MACtion in November continues with a critical Tuesday night showdown between Western Michigan and Ball State. The Cardinals sit atop the MAC West with a 3-1 record in league play, but the Broncos are just a game behind entering Week 11. With Ball State, Central Michigan, Toledo, Western Michigan and Northern Illinois all within striking distance for the top spot in the division, the battle to win the MAC West is likely to go deep into November.
Mike Neu was a popular hire at his alma mater prior to the 2016 season. The former Ball State quarterback came to Muncie after spending time with the New Orleans Saints, but this was his first head-coaching job at the collegiate level so a transition period was expected. After a 10-26 record through his first three years, Neu sat squarely on the hot seat this fall. However, Ball State is having its best season under Neu’s watch. The Cardinals are 4-4 and crushed the preseason MAC West Division favorite Toledo 52-14 on Oct. 19. Neu’s team needs just two wins over its final four matchups to position the team for its first bowl bid since 2013.
Tuesday night’s game versus Ball State is the final home matchup for Western Michigan in 2019. The Broncos have been tough at Waldo Stadium this season, defeating Georgia State 57-10, Central Michigan (31-15), Miami Ohio (38-16) and Bowling Green (49-10). Western Michigan fell to Toledo 31-24 in the Glass Bowl earlier this year, but a win over the Cardinals would give coach Tim Lester’s team head-to-head victories over two other teams (Ball State and Central Michigan) in the mix to win the West.
Western Michigan holds a 25-20 series edge over Ball State. The Broncos have won four out of the last five over the Cardinals. However, Ball State won last year’s meeting (42-41) in Muncie.
Ball State at Western Michigan
Kickoff: Tuesday, Nov. 5 at 8 p.m. ET
Spread: Western Michigan -7.5
When Ball State Has the Ball
Drew Plitt took over as Ball State’s No. 1 quarterback once Riley Neal left as a graduate transfer to Vanderbilt this offseason. Plitt hasn’t posted huge numbers, but the junior has been steady through the first eight games. He’s completing 64.9 percent of his throws for 1,977 yards and 17 touchdowns. Plitt has tossed six picks but just one over his last three games. The Ohio native has one of the MAC’s top receiving corps at his disposal. Riley Miller (32 catches) and Justin Hall (44) are the featured options, but Antwan Davis (27) and Yo’Heinz Tyler (17) will also be involved. Running back Walter Fletcher (15 catches) is a valuable all-around option and can be a solid safety value out of the backfield.
While Plitt and the Ball State passing attack is a tough matchup for a Western Michigan defense ranked seventh in the conference in pass efficiency defense, the real strength of this group rests with the ground game. The Cardinals average just under 200 yards a contest (193.8) and compiled 616 yards over the last two matchups. Caleb Huntley is closing in on 1,000 yards (723), with Fletcher (387) also prominently involved. Just how crucial is the ground game to a win on Tuesday night for Ball State? In the Cardinals’ four wins, this team has averaged 239.3 rushing yards. In the four losses, the team posted only 148.3 yards on the ground.
Western Michigan’s defense struggled mightily last season, but first-year coordinator Lou Esposito has helped this unit take a step forward. The Broncos rank fifth in the MAC against the run (178.2 ypg) and are holding teams to 4.7 yards per rush. Western Michigan is giving up 5.84 yards a snap (down from 6.2 last fall) and 25.8 points a game (down from 34.5). Helped by a defensive front that includes linemen Ali Fayad, Timothy Collins and Ralph Holley and linebackers Treshaun Hayward and Drake Spears, this unit has generated 17 takeaways and ranks third in the MAC with 63 tackles for a loss.
When Western Michigan Has the Ball
Similar to Ball State, Western Michigan thrives when its ground game is at its best. Running back LeVante Bellamy leads all MAC running backs with 1,055 yards and 17 scores and ranks second in the conference with 117.2 yards a contest. Bellamy has rushed for at least 100 yards in six out of the last seven games, including 178 in the Broncos’ 49-10 win over Bowling Green on Oct. 26. He also torched Ball State for 213 yards and a touchdown in last year’s matchup. Freshman Sean Tyler (333 yards) and Davon Tucker (258) are capable options when Bellamy needs a rest. Ball State’s defense ranks third in the MAC against the run and is allowing only four yards a carry. However, the Cardinals were gashed by Ohio for 316 yards on Oct. 26. Was that a sign of things to come or can the rush defense get back on track?
Quarterback Jon Wassink has started the last two years but this will be his first opportunity to play in a game after October. Injuries have forced Wassink to the sidelines for the final month in each of the last two seasons, but the senior is putting together a strong 2019 campaign and will be a key part of Western Michigan’s run down the stretch. Wassink has passed for 2,273 yards and 16 touchdowns to just six picks. He’s also completing 60.4 percent of his throws and leads all MAC quarterbacks with nine passes of 40 yards or more. Youth and inexperience highlighted Wassink’s receiving corps this offseason, but this group has plenty of talent. Tight end Giovanni Ricci leads the team with 40 grabs for 551 yards and six scores. On the outside, freshmen Skyy Moore (32), DaShon Bussell (18) and Corey Crooms (nine) team with Jaylen Hall (15) and former Mississippi State receiver Keith Mixon (29) to give the Broncos one of the top receiving corps in the MAC.
Stopping Bellamy and containing Wassink through the air is a tough assignment for Ball State’s defense. However, the Cardinals lead the MAC in pass efficiency defense and rank sixth in scoring (28.6 ppg allowed). This unit isn't generating a lot of pressure (11 sacks) and struggles to get stops in the red zone, but Ball State has excelled at generating takeaways (19) and limiting big plays.
The congested MAC West standings might have a little more clarity by Tuesday night. In addition to Western Michigan-Ball State, Toledo is also in action at home versus Kent State. With two of the MAC’s top rushing attacks set to square off in Waldo Stadium, it’s no secret what will likely decide this matchup. Will Bellamy once again find easy running lanes against Ball State’s defense? Or will the Cardinals continue their surprise season by stuffing Bellamy and keeping Wassink out of big plays through the air? When Ball State has the ball, Huntley has to deliver on the ground, but Plitt could have some plays available against Western Michigan’s secondary. The Broncos have alternated between wins and losses through their nine games this season. That streak ends on Tuesday night, as Lester’s team wins a close one to take a step forward in the race to win the MAC West.
Prediction: Western Michigan 34, Ball State 30
(Photo of Jon Wassink courtesy of Western Michigan Athletics)