BY JACK KIZER | Ball State Sports Link
The Mid-American Conference season is swinging in to full-gear, and Ball State Football has already experienced the ups and downs of the MAC roller-coaster. After an impressive 52-24 thrashing of Kent State two weeks ago, the Cardinals lost 24-16 in a hard-fought battle against MAC-West favorite Northern Illinois last Saturday. Ball State now stands at 2-4 on the season and 1-1 in the MAC, setting up a crucial match-up this week at Central Michigan (1-5, 0-2 MAC). Here’s how the Cards can fly out of Mt. Pleasant with a W:
TAKE IT AWAY
The turnover battle is an essential component in every game, but it will have heightened importance on Saturday. On Ball State’s side, the new ‘3-4’ defensive scheme has paid dividends this season. Through six games, the Cards have forced nine turnovers (just 12 total in 2017). Outside Linebacker Ray Wilborn was in the right place at the right time last week because of the formation and took an interception down inside the five, which sparked a near Ball State fourth-quarter comeback. The takeaways have come at big points this season, and they’ll be needed against the Chippewas.
Fortunately for the Cardinals, Central Michigan leads the nation in interceptions thrown with 12. Sophomore Quarterback Tony Poljan started the year for Central and posted a line of two touchdowns and four interceptions. Midway through the third game of the season, CMU Head Coach John Bonamego made a change and turned to Junior Tommy Lazzaro. While Lazzaro has been explosive at times, he’s thrown eight interceptions (four last week vs Buffalo) and just four touchdowns. Lazzaro’s strength has instead been using his feet. In four games played, he leads the team with 272 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. If the Ball State defense can keep Lazzaro in the pocket and force him to make difficult throws, opportunities for takeaways will be there.
HAVE HALL ROLLING EARLY
Justin Hall is one of the most talented young receivers in the nation. Yet, Hall has gotten off to a slow start, ranking third on the team with 29 receptions for 241 yards and zero touchdowns halfway through the year. To put that in to perspective, he accumulated 78 receptions for over 800 yards and three touchdowns in his freshman season and was honored as a Freshman All-American. Opposing defenses know what Hall can do and have sent heavier coverage his way. This has benefited the likes of Riley Miller (504 yards) and Corey Lacanaria (330 yards), but Hall’s numbers have suffered. Even when he’s been open, Hall has dropped a few easy passes and finding a rhythm has been challenging.
In its first road game of the MAC season, Ball State will need Hall to be on his A-game…especially against a Central Michigan secondary allowing just 145 passing yards per contest (1st in the MAC). For the Cardinals’ aerial attack to function at a high level, Hall has to have a big presence. This starts with finding him early and setting the tone for the rest of the game.
POUND THE ROCK
You may find Central Michigan at the top of the list for pass defense, but the Chippewas are down near the bottom in stopping the run. CMU’s opponents average 205 yards/game on the ground. Ball State is one of the better teams in the conference running the football, collecting 183 yards/game. While running the football seemed to be Ball State’s offensive identity coming in to the year, the last three weeks have been quite the contrary. The Cardinals have passed on approximately 60 percent of their plays over the last three games, including 56 pass attempts from Quarterback Riley Neal against Northern Illinois. This week provides a good chance for Ball State to get back to its roots and utilize the strong running back trio of James Gilbert, Caleb Huntley, and Malik Dunner more frequently. If the Cardinals establish the run and the Chippewas tackle as poorly as they did last week, in the words of Bonamego, then Ball State should find itself in prime position to move to 2-1 in the MAC.
Ball State and Central Michigan kick off at 3pm. With Alex Thomas and Jack Kizer on the call, listen to the game broadcast on SL Digital Radio: mixlr.com/bsusportslink