Ball State travels to Toledo to decide the top spot in the MAC West in a Tuesday night edition of MACtion. The Rockets (4-1) are a game ahead of the Cardinals (3-2) in league play, so a win by coach Jason Candle’s team would nearly lock up the division crown. A victory by the Cardinals would add more intrigue down the stretch and keep the division race open until the final week of the season.
Toledo (6-3 overall) was projected as one of the favorites in the MAC this year but meeting preseason expectations recently has been a challenge. However, after non-conference losses to Ohio State and San Diego State, the Rockets have won four out of their five MAC contests to sit at the doorstep of a division crown. Candle’s team defeated Central Michigan, Northern Illinois and Kent State all by 20 points or more, and the only loss in conference action came after the Rockets lost six turnovers to Buffalo. Although next Tuesday’s matchup against Bowling Green is a rivalry, and the Nov. 25 game at Western Michigan is a road date, Toledo should be favored the rest of the way and has a favorable path to a division title.
Ball State (5-4 overall) started 0-2 after losses to Tennessee (59-10) and Western Michigan (37-30), but coach Mike Neu’s team has reeled off five wins in their last seven games. The only losses in that span came by 11 at Georgia Southern and by four to Eastern Michigan, as the Cardinals knocked off Northern Illinois, Central Michigan, and Kent State in league play and tacked on a 25-21 victory over UConn on Oct. 15. Ball State was picked near the bottom of the MAC West in most preseason rankings but needs just one win in its last three games – at Toledo, Ohio and at Miami (Ohio) – to go bowling for the third year in a row.
Toledo leads the all-time series 25-21-1. The Rockets have won six out of the last eight matchups between these two teams. Only one of the last eight meetings between Toledo and Ball State was decided by one score.
Ball State at Toledo
When Ball State Has the Ball
Ball State’s offense isn’t the most explosive group in the MAC, so it’s important for this attack to stay on schedule. The Cardinals only average 24.8 points a game and 5.2 yards per play and rank near the bottom of the conference in big plays. Just how important is it for Neu’s attack to avoid negative plays? Consider this: Ball State has recorded 132 plays of 10-plus yards and only one of 40-plus. The big chunk plays aren’t likely to be there, but the Cardinals can pick up small gains all night to keep the chains moving.
Although Ball State’s offense has attempted more passes than runs in MAC play, it’s no secret this offense flows through running back Carson Steele. The sophomore leads the conference in rushing yards (1,082) and yardage per game (120.2) this fall. He’s also accumulated four consecutive 100-yard games and will chip in some in the passing game (20 catches). Toledo’s rush defense is giving up 158.1 rushing yards per game but is better on a per-carry basis (3.94). This unit has thrived at getting into the backfield (63 tackles for a loss) but that ability will be tested against a Ball State offensive line that’s allowed only 31 tackles for a loss this year.
Quarterback John Paddock has been steady in his first season as Ball State’s starter, completing 61.7 percent of his passes for 2,227 yards and 16 scores. The junior has tossed 10 picks but thrived at hitting the short throws (91 completions of 10-plus yards). Toledo’s secondary ranks first in the MAC in pass efficiency defense and only one opponent (Ohio State) threw for more than 300 yards against this group. However, the Cardinals will threaten this group with a trio of talented playmakers on the outside, including Jayshon Jackson (64 catches), Yo’Heinz Tyler (40), and Amir Abdur-Rahman (22). Tight ends Brady Hunt (30) and Tanner Koziol (27) have combined for 10 touchdown catches and will present matchup problems for Toledo’s defense.
If Ball State can stay on schedule with a mix of Paddock’s short throws and Steele’s rushing, Neu’s offense should be able to move the ball against a Toledo defense that leads the MAC in fewest yards per play (4.84) and ranks third in the conference in points allowed (26.9).
When Toledo Has the Ball
Toledo’s offense ranks No. 1 in the MAC in scoring (35.9 points a game), but mystery surrounds this group going into Tuesday night’s game. Starting quarterback Dequan Finn (269.6 total yards a game) suffered an injury against Buffalo on Oct. 22 and missed the team’s next game on Oct. 29. Finn’s status is uncertain going into the matchup against Ball State, which means backup Tucker Gleason could make his second start of the season. The redshirt freshman turned in a solid performance against Eastern Michigan by completing 15 of 27 passes for 238 yards and three touchdowns, which should give the coaching staff plenty of confidence if Finn can’t go.
Toledo normally has a clear No. 1 running back to anchor its ground game, but a committee approach has been used in ’22. Despite the shift in method, the production has remained the same. Candle’s offense ranks third in the MAC in rushing (187.4 yards a game) and leads the conference in running plays of 20-plus yards (18). Jacquez Stuart (521 yards), Peny Boone (305), and Micah Kelly (218) are all likely to see snaps on Tuesday night against a Ball State rush defense that ranks last in the MAC (190.89 ypg). The Cardinals are only giving up 4.2 yards per rush, but MAC opponents are averaging over 200 yards on the ground (211).
While Ball State’s rush defense has been an issue, the pass defense ranks second in the MAC in pass efficiency defense. The Cardinals have held their last three opponents under 200 passing yards and allowed only four passing plays of 40-plus yards in ’22. Those numbers will be tested against a deep Toledo receiving corps featuring Jerjuan Newton (18.5 yards per catch), DeMeer Blankumsee (29), Devin Maddox (26), Mikel Barkley (15), and tight end Jamal Turner (16).
Can Ball State’s defense keep Gleason or Finn in check? The Cardinals are holding teams to 5.03 yards per play and 27.2 points a game this year but have succeeded at winning on third downs and in the red zone.
Even though Finn could miss Tuesday night’s game, Toledo is the better team and should come out on top. Gleason can capably lead the offense, while the ground game should find running room against Ball State’s struggling rush defense. The Cardinals haven’t scored more than 27 points in each of their last four contests. Neu’s offense needs a little more production than that to win at the Glass Bowl, but the combination of Paddock and Steele will keep this one close into the second half. Toledo takes a big step in its quest to win the MAC West by beating Ball State on Tuesday night.
Prediction: Toledo 31, Ball State 20
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