Game 1 preview: Ball State Cardinals
I don’t know about you, but the beginning of this fall’s football season has really snuck up on me. I suppose that’s what happens when your team is kicking off the entire football season with a game in August. By comparison, EMU began the last two seasons on September 4 (scheduled as such in 2010, and delayed from September 3 in 2011). So although we’re not done with our pre-season coverage — rest assured, it will all be done before the game! — it’s time to start taking a closer look at this Thursday’s match-up against the Ball State Cardinals. Since they’re not only a MAC opponent, but a divisional foe, most EMU fans are reasonably familiar with Ball State, so we’ll dispense with the basic know-your-foe type stuff and just look at the football team.
In a series stretching back to 1936, Ball State leads the Eagles 30-21-2. Early on, the teams met intermittently as non-conference opponents, and were fairly well-matched, with the Hurons leading the non-conference series 6-5-2, although there were a few lopsided games, including a 33-2 Ball State win in 1949 (during what Wikipedia calls “three undistinguished years” of coaching by Harry Ockerman) and a monstrous 60-0 blowout win by EMU in the final non-conference meeting in 1970. After EMU won the first two in-conference games against the Cardinals, Ball State dominated for a decade, winning 10 in a row from 1975 through 1984.
More recently in the series, EMU won an overtime thriller two years ago in Muncie, ending the Eagles’ 18-game losing streak. In that game, EMU’s offense struggled for the first 20 minutes, with the first two series ending with missed field goals by Sean Graham and the fourth with Alex Gillett throwing a turnover. By the time the EMU offense settled down, the Eagles were down 21-0 (later 28-7). Fortunately, Gillett played his best game of the season, throwing for 225 yards and three touchdowns and carrying the ball for another 189 yards and two touchdowns. EMU’s defense came up big at some key moments, holding the Cardinals to -2 yards in three plays of overtime and limiting them to a field goal.
After a miserable two seasons under Stan Parrish in which the Cardinals went 5-16 against FBS teams and 1-2 against FCS teams, Parrish was canned. To replace him, Ball State hired Pete Lembo, who had previously coached both Lehigh and Elon to FCS playoff apperances — a hire that I applauded, and the kind of call I wish more MAC schools would make. The result was an immediate turn-around for a 6-6 overall record, including a season-opening win against Indiana at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Last year in Ypsilanti, the Eagles repeatedly had the game in their hands, but a plethora of blown plays (I counted 10 plays, any one of which going differently could have given EMU the win) opened the door for the Cardinals, and Ball State won on a last-second field goal. It gave us an unfortunately photo-of-the-season (above) and was probably the most painful loss of the year.
The Ball State offense returns mostly intact from last year. Junior quarterback Keith Wenning will again lead the Ball State offense; like Alex Gillett, he currently ranks eighth all-time in passing yards for his school, but unlike Gillett, he’ll probably end the season at second and end his career as the all-time school leader. He’s got a solid arm and although the top two receivers from last year are gone, there’s plenty of talent; keep an eye especially on Willie Snead and Jamill Smith. At running back, Jahwan Edwards carried 178 times for 786 yards (4.4 yards per carry) and 11 touchdowns as a true freshman last year. He’ll be running behind an offensive line that is every bit as experienced as EMU’s, though I’d expect the Eagles to have the superior run-blocking squad.
The Ball State defense is a bit of a question mark. The Cardinals had one of the nation’s worst defenses last fall, allowing nearly 35 points per game. Opposing teams averaged more than 5 yards per carry and more than 9 yards per pass attempt against them last year.
Although it’s possible that both defenses could come out strong, my best guess is that this is more likely to be a shoot-out than a defensive struggle. These teams have been very close the last two years and scored between 31 and 41 points against each other, and there’s no reason to expect anything different this year. It’s also worth noting that both teams have aspirations for a MAC West championship this year, making this a critical game for both teams. If I had to make a prediction, I’d say that EMU will come out with a significantly improved passing attack and both defenses will be thoroughly tested, en route to a 38-35 EMU win.