By: Peyton Monnell
Ball State Sports Link
Kickoff: 7 p.m. ET Muncie, IN
Weather: 74° and sunny at kickoff. Low Wind (7mph)
Where To Listen: SL Digital via @bsusportlink
Where to Watch: ESPN+
The long-awaited “normal” college football season is officially back. The Ball State Cardinals open the 2021-22 season on home turf as they meet the Western Illinois Leathernecks at Scheumann Stadium.
The Cardinals return 20 starters, including 16 super-seniors, coming off of last year’s historic season.
With a 7-1 record, BSU went on to win its first MAC championship in 24 years and won its first bowl game in program history. Ball State finished the season inside the AP Top 25 for the first time in program history, coming in at 23rd.
Although a hefty number of returners for Ball State, Western Illinois will see a return from key positions including quarterback Connor Sampson, and receivers Tony Tate and Dennis Houston.
After a mysterious year of college football, including Western Illinois forgoing the final two games of the regular season, it has allowed players to return for an extra year of eligibility, hence the super-seniors.
Now what should we expect for Thursday night?
The Cardinals averaged 449 yards of total offense per game last season, exactly 100 yards more than Western Illinois.
Ball State’s sixth-year senior quarterback Drew Plitt returns as the prominent distributor through the team’s key targets Justin Hall, Yo’heinz Tyler, and Cincinnati transfer Jayshon Jackson.
Jackson was Cincinnati’s second leading receiver last fall with 27 receptions for 337 yards, helping the Bearcats finish the season in the top 10 of the AP Polls.
Plitt launched for over 2,100 yards last season in large part to the nations 36th best pass block behind a fully loaded offensive line that returns for another season.
Unlike the passing game, Ball State is looking for the next man up in the backfield. The Cardinals leaned on current Atlanta Falcon running back Caleb Huntley a season ago.
BSU will utilize a two running back system between senior Will Jones and sophomore Donny Marcus.
Jones ran for 276 yards and two touchdowns last season.
Ball State returns one of the most impressive defenses in the Mid-American Conference this year, including the entire front seven.
Last year’s MAC Co-Defensive Player of the Year Brandon Martin anchors the defense at middle linebacker alongside DE Chris Agyemang and edge rusher Anthony Ekpe.
The Cardinals’ secondary lost CB Antonio Phillips to the NFL Draft but return veterans in Bryce Cosby and Amechi Uzodinma II who have been both excellent and consistent over their long careers.
Ball State led the MAC last season with 10 interceptions.
It’ll be interesting to see how Western Illinois incorporates its strong passing game on Ball State’s home turf.
Western will need to lean on its veteran quarterback for answers.
The sixth-year senior and three-year starter Connor Sampson notched one of the best passing games in the Missouri Valley Football Conference last season, averaging 293 yards per game.
Sampson unloading through the air will be the primary focus. Even though they were able to force turnovers, BSU’s secondary gave up nearly 295 yards a game to opposing quarterbacks.
Despite finishing 1-5 last season, the Leathernecks return nearly 80% of its receiving yards – including senior standout Dennis Houston who ranked Top 10 in the nation in receptions per game.
The downfall for Western Illinois is trying to find yardage out of the backfield. The Leathernecks finished last in the MVFC in rushing yards with just 56 per game.
Senior transfer Gaej Walker will look to carry that role this season. The senior notched over 1,200 yards at Western Kentucky, including seven games with over 100 yards.
Western Illinois ranked last in the MVFC, giving up roughly 33 points per game and 445 yards to opposing offenses.
The Leathernecks will look to change things up this season incorporating a multitude of newcomers that hit the depth chart, while leaning on senior safety Michael Lawson.
The senior led the team in tackles with 54, including two interceptions on the season.