So close, and still no cigar. The Ball State Cardinals went on the road and lost a close one to the defending MAC champions last week and now will look to avoid starting out 0-2 against their division rival Eastern Michigan Eagles, a team hoping to avoid the same fate.
The Cardinals fell to Miami (Ohio) 34-31 in Oxford last Wednesday. Ball State led 21-10 at the half but could not hold the lead even though the RedHawks lost starting quarterback Brett Gabbert in the second quarter to a suspected head injury. The loss spoiled a strong opening showing by the offense, with quarterback Drew Plitt throwing for 309 yards and running back Caleb Huntley going for 130 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.
After the game, Ball State head coach Mike Neu made it clear he did not want his team to dwell on the close loss. "We've got to get back here and make sure we keep our chin up when we leave Oxford tonight, get back on the bus, get back to work, because we've got Eastern Michigan coming to town next Wednesday night at Scheumann Stadium," he said. "That's the great thing about this conference, man, it is competitive from top to bottom. So, every week's going to be a dog fight and we've got to learn from our mistakes and get back at it."
The Cardinals' opponent for their home opener, Eastern Michigan, also is 0-1 after falling at Kent State, 27-23. The Eagles fought back from a 20-9 halftime deficit to take a 23-20 lead early in the fourth quarter but couldn't prevent the Golden Eagles from scoring what proved to be the game-winning touchdowns. EMU quarterback Preston Hutchinson threw for 241 yards and two touchdowns, but he also tossed a pair of interceptions, including one that sealed the victory for Kent State.
Eastern Michigan head coach Chris Creighton saw some positives in the performance of his quarterback, who was harassed all night by the Golden Flashes' defense. "He threw two interceptions, which you just can't do and hope to win," he said after the game. "We saw a lot of man coverage, and they did a pretty good job disguising some of their man and zone. We asked him to take what the defense gives us, and overall I think he did a pretty good job of that."
Eastern Michigan at Ball State
Kickoff: Wednesday, Nov. 11 at 7 p.m. ET
TV: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Ball State -8
When Eastern Michigan Has the Ball
Hutchinson's late interception hurt, but that should not obscure what was a solid season-opening performance. Despite being pressured all game (Kent State sacked him five times), Hutchinson was able to complete some long pass plays and keep the Eagles in the game despite getting minimal support from his running game. EMU managed just 1.9 yards per carry (61 on 32 attempts), as the Golden Flashes' pressure certainly contributed to that total (Hutchinson finished with -16 yards on 11 carries). The lone bright spot was freshman Darius Boone Jr., who gained 68 yards on nine carries, half of those coming on one run.
When Hutchinson had time to throw, his favorite target was wide receiver Hassan Beydoun, who led the way with 112 yards on nine catches. Quian Williams was next with 51 yards on four receptions, while tight end Thomas Odukoya made the most of this two grabs, both of them going for touchdowns.
If Hutchinson gets time to throw, he should have some success against a Ball State defense that let Miami (Ohio) backup quarterback AJ Mayer throw for 212 yards and three touchdowns after taking over for an injured Gabbert last week. Although more help from the running game would be a welcome sight as well.
When Ball State Has the Ball
Entering the season, the Cardinals had arguably the MAC's top quarterback, running back, and wide receiver combination in Drew Plitt, Caleb Huntley, and Justin Hall, and the trio certainly did its part in the opener against Miami (Ohio). Plitt threw for 309 yards, Huntley ran for 130 with two touchdowns, and Hall had 141 yards from scrimmage and accounted for the other two scores.
Moving the ball wasn't the problem for the Ball State, which totaled 478 yards and averaged 6.8 per play, but pass protection was a bit of an issue, as the RedHawks sacked Plitt six times. After clawing back from a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter, the Cardinals tied the game with a field goal and had a chance to drive for the potential game-winning score, only to see Plitt get picked off deep in their own territory, setting up Miami for a short touchdown that sealed the victory.
Eastern Michigan did a decent job of limiting the damage Kent State did on the scoreboard, but the Golden Flashes finished with more than 200 yards both rushing and passing so expect a similar plan of attack for Ball State.
Both teams are able to put a lot of points on the scoreboard, so this should be an exciting brand of #MACtion to kick off Wednesday's tripleheader. Ball State came into this season with dreams of a MAC title, and while it will not be easy, the Cardinals should be able to outscore Eastern Michigan enough to earn their first win of the 2020 season.
Prediction: Ball State 35, Eastern Michigan 28
(Justin Hall photo courtesy of Ball State Athletics)