Northern Illinois is in firm control of the MAC West, but there’s still plenty at stake in the division for Wednesday night’s matchup between Central Michigan and Ball State. The Cardinals need one more win to get bowl eligible, and with two remaining games in Muncie, the odds are in favor of coach Mike Neu’s squad reaching six (or more) victories. The Chippewas have already reached bowl eligibility at 6-4, but coach Jim McElwain’s squad still harbors faint West Division title hopes if NIU loses its last two matchups.
Ball State had a chance to move into pole position for the MAC West title last week but failed to hold on after building a 26-17 lead at Northern Illinois, dropping a 30-29 game on the final play. The Cardinals won’t repeat as division champs, but Neu’s squad still has a chance to get to 7-5 with wins in their last two games and return to the bowl scene for the second year in a row. Ball State started 1-3 but rallied to win three consecutive games, which included victories versus Army and Western Michigan. The Cardinals have lost two out of their last three contests, but defeats to Miami (Ohio) and Northern Illinois came by a combined eight points.
Central Michigan won the MAC West in McElwain’s debut (2019) and nearly returned to the top of the division this year. The Chippewas lost a crazy 39-38 matchup to Northern Illinois on Oct. 23 and suffered a 28-17 defeat at Miami (Ohio). At 4-2 in league play, McElwain’s team still has an outside shot at the division title if NIU stumbles in both of its last two matchups. However, with that scenario unlikely, Central Michigan’s best bet is to win the next two games and improve its bowl outlook. After Wednesday night’s matchup, the Chippewas close out the regular season against rival Eastern Michigan.
The all-time series between these two teams is tied at 26-26-1. The Cardinals won 45-20 last year, but the Chippewas claimed a 45-44 victory in ’19. Central Michigan has won three in a row versus the Cardinals in Muncie.
Central Michigan at Ball State
Kickoff: Wednesday, Nov. 17 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: Ball State -2.5
When Central Michigan Has the Ball
Scoring points hasn’t been a problem for McElwain’s offense this year. The Chippewas average 34.5 points a game and 6.2 yards per play through six MAC contests in 2021. This should be a strength versus strength battle, as Ball State’s defense ranks as one of the better units in the MAC, limiting teams to just 25.3 points a game and 5.83 yards per play in conference games.
Damage to opposing defenses has come via the air and on the ground for Central Michigan this season, but the strength of this group is running back Lew Nichols III. The freshman is the only player in the MAC with more than 1,000 rushing yards (1,297) and ranks first in the conference in per-game production (129.7). Nichols III has rarely been held in check by opposing defenses this year, and the Michigan native is coming off a monster performance (215 yards and four scores) in last week’s win over Kent State. Nichols III has a streak of five consecutive games with 100 yards and has scored eight rushing touchdowns in the last three contests. Ball State is holding MAC teams to 150.2 rushing yards a game but was pounded for 211 in last week’s loss to Northern Illinois.
Quarterback Daniel Richardson has started the last six games for the Chippewas and guided the offense to at least 30 points in four of them. He’s also connected for 2,011 yards and 19 touchdowns this fall, including a standout performance in last week’s win over Kent State (268 yards and four touchdowns). Receiver Kalil Pimpleton (47 catches) is a dynamic all-around playmaker for CMU, with Dallas Dixon (41), JaCorey Sullivan (35), and tight end Joel Wilson (26) rounding out the list of key weapons on the outside. With Richardson’s recent play, along with the playmakers in the passing game, a Ball State secondary ranked seventh in the MAC in pass efficiency defense is going to have its hands full on Wednesday night.
When Ball State Has the Ball
Ball State’s offense started slow by scoring 13 or fewer points in three of the first four games. But Neu’s group took a step forward once MAC play arrived, scoring at least 29 points in four out of the last five games. The Cardinals rank near the bottom of the league in yards per play (league-only matchups (5.64) and scoring (28.7) and big plays generated, but this offense can piece together drives thanks to a standout collection of skill players and a steady senior quarterback in Drew Plitt.
Although Plitt has been held under 200 passing yards in each of the last two weeks, the senior could be poised for a big night on Wednesday. Central Michigan ranks 10th in the MAC in pass efficiency defense and has allowed 19 scores through the air. Also, opposing quarterbacks are connecting on 63.5 percent of their throws against this defense. Plitt’s accuracy (61.4 percent) and efficiency (just four picks this year) figure to be a tough matchup for the Chippewas’ struggling secondary. That’s also good news for a standout group of receivers that features one of the MAC’s top playmakers in Justin Hall (136.1 total yards a game) as well as Jayshon Jackson (42 catches) and Yo’Heinz Tyler (35). Considering Central Michigan’s struggles versus the pass, the defensive front may play a key role in this game. The Chippewas have recorded 27 sacks, which is a tough test for a Ball State front that’s battled injuries throughout ’21.
Ball State’s offense isn’t just about the passing attack, as the ground game has turned it up a notch recently thanks to the emergence of Carson Steele. The freshman has three 100-yard efforts in the last four games and has established himself as the top option in the backfield. Steele faces off against a Central Michigan defense giving up 3.8 yards per carry in MAC contests, but this unit is allowing 163.8 yards in league-only games. The Chippewas won’t give up a ton of big plays on the ground, but Steele should be able to find some running room.
Central Michigan’s defense has surrendered over 30 points for three consecutive games, which has raised its season average to 29.5 points allowed a contest. Also, this group ranks sixth in the MAC in most yards per play allowed (5.96) in league-only games.
Motivation should be on Ball State’s side as it looks to become bowl eligible for the second year in a row. Central Michigan’s defense is vulnerable to the pass, which means Plitt and Hall should have plenty of connections on Wednesday night in what should be a high-scoring affair. However, Central Michigan seems to be trending up going into Wednesday night’s game. The Chippewas have won four out of their last five, with the offense finding its rhythm behind Richardson and Nichols. Both defenses are going to give up yards, so whichever group can get enough timely stops is going to come out on top. This one is a toss-up, but a small edge goes to Central Michigan on the road.
Prediction: Central Michigan 34, Ball State 31
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