at Western Michigan (2-2).
To end the slate of non-conference games, the Cardinals (2-2) dropped a heartbreaker at Western Kentucky last Saturday, 33-21.
However, Ball State held a 21-20 lead with five minutes before the Hilltoppers’ comeback. In the second loss of the season, the defense had shining moments, including interceptions by Damon Singelton and Bryce Cosby.
The loss places the Cardinals at .500 for the second time this season entering their first MAC game against the Broncos.
Western Michigan finished non-conference play with two wins, beating Idaho (37-28) and Wagner (49-14). Both of its losses came against Power Five teams, starting on opening weekend with a 49-31 loss at USC, before traveling to Michigan State and falling to the Spartans, 28-14.
In the all-time series between the two teams, the Broncos lead 24-19, winners of the past three games. Western Michigan holds a 13-8 advantage at home. Ball State looks to avenge last season where it dropped all five games to MAC West opponents.
1. Off on the right foot
The old adage goes: once conference play rolls around, it is a brand new season. Ball State finds themselves in a unique situation.
The Cardinals are on the road to open conference play for the first time since 2014 when they traveled to Toledo. A win on the road snaps a three-game MAC opener losing streak.
Ball State faces one of the toughest teams in the MAC in recent years in Western Michigan. The Broncos are 31-13 since the start of the 2014 season, including a pair of 8-5 seasons before the breakout 2016 season of a 13-1 mark.
2. Trust the Milas touch
When Riley Neal was unable to go against Western Kentucky last week, fifth-year senior and former starter Jack Milas took over the reins at quarterback.
Milas tossed for 267 yards and placed several deep balls on target in the 33-21 loss. He is set to get the nod again this week against the Broncos, who he started for last year in place of Neal — also against Western Michigan.
For Milas and company, they face a defense that has allowed at least 28 points in three of their first four games. The Broncos have registered 10 sacks this season compared to Ball State’s 15.
With pressure up front from the Broncos pass rush, Ball State can turn to the running game. This in turn can open play action later in the game for Milas, giving the Cardinals a chance to open the Broncos defense.
3. Turnover at Western Michigan … but many familiar faces
Row the Boat has moved on from Western Michigan to Minnesota with former Broncos Head Coach PJ Fleck. Fleck orchestrated the team to a 13-0 regular season record before a Cotton Bowl loss to Wisconsin, 24-16. It ended an era, but it also paved the way for Western Michigan to see opponents such as USC and Michigan State this season.
However, even with a new coach and quarterback, there are many pieces back from a year ago set to make an impact in MAC play.
One of the major impact returns is running back Jarvion Franklin. The senior rushed 19 times of 109 yards against the Cardinals a year ago, capping the day off with two touchdown runs.
This season, the Broncos have used junior Jamauri Bogan and sophomore LeVante Bellamy, keeping Franklin and the rotation fresh. All three rushers have accumulated at least 200 yards on the season.
4. Ball State pass rush … and run defense
Attempting to start 1-0 in the MAC, one of the greatest strengths Ball State possesses is its pass rush and run defense — two areas on the defensive end the Cardinals can make an immediate impact from the first snap of the game against the Broncos.
Ball State is 9-0 in its last nine games after allowing less than 100 yards rushing in its previous game. After Western Kentucky ran for only 52 yards last week, the Cardinals have a test with the trio of Bronco backs.
It also helps the Cardinals they sit fourth in the country in team sacks (15), trailing just Michigan, Clemson and Old Dominion. Some good company.
Senior Anthony Winbush stands alone at the top of the sack leaderboard in the country with 7.5. Charles Wright from Vanderbilt is second with 6.0 on the year.
Pass rush and run defense. Ball State has proved it can win in the trenches on defense. Saturday will be yet another tough battle against this Western Michigan team which has allowed seven sacks all year.