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Keith Wenning looks to guide his Cardinals to their first-ever bowl victory
Arkansas State finds itself in familiar territory while Ball State will be looking to make program history in this year’s GoDaddy Bowl. The last bowl before the BCS National Championship Game, the Red Wolves are in Mobile, Ala., in January for the third straight season, while the Cardinals are aiming to cap off this season with their first-ever postseason victory.
Besides playing in its third consecutive GoDaddy Bowl, Arkansas State will be led once again by an interim head coach. Bryan Harsin, who led the Red Wolves to a 7-5 mark in the regular season and a third straight Sun Belt title (co-champions with Louisiana-Lafayette), accepted the head coaching job at Boise State, his alma mater, on Dec. 11. This is the similar path that Harsin’s predecessors, Hugh Freeze (Ole Miss) and Gus Malzahn (Auburn), also took following the 2011 and ’12 seasons, respectively.
The school has hired former North Carolina offensive coordinator Blake Anderson as the new head coach, but he won’t officially take over until after the bowl game. Defensive coordinator John Thompson is acting as interim head coach, the same role he fulfilled last season after Malzahn left for Auburn. Thompson led his team to a 17-13 win over Kent State in last year’s GoDaddy Bowl, the first postseason triumph for the Red Wolves in three tries.
Ball State (10-2) will have Pete Lembo calling the shots in Mobile, but it remains to be seen if that will be the case once the dust finally settles on the coaching carousel. The Cardinals have posted 19 wins over the past two seasons under Lembo and will try and cap off just the third 10-win season in program history with their first bowl victory. Ball State is 0-6 in bowl games as a FBS member, including last season’s 38-17 loss to UCF in the Saint Petersburg Bowl.
This also represents the first-ever meeting between these two schools.
Arkansas State vs. Ball State
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 5 at 9 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Ball State -7.5
Arkansas State’s Key to Victory: Pound the football
Quarterback Adam Kennedy is fourth in the nation in completion percentage (69.3), but he’s averaging less than 200 yards passing per game. The key to the Red Wolves offense is the ground game, as they are averaging nearly as many yards on the ground (206.0 ypg) as through the air (208.2 ypg). Sophomore running back Michael Gordon is the leading rusher with 717 yards and he’s averaging nearly seven yards per carry. Gordon has scored 10 rushing touchdowns too, but he hasn’t been the only productive ground-gainer for Arkansas State. Two others, including Kennedy, have rushed for more than 500 yards this season, while Kennedy and fellow quarterback Fredi Knighten have combined for nine touchdowns on the ground. All told, the Red Wolves have 30 rushing touchdowns compared to just 13 passing. Arkansas State’s offensive strength has been Ball State’s defensive weakness. The Cardinals are 92nd in FBS in rushing defense, as they have given up 194.8 rushing yards per game. More than half (seven) of the teams Ball State has played this season has posted at least 200 yards rushing, including 363 by Army. In the Cardinals’ two losses, to bowl teams North Texas and Northern Illinois, they surrendered a total of 455 yards on the ground and 5.4 yards per carry. Ball State’s offense has been difficult to stop this season, but Arkansas State’s offense can help out its defense if the Red Wolves are able to run the ball successfully.
Ball State’s Key to Victory: Soar on offense
The Cardinals’ formula for winning 10 games this season has been pretty simple – pile up the yards and points. Ball State enters this game 19th in the nation in total offense with 486.3 yards per game. The Cardinals are just one of 11 teams in FBS averaging better than 40 points per game and the passing attack is ninth in the nation with 333.3 yards per game. Ball State posted at least 420 yards of total offense in all 12 of its games and was held to fewer than 31 points just three times. In those games, the Cardinals still managed 27 points, although they did go 1-2. While much of the damage has been done through the air, Ball State is capable of running the ball and this attack will be a tough test for Arkansas State’s defense. The Red Wolves are 80th in the nation in yards allowed (417.3 ypg), including 234.4 yards passing per game. Against teams that finished with a winning record (Auburn, Louisiana-Lafayette, Missouri, Western Kentucky), that number jumps to 459.8 yards per game and 6.6 yards per play. For the season, Ball State is averaging 6.7 yards per play. As long as the Cardinals maintain the status quo on offense, it should be another productive night on the field and scoreboard at Ladd-Peebles Stadium.
Key Player: Keith Wenning, QB, Ball State
The key to the Cardinals’ prolific offense is Wenning, who has rewritten the record books during his Ball State career. A senior, Wenning is the school’s all-time leader in virtually every passing category after setting career highs in yards (3,933) and touchdowns (34) this season. He has completed 65.2 percent of his passes and has thrown just six interceptions. Wenning is sixth in the nation with 327.8 yards passing per game and has hooked up with 13 different receivers this season. His main weapons are his wide receiver trio of Willie Snead, Jordan Williams and Jamill Smith, who have combined for 228 catches, 3,300 yards (14.5 ypr) and all but two of Wenning’s 34 touchdown passes. Contrast that to Arkansas State’s passing attack, which has totaled 2,498 yards and 13 touchdowns this season. A four-year starter already with 27 wins, a host of school records and other accolades under his belt, there’s just one thing left for Wenning to do to cap off his impressive Ball State career – lead the Cardinals to their first-ever bowl victory.
Arkansas State has gone 27-11 over the last three seasons, all of which resulted in a trip to Mobile to play in the GoDaddy Bowl. Ball State has posted 19 wins in the past two seasons, but is still looking for that first postseason victory. Arkansas State is no longer an unknown commodity, as its past three head coaches have left after just one season to take over at Ole Miss (Hugh Freeze), Auburn (Gus Malzahn) and Boise State (Bryan Harsin), respectively. Pete Lembo may not be at Ball State by the time the 2014 season kicks off, but he and the Cardinals have unfinished business to attend to before closing the book on their ’13 campaign. As much success as Arkansas State has enjoyed recently, I think this Red Wolves team will have their hands full, especially on defense, against a potent Ball State offense. The Cardinals have a senior quarterback in Keith Wenning under center, and boast plenty of weapons at receiver and in the backfield. No team has really been able to slow down Ball State’s offense this season and I expect that trend to continue against Arkansas State. The Cardinals just have too much firepower for the Red Wolves to contend with, as Wenning and the rest of the senior class cap off their collegiate careers with a historic win.
Prediction: Ball State 38, Arkansas State 27