Week 12 MACtion kicks off with Ball State hosting Western Michigan on Tuesday night. These two teams enter this matchup with different agendas, but both programs are looking to snap recent losing streaks. The Broncos are eligible for a bowl at 6-4 overall but could use another win to bolster their postseason position. On the other sideline, the Cardinals can play spoiler to Western Michigan’s bowl chances, while building momentum for 2019.
Ball State coach Mike Neu could certainly use some positive news over the final two weeks of the season. The Cardinals have lost four out of their last five contests and sit at 3-7 through 10 games this fall. Ball State hasn’t had a winning record since 2013, and Neu’s 9-25 overall mark through three years has him squarely on the hot seat. Injuries have hindered Neu’s teams over the last two seasons. Quarterback Riley Neal, left tackle Kaleb Slaven and running backs James Gilbert and Caleb Huntley have missed time due to injury this season. Those injuries have played a key role in Ball State’s recent slide and the overall record in 2018. With the ailments on offense, the last two games are all about getting an extended look at some of the young players that could be a factor in 2019.
After an 0-2 start, Western Michigan reeled off six wins in a row before quarterback Jon Wassink suffered a season-ending injury in a loss to Toledo on Oct. 25. Wassink’s injury has forced true freshman Kaleb Eleby into the starting role under center. With Wassink sidelined for the last two games, the Broncos have been outscored 110-38 in games against the Rockets and Ohio. The Broncos have yet to beat a team with a winning record in 2018 but did record victories over Miami (Ohio) and Eastern Michigan. The MAC has only four guaranteed bowl tie-ins this season, so getting to seven or eight wins is probably needed for Western Michigan to secure a postseason trip.
Western Michigan owns a 25-19 series edge over Ball State. The Broncos have four four in a row against the Cardinals and have scored at least 50 points in three of those victories.
Western Michigan at Ball State
Kickoff: Tuesday, Nov. 13 at 6 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN2
Spread: Western Michigan -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Backup Quarterbacks
As mentioned above, both teams are dealing with injuries under center. Neal threw for 1,917 yards and 11 touchdowns to just four picks this season but suffered a knee injury against Ohio on Oct. 25. He did not play against Toledo on Oct. 31 and could miss the rest of the season. With Wassink out, the Broncos have been forced to start true freshman Kaleb Eleby.
Sophomore Drew Plitt has found himself in a familiar spot. After injuries hit Ball State’s quarterback depth last season, Plitt was forced into starting three games last season and ended 2017 with 430 passing yards and three scores. The sophomore took over for Neal after the injury versus Ohio and connected on 9 of 17 passes for 86 yards. However, Plitt was much better in his first start of 2018 in the 45-13 defeat at Toledo. He connected on 29 of 47 passes for 340 yards and a touchdown. Plitt should have plenty of opportunities to throw on Tuesday night, as Western Michigan ranks last in the MAC in pass efficiency defense and has surrendered 22 passing scores this fall. The Broncos also rank 10th in the conference in scoring defense and are giving up 6.1 yards a play. When Plitt throws, Riley Miller (51 catches), Justin Hall (57) and Corey Lacanaria (42) will be the top targets.
Eleby’s first extended opportunity for snaps came in the 51-24 loss to Toledo after Wassink’s injury, and the freshman completed 23 of 28 passes for 293 yards and two scores. However, in his first start on Nov. 1, Eleby struggled against Ohio’s defense. The freshman completed only 10 of 19 passes for 152 yards and tossed one touchdown with two picks. Similar to Plitt, Eleby should have opportunities to connect downfield with his receiving corps, which includes talented freshman Jayden Reed (46 catches), D’Wayne Eskridge (28) and Giovanni Ricci (25). The Cardinals are sixth in the MAC in pass efficiency defense but feature a talented group of young players to build around, including cornerbacks Amechi Uzodinma and Antonio Phillips.
In this battle of backup quarterbacks, which one will deliver the most plays in the passing game and avoid any big mistakes?
2. Which Team Establishes the Run?
The strength of both offenses rests with the ground game. The Broncos average 200 yards a game with their rushing attack, while the Cardinals are a step behind at 165.8 a contest.
With Eleby making his third career start, expect Western Michigan’s gameplan to rest heavily on its trio of running backs. Former 1,000-yard rusher Jamauri Bogan, junior LeVante Bellamy and freshman Chase Brown are the top options here for Lester and will be a tough matchup against a Ball State defense ranked 11th in the MAC against the run. The Cardinals are giving up 215.3 rushing yards a contest and have allowed 27 scores on the ground this year. Bogan leads the team with 117 carries and has posted 534 yards and 11 touchdowns this fall. Bellamy paces the Western Michigan attack with 907 yards and has scored five times on 140 carries. The junior also averages 6.5 yards a rush and has caught 23 passes this fall.
As mentioned above, James Gilbert is the top option on the ground for Neu’s offense. The junior has rushed for 586 yards and nine touchdowns this season but missed Ball State’s last contest against Toledo due to injury. Gilbert is slated to return, but the coaching staff expects to lean on Malik Dunner and Will Jones as the top options on Tuesday night. Dunner has 238 yards and three scores this season, with Jones checking in at 154 yards on just 21 carries. Western Michigan’s rush defense ranks seventh in the MAC and is giving up 185.1 yards a game this season. After allowing over 300 rushing yards to both Syracuse and Michigan, this unit did not allow a team to eclipse 200 until the loss at Toledo. However, the Rockets gashed the Broncos for 268 on the ground, and Ohio posted 256 against this unit on Nov. 1.
With two inexperienced quarterbacks and a tight game anticipated, whichever team does the small things is likely to come out on top. Both teams have been a little generous with giveaways this fall and sit at minus-two in turnover margin through 10 contests. Western Michigan has lost 16 turnovers, while Ball State has lost 18. In the four losses suffered by the Broncos, Lester’s team finished with a minus-nine turnover margin. The Cardinals are a little better in this category, posting a minus-two mark over seven defeats.
The last three games between these two teams haven’t been close. Western Michigan won 55-3 in 2017, 52-20 in ’16 and 54-7 in ’15. However, with both programs dealing with key injuries, expect a much closer contest on Tuesday night. Additionally, it’s also senior night at Ball State, so Neu’s team should have plenty of motivation. With the injuries and quarterback changes, it’s hard to get a good read on this game. The Cardinals struggle to stop the run, which just happens to be the strength of the Broncos’ offense. On the flipside, Western Michigan struggles to stop the pass, with Ball State ranking second in the conference in pass offense. The guess here is Eleby does enough through the air, with Bogan and Bellamy wearing down the Cardinals on the ground for the winning score in the fourth quarter.
Prediction: Western Michigan 31, Ball State 27
(Top photo courtesy of ballstatesports.com)