BY MICK TIDROW | Sports Link GameDay TV Host | SL Radio on WCRD Sideline Reporter
Ball State Football (2-3, 0-1) seeks its first win in conference play when they head to Infocision Stadium at Akron (2-3, 1-0) Saturday.
Last week, Ball State fell at the hands of Western Michigan, 55-3, on the road to open conference play.
Saturday marks the first time the Cardinals have played the Zips in Akron since 2013, and just the fourth trip to Akron since 2000 to face the MAC East opponent.
The all-time series between the two teams stands at 11-11-1, with Ball State holding a 6-4 advantage in Akron with wins in the last two meetings on the road. However, Akron pulled off a 35-25 victory last season in Munice to snap Ball State’s five game winning streak over the Zips.
A win for Ball State snaps a five-game road losing streak dating back to last October and gives the Cardinals a three-game winning streak in Akron.
On the road for the third straight week, Ball State takes its bye week after Saturday’s contest, before returning to Muncie for homecoming against Central Michigan.
1. Freshman Standout
In the college football spectrum, many times freshmen are counted on to make an immediate impact.
While each team is unique in how it handles their play of the newest members of the team, Ball State has opened its arms to Justin Hall. The wide receiver from Douglasville, Ga., has responded with authority.
The 5-foot-9 wideout has burst onto the scene to lead all freshmen in the nation in receptions (35) and receiving yards (431). Among all qualified receivers in the county, Hall ranks 24th in yards.
It has been a season of consistency from the freshman. Hall has led the team in receptions and receiving yards in each of the last four weeks for the Cardinals. It includes season-highs against Western Michigan with 13 catches and 121 yards.
Head Coach Mike Neu has Hall to turn to at any point in the game to make a play, and the freshman has taken the chance in stride with injuries hitting the receiving core.
2. Offensive Tempo
The no-huddle offense has picked up the pace in recent years in college football, and Ball State has turned away from the trend with a slow, methodical, and pro-style offense.
The difference is heavily noticeable from even a year ago. Through the first five games, the Cardinals have manufactured six touchdown drives of at least five minutes. In its entirety of last year, the Cardinals put together five such drives in 12 games.
Much of this has to do with the effectiveness of the run game. With James Gilbert (currently injured), Malik Dunner and Caleb Huntley, the Cardinals have the blessing of controlling the clock with dominating running backs.
Both Dunner and Huntley average nearly five yards per carry entering Saturday, while Dunner has five total touchdowns this year. Huntley muscles his way through defense with pure force, logging three scores on the season and a team-high 265 rushing yards.
Akron will see both of the backs early and often Saturday.
3. Sack Attack
One of the biggest bright spots this season for Ball State has been its pass rush. Led by star defensive end Anthony Winbush, the Cardinals lead the MAC in sacks with 15 on the season. Winbush continues to pour in gaudy numbers, leading the nation with 7.5 sacks. No other player has more than six across America.
It comes as nothing new for the Cardinals, the push rush has been effective. Last season the defense racked up 31 sacks, which ranked second in the conference. Winbush was the spark plug then too, leading the team with 8.5.
But the way Ball State has been able to get to the quarterback this year has come in a variety of ways. Out of the 15 quarterback takedowns this year, 3.5 have come from defensive backs on blitz’s. Offensive lines each week have to prepare for the different blitz packages from Ball State because of the ability of the corners to break off the edge.
Thomas Woodson, Akron’s senior quarterback, found a way to beat the rush last season in the 10-point victory for the Zips. He dodged the Cardinals defense all game, not going down once. In large part, his ability to stay away from the pass rush helped fuel a 28-point second half.
Expect Woodson to be on the run Saturday to avoid the Ball State tenacious defense off the edges.
4. Akron Inconsistency
The season started at Penn State for Akron, and the Nittany Lions eased their way into a 52-0 victory.
The Zips bounced back to score 52 of their own in a 52-3 win vs. Arkansas Pine Bluff before dropping their next two games by a combined score of 63-31. Then came MAC play and a one-point victory over Bowling Green to set up action against the Cardinals.
Akron has not seen the best from the aforementioned quarterback in Woodson, but as Ball State saw a year ago, he has the potential to spark an offense at will.
The senior has dropped five touchdown passes in five games, but has thrown six interceptions. The ability of Woodson to use his legs has been a major part of his game in his career, but this season defenses have set their sites on the quarterback. Woodson holds -15 net rushing yards due to taking a total of 11 sacks.
A game without the legs of Woodson gives Ball State defense time to press the offensive line. Which in turn leads to more chances for Winbush and the conference’s best pass rushing defense to rush and help the Cardinals snag their first win in conference play.