BY MICK TIDROW | Sports Link GameDay TV Host | SL Radio on WCRD Sideline Reporter
Flip the lights back on for Ball State Football with the team’s first night game of the season coming at Western Kentucky Saturday.
On the heels of a 28-13 win at home against Tennessee Tech, the Cardinals (2-1) now face a Hilltoppers (1-2) team that comes off a heartbreaking 23-22 loss vs. Louisiana Tech in Conference USA action.
The week before, the Hilltoppers fell 20-7 at the hands of Illinois, Ball State’s first opponent of the season. Western Kentucky’s lone win on the year stands against in-state foe Eastern Kentucky, a 31-17 victory.
The matchup at Houchens-Smith Stadium in Bowling Green, Ky., is the third meeting between the two teams south of Muncie. Ball State won 24-7, Oct. 11, 2008 in the most recent meeting, while the Hilltoppers ousted the Cardinals 13-0 back in 1929. All three previous meeting have come in October. The Cardinals lead the all-time series 2-1.
A Ball State win gives the Cardinals their first in-season three-game winning streak since November of 2013 and moves the Cardinals to 3-1 for the second straight year.
1. It is routine at this point. Anthony Winbush.
Okay. We should really reserve a spot in the weekly blog for Anthony Winbush, and we would be remissed if we did not mention him.
The nation’s leader in sacks (6.5) was at it again Saturday against Tennessee Tech. With another forced fumble, he is the nation’s only player with three on the season. (insert another defensive category and he is probably near the top).
But it isn’t just the numbers that are popping out, it is the ability to free up his fellow teammates behind him to rush the quarterback.
On a critical last minute drive for Tennessee Tech in Ball State territory and a 15-point lead Saturday, Winbush pulled two offensive linemen his way to free up blitzing cornerback, David Moore, to record the sack and force fourth down. The Cardinals held and took over to win the game.
Freeing up teammates for a run at the quarterback is one area of the game that does not go on the stat sheet. But Western Kentucky’s quarterback Mike White is going to have his eyes locked in on Winbush all night from his weak-side, freeing up other rushers. Ball State then can mix in different coverages to send blitz’s at White to force his hand.
It is a numbers game. And Winbush leads it.
2. Air attack of Mike White
While Winbush has been superb, he and the Ball State defense face perhaps its toughest quarterback task to date this season.
Mike White has 728 yards in three games this season, but the time of possession has not been in Western Kentucky’s favor. The Hilltoppers have controlled the ball on average for just 28 minutes per game.
White is coming off a season where he finished fifth in the entire FBS in passing yards with 4,363, just 230 yards behind Heisman Trophy Candidate and National Champion Deshaun Watson of Clemson.
The Hilltoppers’ general finished with 37 touchdowns and only seven interceptions. In yards per attempt, White finished second (10.5) behind only Baker Mayfield of Oklahoma.
White is following up former Hilltoppers quarterback Brandon Doughty, who in 2015, led the county in passing with 5,055 yards and 48 touchdowns.
Morale of the story: a lot of throws from White, and many chances for Anthony Winbush to up his sack total. Power on power for both sides.
3. Gilbert Time
Placed on the Maxwell Award Watch List before the season, James Gilbert was a breakout player for the Cardinals a season ago.
However, this year the star running back has yet to rush for 100 yards in a game. On the other side, he rushed for 92 yards on just 11 carries against Tennessee Tech.
All it takes for a player like Gilbert is one game to get turning, and he proved last week he is pedaling toward dominating defenses once again.
A roadblock for Gilbert and the rest of the Cardinals running back unit is the stout run defense of Western Kentucky. Ball State has not faced an opponent this season who allows less than 100 yards on the ground a game. The Hilltoppers issue just 85 rushing yards a game, proving to be Ball State’s biggest ground test yet.
With Gilbert’s breakaway speed and an offensive line that has bullied defensive lines in the running game this year, it makes for another game in the trenches.
4. 3rd down? No problem.
Efficient. A word preached to players each week in every sport.
Ball State has taken it to heart this season, especially when faced with a third down.
The Cardinals stand with the third-best third down conversion percentage in the country, trailing Power Five schools TCU and Georgia Tech. However, only TCU has played the same amount of games (3) as Ball State has.
The Cardinals have converted on a staggering 58 percent (30-of-51) of their third down attempts. The 30 converted attempts trails only Tulsa and Colorado State (32) for the most in the county.
Western Kentucky’s offense barely sneaks inside the top 100 as it stands at 99th in the country at a mark of 30 percent completion on third down.
Western Kentucky vs. Ball State Final Notes
- Sixteen true or redshirt freshmen have seen action this season for Ball State.
- Ball State is 11th in the county in fewest penalties (10).
- WKU QB Mike White has only one passing touchdown this year, Riley Neal of BSU has six through three games.
- The Hilltoppers have had just three starting quarterbacks since 2010. Kawaun Jakes (2010-12), Brandon Doughty (2013-15) and Mike White (2016-17).
For exclusive coverage of Ball State Football on the radio, tune in to WCRD 91.3 FM for the 7 p.m. kickoff at Western Kentucky. Cory Stace and John Gordon are on the call for Ball State’s final non-conference matchup.