BY SHAEMUS KREIDER | Ball State Sports Link
It’s an exciting time to be a Cardinal.
Lurking under the surface of a middling 5-7 record last season was a major improvement for the Ball State football program.
The Cardinals led the MAC in yards gained per game and points per game in 2019.
Outside of the losses of Riley Miller, Kyle Schrank and Danny Pinter the offense brings back everyone, starting with running back Caleb Huntley and quarterback Drew Plitt.
Last year’s defense was the trouble spot.
The Cardinals finished with just 15 sacks on the year, souring an exemplary effort by the secondary. The Cardinals were tops in interceptions by a MAC squad, over one per game.
Unfortunately for BSU, the turnovers created were overshadowed by poor tackling and lackluster defensive line play.
In total, the defense allowed over 30 points per game, fourth-worst in the MAC.
2019’s best win was in the final week of the year against this week’s opponent, the Miami Redhawks.
The eventual MAC Champion got out to an early lead behind two blocked punts, but the Cardinals fought tooth and nail on a chilly November afternoon.
Huntley ran wild for 134 yards and three TDs, bringing the Cardinals back from the dead with 27 unanswered to give Ball State the win, 41-27.
This week rematches the Redhawks and Cardinals in the Red Bird Rivalry. Here are five keys to keep the trophy in Muncie.
Key 1: Let Miami Quarterback Brett Gabbert throw the football.
Despite the name recognition, Brett Gabbert is not an excellent quarterback. Blaine’s brother was the MAC Freshman of the Year in 2019, but was second-to-last in the conference in completion percentage and third to last in passing touchdowns. If Gabbert shows the same inconsistencies early Wednesday night, expect the Cardinals to sell out on run defense and let the experienced secondary win in one-on-one coverages.
Key 2: Give the ball to Caleb.
Caleb Huntley put the MAC on notice in 2019. Among a talented group of backs in the MAC, Huntley was third in rushing yards. With Western Michigan graduating Levante Bellamy, Huntley has a good shot to earn first-team All-MAC with similar production.
Including a 134 yard, 3 TD effort versus the Redhawks, Huntley averaged 138 yards per game and two touchdowns a game over the final four weeks of 2019. He’s clearly playing his best football. Expect an early and often dose of Huntley from the backfield.
Key 3: Give the ball to Justin Hall.
These clips say it all.
Key 4: Trust in the depth.
Without a spring or a full preseason to work out the kinks, Ball State won’t be as physically prepared for Wednesday. The Cardinals will have to rely on their depth more than in most seasons.
In the event that a player is out due to contract tracing, the Cardinals will have to be ready to replace anyone at a moment’s notice. This new reality actually bodes quite well for the Cardinals, who bring back 15 starters and 45 letterwinners.
Key 5: Win on special teams
Special teams was the difference in last year’s first half. Two Nathan Snyder punts were blocked, both leading to Miami scores. Snyder is the only returner among the four kickers and punters from last year’s Red Bird Rivalry, leaving large holes in special teams on both sides.
Miami lost All-MAC Second Team kicker Sam Sloman and All-MAC First Team punter Kyle Kramer and filled each hole with true freshman Dom Dzobian.
The Cardinals have not announced their starting kicker this year in a competition between two freshmen, Jacob Lewis and Noblesville native Jack Knight. In what is expected to be a tight game, special teams have a chance to be the difference.