Two teams struggling to get their first conference win will be a part of the MAC’s double-dip on Thursday night as Ball State travels to Ypsilanti to take on Eastern Michigan. For both teams, the 2017 season has been one of frustration, but for different reasons.
Ball State (2-6, 0-4 MAC) enters this game with a five-game losing streak. The Cardinals last win came on Sept. 16 against FCS opponent Tennessee Tech. Since then, Ball State has been outscored 233-53 or an average of 36 points per game.
Eastern Michigan has the exact same record as Ball State, but the Eagles have dropped their last six games. However, EMU has been much more competitive with every loss during this span coming by no more than a touchdown. The latest heartbreak came last week on the road against Northern Illinois in a game the Eagles were leading by 14 points in the fourth quarter before a blocked punt set up the Huskies’ tying touchdown.
After that, EMU had a chance to win the game in regulation, but a 42-yard field goal attempt was missed (one of three in the game). The Eagles did manage a field goal in the opening possession of overtime, but Northern Illinois scored on a nine-yard touchdown run to end the game.
Ball State at Eastern Michigan
Kickoff: Thursday, Nov. 2 at 7 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Eastern Michigan -24
Three Things to Watch
1. Eastern Michigan QB Brogan Roback
Despite the Eagles’ struggles in the win column, Roback has established himself as one of the MAC’s top quarterbacks. The senior is second in both passing yards per game (259.9) and passer rating (122.8). He’s completing better than 60 percent of his passes and has 11 touchdowns compared to eight interceptions. Last week against Northern Illinois, Roback went 22-for-44 for 262 yards and a touchdown. Ball State is eighth in the MAC against the pass, giving up 228.9 yards per game, but the Cardinals have surrendered 14 touchdowns and recorded just five interceptions while allowing opposing quarterbacks a 60 percent completion rate. Put it all together and Ball State is last in the conference (and 111th in the FBS) in passing efficiency defense (148.4). This should result in good numbers for Roback and Eastern Michigan’s aerial attack.
2. Special teams play
Ball State currently ranks second in the MAC on kickoff returns, averaging 24 yards per return. The Cardinals have scored a touchdown this season on a kickoff return, a 93-yarder by Malik Dunner against UAB. Ball State also ranks first in punt returns, averaging 12.4 yards per punt return. On the flip side, Eastern Michigan ranks 10th in the conference on kickoff return coverage (21.1 ypr) and eighth on punts (7.7 ypr). So this might be an area the Cardinals can take advantage of to try and keep this game close. Another big return would certainly help that effort.
3. Red zone efficiency
Considering Ball State’s record and the fact the Cardinals are tied for 118th in the nation in scoring offense (19.1 ppg), it should come as no surprise that they haven’t been all that productive in the red zone. Ball State ranks 11th (second to last) in the MAC with scores on 18 of 24 trips (75 percent). Somewhat surprisingly, Eastern Michigan hasn’t been all that better in the red zone, producing just one more score in the same number of trips (79.2 percent, seventh).
The good news for both teams is that neither defense has been all the effective at stopping opponents from scoring in the red zone either. The Cardinals (84.9 percent, eighth in the MAC) have fared a little better than the Eagles (86.2, 10th), but neither’s success rate is anything to brag about. Scoring opportunities should be available for both teams Thursday night. It’s just a matter of which offense makes the most of them.
Eastern Michigan has the longer losing streak, but this is the kind of situation that seems tailor-made for the Eagles to break out of it. The close losses have been frustrating, but EMU is facing a Ball State team that has been soundly beaten over the last month. Expect that trend to continue Thursday night.
Prediction: Eastern Michigan 35, Ball State 14
(Top photo courtesy of Steve King/EMUEaglesPhoto.com)