Tennessee Too Much for Ball State to Handle in Season Opener: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

By Dane Massey | Sports Link

MUNCIE Ind — Ball State suffered its first loss of the season on Thursday, as the Vols rolled over the Cardinals 59-10 in front of over 92,000 screaming fans inside Neyland Stadium.

Ball State knew the challenge they had in front of them when they first saw Tennessee on the schedule and the firepower that the Vols would bring to the table. However, the Cardinals did not know how powerful that firepower would be. The Vols scored 45 unanswered points in just three-quarters of play (The Vols led 38-0 going into the half) and absolutely dominated in every aspect against Ball State.

Despite the dominating performance by Tennessee, there was still some good that came out for the Cardinals. However, with the good, comes the bad, and the ugly.

The Good

Many can argue that junior quarterback John Paddock did not perform well in his first game as Ball State’s full-time starting quarterback. On the first play of the game, Paddock tried to pass the ball out to runningback Carson Steele on a flea flicker play. Paddock was hit as he threw the ball, which resulted in an interception by Tennessee’s Tamarion McDonald. There were a couple of cases where he missed wide-open looks to his targets.

So why is Paddock listed as one of the goods that Ball State had during this game?

Despite the struggles, Paddock showed flashes of what he brings to the Ball State offense. On top of that, he had a much better second half, throwing for 112 yards and a touchdown. Ball State’s offensive line also performed significantly well against a very talented Tennessee defense. Although Paddock was forced out of the pocket seven times, the Cardinals didn’t give up a single sack all game which shows a bright light to the Ball State offense.

On the defensive side, the secondary tried its best to contain the Vol’s passing game. Although Tennessee threw for 351 yards, four defensive backs (all safeties) led the game in tackles for Ball State.

Safeties Jack Blanco, Jaquan Amos, Loren Strickland, and Malcolm Lee led the way for the defense in tackles. Blanco was the lead tackler with nine total tackles, however, Amos led the way in solo tackles with six. Sophomore safety Jordan Riley-Scott also had a great game racking up 4 total tackles with one sack and one tackle for a loss. Combined all the safeties had a field day as they racked up 44 total tackles (about 50% of all of the defense’s total tackles).

The Bad

Of course, the score itself was bad; but if you look deeper into the score sheet, the Cardinals gave up 45 unanswered points while having a zero on the scoreboard. They finally got in the endzone with eight minutes left in the third quarter to make it a 45-7 game.

It was not a good look for the Cardinals in the first half as the offense struggled to get anything going, while Tennesse quarterback Hendon Hooker picked apart the defense. In the first half, Hooker threw for 199 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 12 yards and two touchdowns. The Cardinals suffered three turnovers (two interceptions and one fumble) against the Vols. The run game especially struggled to get going all game. Off of 27 total rushing attempts, the Cardinals could only squeeze out 74 total yards (they averaged 2.7 yards a carry).

Sophomore starter Carson Steele finished with only 27 yards off of 11 carries. Senior Will Jones fumbled the ball in the endzone after being pushed out of bounds costing a long drive to try and get the Cardinals on the board to end the first half. Instead, Ball State went into halftime empty and down big.

The Ugly

Now cut Ball State some slack, they did play Tennessee on the road in front of over 100,000 screaming Tennesee fans. Neyland Stadium is ranked as one of the hardest places to play in college football, as Tennessee is projected to be one of the better teams in the SEC this year and is currently ranked No. 24 in the AP Top 25 Rankings.

However, compared to other MAC teams, Ball State did not look bright. Five MAC teams (Akron, Toledo, Northern Illinois, Eastern Michigan, and Ohio) all came out with wins. Toledo and Central Michigan, two teams that finished above Ball State in the MAC West standings last season, looked like the teams to beat in the MAC this year.

Toledo came out with a victory on Saturday in their home opener against Long Island Island University 37-0. Sophomore quarterback Dequan Finn finished the game with 280 total yards and 3 total touchdowns. Ohio and Akron also came out of week 1 with impressive wins at home. The Bobcats came away with a showing against Florida Atlantic 41-38, with junior quarterback Kurtis Rourke throwing for an incredible 345 yards and four touchdowns for Ohio in the win. Akron pulled away in overtime with a 30-23 win against St. Francis PA. Senior wideout Shocky Jacques-Louis had a highlight reel night, racking up 122 yards and a score off of just eight receptions.

Other MAC teams played opponents that were just like if not better than Tennessee and performed very admirably. Miami (OH) played No. 20 Kentucky on the road and put up a fight as they trailed only by three heading into halftime; they would lose 37-13. Buffalo went up against Maryland and only trailed 17-10 at halftime, but would fall with a final score of 31-10. Bowling Green traveled to Los Angeles to take on UCLA and actually held a lead against the Bruins for a quarter and a half before falling 45-17.

Despite the defeats, none put up more of a fight than MAC West rivals Central Michigan and Western Michigan. The Chippewas and the Broncos both went on the road to play ranked opponents for their season openers (Central Michigan played No. 12 Oklahoma State while Western Michigan played No. 15 Michigan State).

Central Michigan trailed the Cowboys going into halftime 44-15 but came roaring back in the second half. The Chippewas outscored the Cowboys 29 to 14 in the second half but their comeback came a little too late as the Cowboys ran away with the win 58-44. CMU Sophomore quarterback Daniel Richardson has a phenomenal game throwing for 424 yards and four touchdowns with an interception. Sophomore wideout Jalen McGuaghy was just as impressive, going for 126 yards and two scores off of just six receptions.

In East Lansing, Mich. last Friday night, Western Michigan was given the tough task to beat No. 15 Michigan State on the road. Many expected this game to be a blowout, but the Broncos gave the Spartans a run for their money. It was a nail bitter for most of the game with the Broncos forcing Michigan State’s Payton Thorne to throw an interception late in the second quarter to end the first half with the Broncos only down by 17 points (the score was 21-3 at halftime). By the end of the third quarter, Western Michigan made it a one-score game, trailing 21-13 going into the fourth quarter. The Broncos then ran out of gas and let the Spartans score 14 unanswered points in under two minutes late in the fourth quarter, sealing the win for the Spartans.

Watching these matchups unfold, it seems like the Cardinals have some tough ground to make up this season, which based on how things unfolded, there are still some doubts that they can do so. However, head coach Mike Neu believes that the Cardinals have always had that underdog mentality, and they will continue to move forward with their first conference game of the season on the horizon.

“Sometimes it’s hard to do that. I meant what I said in the locker room after the game was over like ‘hey man this is over with. The Tennessee game is over with.’ We’re full speed ahead here on Western Michigan,” head coach Mike Neu said. “The improvement you can make from week one to week two certainly can be significant, but we attacked it on the practice field… This is the next game on the schedule, it just happens to be against Western Michigan. We know each other well, we have been in some battles with them over the last four years and it’s going to be the same thing.”

Ball State returns to action this Saturday (Sept. 10) when it hosts Western Michigan to open Mid-American Conference play at Scheumann Stadium. Kickoff is set for 2 p.m. with the game being broadcast live on ESPN+. Follow along with @bsusportslink for more updates.

Author: Dane Massey