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Ball State Cardinals vs. Toledo Rockets Preview and Prediction

Kareem Hunt

Kareem Hunt

Toledo football has maintained a winning standard for seven seasons, three head-coaching regimes and through the departure of countless players. However, despite winning nine games three times since 2010 and 10 games once, the Rockets have not won a Mid-American Conference championship since '04.

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In fact, Toledo has yet to reach even the MAC Championship Game over that same, 12-year stretch. The 2016 Rockets have an opportunity to remedy that.

Toledo travels to MAC West-leading and No. 14-ranked Western Michigan the day after Thanksgiving in a game that could determine the division's representative in next month's title game — could, because Toledo must first handle Ball State in a Wednesday night showdown.

Ball State comes into the Glass Bowl fresh off a heartbreaking loss to Eastern Michigan. The Cardinals jumped out to a 21-3 lead early, rallied after falling behind 40-28, and ultimately landed on the wrong side of MACtion magic in a 48-41 defeat.

Eastern Michigan reached bowl eligibility for the first time in nearly two decades by virtue of the win, while Ball State needs to win its final two games to get bowl eligible after a two-year drought.

Ball State at Toledo 

Kickoff: Wednesday, Nov. 16 at 7 p.m. ET

TV Channel: ESPN2 

Spread: Toledo -20.5 

Three Things to Watch 

1. Hunting Kareem Hunt 

Toledo's productive running back recaptured the explosiveness that made him one of college football's most discussed players of the 2014 season. He enters Wednesday night's tilt with more than 1,000 rushing yards on the season, shouldering much of the workload for the 8-2 Rockets.

He can surpass his 2014 total of 1,631 yards in the final three games — four games, if Toledo wins the MAC West — but he'll face resistance from the Ball State defense.

The Cardinals' rush defense is an interesting case of feast or famine, holding Central Michigan, Buffalo and Eastern Michigan all to a manageable 4.1 yards per carry. Western Michigan and Northern Illinois, however, gashed Ball State for 6.6 and 7.7 yards per attempt, respectively.

Ball State cannot focus on completely shutting down Hunt, which would require loading up the box with eight players and leaving the already-vulnerable secondary even more isolated. However, the Cardinals cannot allow Hunt to break off the big plays that fill his highlight reel. One way or the other, defending Hunt is a double-edged sword for Ball State. 

Related: Eastern Michigan Eagles vs. Northern Illinois Huskies Preview and Prediction

2. A Tough Balancing Act

Hunt's proven ability to eat up huge chunks of yardage on individual plays can give Ball State defensive coordinator Tim Daoust enough headaches. Add that explosiveness from the running game to trying to contain an offense ranked eight in passing, and things could especially migraine-inducing for the Cardinals' defense.

Toledo head coach Jason Candle turned to former FAU coach Brian Wright to coordinate the Rockets' offense upon Matt Campbell's departure for Iowa State. Wright brought the same kind of prolific, multifaceted approach to Toledo that made Montana State one of the most exciting offenses in the FCS in 2011. 

Logan Woodside has flourished at quarterback, putting up numbers that rank among college football's best. He's averaging more passing yards per game than Baker Mayfield, has more touchdown passes than Patrick Mahomes, and has a better touchdown-to-interception ratio than Luke Falk.

With 313 passing yards allowed per game, Ball State comes in with a more porous passing defense than all but two teams (Pitt and Arizona State) in all of college football.

3. Trouble With Turnovers

Of Ball State's six losses, five — including last week's — were decided by 10 points or fewer. In three of those losses, Ball State lost the turnover battle by at least two.

Toledo hasn't been great in that regard this season, actually finding itself on the wrong side of the campaign-long margin at minus-1. The Rockets don't give away possessions at a high rate, as is the case for Ball State. But with just nine total takeaways, the Rockets' defense hasn't shown a propensity for generating takeaways, either.

That's some good news for a Ball State offense struggling to click at quarterback. The Cardinals' best bet is to establish running back James Gilbert early, and pepper in low-risk passes to keep the Toledo defense honest. Maintain ball control, and keep the explosive Rockets offense off the field for as long as possible.

Final Analysis

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Western Michigan looms large on Toledo's schedule, and follows a bye. With time off between now and a potential championship-defining matchup — not to mention a holiday, as Thanksgiving fast approaches — the Rockets have reason to be looking ahead.

At least, that's Ball State's greatest hope to spring an upset.

Toledo's status as a three-touchdown favorite isn't without merit, but Ball State's been in enough close games this season to suggest the Cardinals won't simply roll over. A fast start akin to last week is crucial, but may be unlikely. Toledo presents the biggest matchup problem Ball State will have seen since Western Michigan on Nov. 1.

Prediction: Toledo 49, Ball State 28

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.