BY NATHAN GANGER | Ball State Sports Link
Ball State opens its 96th season of football Wednesday against defending Mid-American Conference Champion, Miami University.
Here’s what to watch for in the Red Bird rivalry, set to kick off at 7 p.m. from Oxford, Ohio and on CBS Sports Network. Sports Link GameDay starts at 6 p.m. on Twitter (@bsusportslink).
Will Ball State continue its offensive success from last year’s game?
Ball State’s offense dominated the 2019 meeting with 578 yards of total offense, compared to 275 yards for Miami. The Cardinals rattled off 27 unanswered points in the second half to win the game 41-27.
Quarterback Drew Plitt and running back Caleb Huntley led the charge as Plitt threw for 317 yards and three TDs and Huntley had 24 carries for 134 yards and 3 TDs. Ball State’s offense returns a lot of firepower with Plitt, Huntley and Justin Hall all returning for their senior seasons.
Can special teams get better protection on punts?
In last year’s meeting, Miami had two blocked punts leading to 14 points. Punt protection has been a heavy point of emphasis in practice this season and will be crucial against the defending MAC Champions. Ball State has very little margin for error this year because of the shortened six-game season.
Who will step up in place of key players from last year’s team?
With Ball State losing big-time talent to graduation in 2019, there are significant holes to fill on offense and defense. At linebacker, look for redshirt junior Brandon Martin to take over the leadership role.
Martin has had a strong voice both on and off the field and will look to avenge his shortened 2019 season which ended in injury. Head coach Mike Neu called Martin “Tough Cardinal #1” and one of the top leaders on defense.
At wide receiver, Yo’Heinz Tyler and Antwan Davis are the two players to watch in Riley Miller’s absence. Tyler had a strong end to the 2019 season, including three receptions for 88 yards and two touchdowns vs Miami.
Offensive coordinator Kevin Lynch called Davis “one of our toughest and hardest workers.” Davis finished last season third on the team in receptions (38) and receiving yards (516) and was granted a fifth year of eligibility by the NCAA.
What will the defense look like under new defensive coordinator Tyler Stockton?
Last year, Ball State’s defense showed flashes of great play as the team collected 15 interceptions and 24 total turnovers, but they still gave up an average of over 400 yards of total offense per game including 181.2 rushing yards.
New defensive coordinator Tyler Stockton is in his second season with Ball State, spending last year as the co-defensive coordinator and inside linebackers coach. Stockton spent 2018 at FCS Western Illinois as defensive coordinator, where they finished 23rd in the nation in yards per game and sixth in sacks.
The secondary is the strength of this team, with Antonio Phillips and AJ Uzodinma at cornerback and seniors Bryce Cosby and Brett Anderson at safety.
Neu says they need to get more pressure on the quarterback this season and after Tuni Ropati and Chris Crumb graduated, so look for graduate transfer Chris Agyemang to make a big impact along the defensive line.
Agyemang, a transfer from Sacred Heart, finished fifth in the NEC last season with 5.5 sacks. Tyler Stockton is a high-energy coach who demands the best out of his players and it will be interesting to see how the Ball State defense improves this season with a new voice in charge.
Can Ball State finish late in close games?
Ball State came close to winning a handful of games last season, but just couldn’t find a way to win late in close games. The Cardinals opened conference play at 3-0 and then lost four games in a row in close fashion, losing three out of its last four games by a combined eight points.
Finishing games is going to be critical in this shortened six-game season as there is no room for error. With 22 returning seniors from last season, look for the Cardinals to learn from those shortcomings in 2019 and make the plays needed to win tight games in the fourth quarter.