BY SHAEMUS KREIDER | Ball State Sports Link
In 2008, former Ball State quarterback Mike Neu coached a middling New Orleans Voodoo team, finishing 8-8 in the now-defunct Arena Football League.
Drew Plitt was a 10-year-old fourth grader in the Cincinnati suburbs.
Brady Hoke’s Ball State Cardinals ran the table in the Mid-American Conference play, en route to the MAC Championship Game. The defense fell apart at Ford Field. They lost to Buffalo, 42-24, in a sign of the future.
Ball State has not reached the pinnacle of the MAC since that day, blocked out of the stardom by Northern Illinois.
Since that fateful MAC Championship, much has changed.
Brady Hoke left for San Diego State, then drew the ire of Michigan fans in a maligned stint in Ann Arbor. He’s now back in the saddle for the San Diego State Aztecs as one of the best mid-majors on the West Coast.
Neu and Plitt are now the authors of the next Ball State success story.
A four-game winning streak is the Cardinals’ best since a seven-game streak in 2013. Since the season-opening loss to Miami, Ball State has improved each week, and now plays in a defacto MAC West Championship.
The only thing that is the same as 2008 is the opponent. ESPN was at Scheumann Stadium in 2008 to cover the ranked Ball State Cardinals in the final week of the year. Ball State capped off that season with Western Michigan, winning 45-22, earning its lone trip to Detroit.
Here are the keys for the Ball State Cardinals, as they go for their first MAC West title since the George W. Bush presidency.
Key 1: Win the Turnover Battle.
The Ball State Cardinals led the MAC in interceptions last year, a big reason for the rise of the defense into competency. The takeaways have continued in 2020, four INTs for the Cardinals is second-most in the MAC, and the five fumble recoveries has put the Cardinals at the third-best turnover margin in the conference.
Western Michigan lost a rivalry game with Eastern Michigan, 53-42, last Saturday. The Broncos defense is weak, and could not stop the Eastern Michigan attack. EMU punted just once, and the Broncos were unable to turn the unspectacular Eagles over, losing the turnover battle with three second half fumbles from the WMU offense.
WMU has just three turnovers forced this year. If Ball State earns extra possessions, they can outrun the Broncos and win.
Key 2: Start strong.
Led by MAC passing yards leader Kaleb Eleby, the Western Michigan Broncos are an offense to fear.
I mentioned Eastern Michigan punted just once last week. Western Michigan also punted just once. Eleby has one of the best deep balls in the MAC, and is assisted by a deep receiving corps of Jaylen Hall, D’Wayne Eskridge and Skyy Moore.
Eleby is joined by three solid running backs. Sean Tyler, Jaxson Kincaide, and La’Darius Jefferson are a trio to fear. In a passing first attack, the Bronco backs have the fifth-most rushing yards in the MAC.
Tim Lester can tailor the backs to the opponents. For example, if he needs a more physical runner with a larger field presence, he goes to Jefferson, the team’s leading rusher. If Lester needs a speed back in the formation, he’ll go to Tyler or Kincaide.
If the Cardinals are held without points early, there’s likely to be a deep deficit for the Cardinals, because this Western Michigan team can put up points in bunches.
Key 3: Control the clock.
Western Michigan is an electric offense, but scoring quickly can tire a defense. Western Michigan’s defense was on the field for 35 minutes against Eastern Michigan, and the long EMU drives tired the Bronco defense over the course of the game.
Expect Mike Neu to slow the offense, and keep the ball from Eleby, Eskridge and the electric WMU offense.
Key 4: Attack Vertically.
With Riley Miller graduating in 2019, the Cardinals lost a middle-of-the-field threat in the receiving corps. Justin Hall and Yo’Heinz Tyler are utilized as up-the-middle targets, and without a true pass-catching tight end, the Cardinals are composed quite differently from 2019.
This may have to change against a scuffling WMU defense. While playing with two high safeties, the Broncos consistently miscommunicated defensively. This led to multiple plays of 40+ yards from the EMU passing attack last Saturday. Preston Hutchinson, despite bouts of inaccuracy, threw for 10.5 yards per completion and 315 yards.
Without any adjustments from WMU, Ball State can and should throw more vertical passes, trusting in Plitt to make the right moves in what could be his last game at Scheumann Stadium.