Western Michigan looks to keep its unbeaten season and New Year’s Six bowl hopes intact on Tuesday night, as the Broncos travel to Muncie, Ind. to take on Ball State. While the midweek MACtion schedule is quirky with Tuesday and Wednesday matchups, this game (and next week’s matchup against Kent State) are good opportunities for Western Michigan to make a statement. With just over a month until the bowl assignments are handed out, the Broncos are the clear favorite to claim the Group of 5 spot in a New Year’s Six bowl.
Coach P.J. Fleck is the reason behind Western Michigan’s emergence into the national polls and New Year’s Six bowl discussion. The former Northern Illinois receiver went 1-11 in his debut with the Broncos in 2013 but has brought steady improvement over the last three seasons. Western Michigan went 16-10 from 2014-15 and earned back-to-back bowl trips for the first time in school history. The Broncos are 8-0 so far in 2016 and poised to set a new school record for the most wins in a season (nine is the current high mark for WMU). En route to the 8-0 start this year, Western Michigan picked up wins against Northwestern and Illinois, defeated rival Central Michigan 49-10 and knocked off the MAC West’s defending champion (Northern Illinois) 45-30.
Ball State isn’t making a ton of noise on the national level, but the Cardinals are quietly improving behind first-year coach Mike Neu. After Pete Lembo’s surprising departure to be an assistant coach at Maryland in the offseason, Neu – a former Ball State quarterback – returned to Muncie for his first head coaching gig at the FBS level. The Cardinals are 4-4 after eight games and all four losses came by 10 points or less. With remaining games against Eastern Michigan and Miami (Ohio), Ball State has a good shot to get to six wins and reach the postseason in Neu’s first year.
Western Michigan holds a 23-19 series edge over Ball State. The Broncos have won two in a row over the Cardinals and four out of the last six matchups in this series.
Western Michigan at Ball State
Kickoff: Tuesday, November 1 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN2
Spread: Western Michigan -18.5
Three Things to Watch
1. The Rushing Attacks
Western Michigan’s passing attack – especially receiver Corey Davis – generates most of the buzz surrounding the dynamic offense. However, the Broncos are also tough to stop on the ground, leading the MAC with an average of 252.8 rushing yards per game this season. Jarvion Franklin is the team’s top back with 909 yards and seven scores, but Jamauri Bogan (568 yards) is another key cog for coach P.J. Fleck. The Franklin-Bogan duo will look to get on track against a Ball State defense surrendering 153.3 rushing yards per game (4.3 ypc). The Cardinals have allowed each of their last four opponents to eclipse 150 rushing yards, including 177 against Akron and 355 against Northern Illinois. In last season’s matchup, Western Michigan gashed Ball State for 358 rushing yards in a 54-7 loss. Containing Western Michigan’s offense isn’t going to be easy, but Ball State has to find a way to keep Franklin and Bogan in check.
The attention on the ground attacks isn’t limited to just Western Michigan on Tuesday night. Ball State ranks third in the MAC at 226.6 rushing yards per game and has reached the end zone 20 times on runs (No. 2 in the MAC this year). Rising star James Gilbert (987 yards) is the go-to back for coach Mike Neu, with quarterback Riley Neal also pitching in 314 yards in 2016. Considering Ball State’s passing attack ranks near the bottom of the MAC, avoiding a shootout has to be a priority for Neu. The best way to keep this game within reach? Establish the run. Western Michigan ranks second in the MAC in rush defense and is allowing only 4.1 yards per carry. The Cardinals have to have success on first and second downs to prevent too much pressure on the passing attack.
2. Ball State’s Secondary Against WMU’s Passing Game
As mentioned above, Western Michigan receiver Corey Davis is the player that always generates the most buzz when the Broncos are discussed on the national level. The senior is expected to appear on many postseason All-America honor lists and has caught 49 passes for 739 yards and 11 scores through eight games. Davis has plenty of help on the outside, as Carrington Thompson (17.9 ypc) and Michael Henry (40 catches) have developed into solid targets this fall. The triggerman for this offense is quarterback Zach Terrell. The senior is completing 72.2 percent of his throws and has tossed only one interception on 209 attempts.
Terrell to Davis could be a popular connection on Tuesday night against a struggling Ball State secondary. The Cardinals rank ninth in the MAC in pass efficiency defense, have allowed 15 passing scores and a 63.3 completion percentage from opposing quarterbacks in 2016. Considering coverage has been an issue, Ball State could bring extra pressure to slow down Terrell and the Western Michigan passing game. The Cardinals have generated 24 sacks through eight games, with Anthony Winbush (six) and Joshua Posley (three) the leading playmakers up front. If the Broncos protect Terrell, Ball State’s secondary is going to be in for a long night against Davis, Henry and Thompson.
3. Ball State QB Riley Neal
The success of Ball State’s offense has to start on the ground, but the Cardinals need Neal to step up his performance on Tuesday night. Neal showed promise as a freshman last season and was considered a breakout candidate for 2016. However, the sophomore is still looking to get on track this year. Through eight games, Neal has completed 60.2 percent of his passes for 1,700 yards, seven touchdowns and nine interceptions. Neal and the Ball State passing game have struggled to generate big plays downfield, with this offense generating only four pass plays of 40 yards or more in 2016. The Broncos lead the MAC in scoring defense and have allowed only nine passing touchdowns so far this year. The sophomore has done a good job of utilizing his legs, but there has to be more consistency as a passer. Going against the MAC’s No. 1 scoring defense is no easy task. However, Neal has to deliver his best performance of the year if Ball State is going to pull off the upset.
Western Michigan is on a roll, and Boise State’s loss to Wyoming should provide plenty of motivation for coach P.J. Fleck’s team. If the Broncos win out, this team should be headed to a New Year’s Six bowl. Four regular season games and the MAC Championship are still on tap, so Western Michigan can’t afford to book a trip to the Cotton Bowl right now. Ball State has been competitive in its four losses, but its three FBS wins this year – FAU, Buffalo and Georgia State – are came against teams with a combined 5-19 record. The Broncos simply have too much firepower on a balanced offensive attack, and the defense ranks first in the MAC in fewest points allowed per game. Barring a complete collapse, Western Michigan should win this one comfortably and move one step closer to an unbeaten regular season.