Ball State preview
Let’s get one thing clear to begin with: this is not the same Ball State team that allowed EMU to come back from down 21-0 and 28-7 last year in Muncie.
As we discussed around this time last year, there’s only one current FBS team against whom EMU has a winning streak — it happens to also be the only current FBS team against whom EMU has a winning record (4-0), Buffalo — but this weekend the Eagles have the chance for another winning streak.
You remember last time. I know you do — how could you forget? It was an epic, come-from-behind overtime win that broke EMU’s 18-game losing streak and gave Ron English his first win as a head coach.
How different things were a year ago. Alex Gillett looked like a star, piling up 225 yards and 3 touchdowns passing, and another 189 yards and two touchdowns on the ground, for 414 total yards — more than the entire Ball State team. But for a few key mistakes (especially early in the game) it could have been a blowout EMU win. Despite the offensive explosion, still the best of the Ron English era, I gave more credit to the EMU defense, which held the Cardinals to 5.0 yards per pass attempt and 3.3 yards per carry.
Ball State fired Stan Parrish. This makes me sad, because I love to hate on the Cardinals, and Parrish made it so easy. I mean, just look at him. Something about that face says, “I have no clue what I’m doing, and Iknow it, and you know it, and I know that you know it.”
But now he’s gone, and the Cardinals made a good move, the kind of move I wish more MAC schools would make, in hiring Pete Lembo. Lembo arrived in Muncie with 19 years of coaching experience, including 10 as a head coach, during which time he amassed a 79-36 record (68.7%) including three Division I-AA/FCS playoff appearances (two with Lehigh, one with Elon). 18 of those years, plus his collegiate playing experience (offensive line) were in I-AA/FCS, with the 19th being a single season as an assistant in Division III.
As I mentioned, this is the kind of hire I wish more MAC schools would make; rather than going with a major school’s coordinator (or even position coach…ahem, Kent State) they hired someone with a proven record of success as a head coach at a lower level. This is the same strategy that most top-tier programs employ, and it makes sense to me.
So, this is not the same Ball State team that EMU beat last year.
The Cardinals have had an up-and-down season this year. They opened the year by “hosting” Indiana (now 1-8; 0-5 B1G) at Lucas Oil Stadium and winning 27-20. After a quarterback controversy last year that spilled into the off-season Keith Wenning solidified his position as the starter by completing 23 of 29 passes (79%) for 173 yards and two touchdowns, and running eight times for another 61 yards and a touchdown. The next week Ball State lost 37-7, getting absolutely dominated in every aspect of the game, at then-#22 South Florida (now 4-3; 0-3 Big East). They edged out Buffalo and handily defeated Army before being outscored 104-6 the following two games at Oklahoma State and against Temple. They again bounced back with narrow wins at Ohio and against Central Michigan, but lost 45-35 at Western Michigan last week.
EMU and Ball State have two common opponents — the last two opponents for each team — Central Michigan and Western Michigan. EMU won in Mount Pleasant, 35-28, and beat Western Michigan in Ypsilanti, 14-10, while the Cardinals beat the Chippewas in Muncie, 31-27, and lost in Kalamazoo, 45-35.
On average, Keith Wenning has been a respectable quarterback this year, particularly for a sophomore, but from game to game he’s see-sawed from outstanding (24 of 30 for 324 yards and three touchdowns against Army) to terrible (12 of 31 for 84 yards and three interceptions at Oklahoma State). Top receiving targets include Briggs Orsbon, Willie Snead, Torieal Gibson, Jack Tomlinson, Jamill Smith, and Connor Ryan. Orsbon, with 45 catches for 450 yards (50 yards per game), is clearly the #1 receiver, but the next five are all about even, and any one or several have the potential for a big game.
The Cardinals are almost-perfectly balanced between the pass and run (328 pass attempts, 329 runs) but their running game is far less effective, averaging 4.07 yards per carry to 6.2 yards per pass attempt. Their leading ball carrier is true-freshman Jahwan Edwards, who’s carried 137 times for 605 yards (4.4 yards per carry) and nine touchdowns. Barrington Scott and Dwayne Donigan are also legitimate threats, and given the opportunity, Wenning can also make a defense pay.
Ball State is a weak team defensive, probably not as bad as EMU was the last two years, but not much better; they average nearly 500 yards per game allowed. Defensive players to watch are middle linebacker Travis Freeman (86 tackles, four sacks), strongside linebacker Aaron Morris (80 tackles, seven tackles for a loss), strong safety Sean Baker (57 tackles, two interceptions), defensive tackle Nathan Ollie (five sacks, one fumble forced and recovered), and free safety Joshua Howard (three interceptions and two fumbles recovered).
Overall, EMU shouldn’t have much trouble running the ball against Ball State, and if they can avoid turnovers, should be able to pass at least enough to keep the running lanes open, which is usually all the passing Ron English will call for. Defensively, I think EMU can handle the Cardinals’ running game, so the key matchup for the game will be EMU’s defense against the Ball State passing offense. If the Eagles give up yards the way they did to Central Michigan at the end of that game, they may have trouble keeping up with the Cardinals’ scoring, but I think EMU will come in focused after their bye week and get the job done.
This is not the same Ball State team, but it’s not the same old EMU team either.