Strengths of Western Michigan can cloud evaluation of Ball State's performance
With a backup quarterback running up against a top 25 opponent, what exactly does Ball State’s 52-20 loss to Western Michigan mean?
After all, the Cardinals' offense was able to move the ball — albeit struggling to get it into the end zone — while several young players flashed their potential and the team still has a path to bowl eligibility.
“There’s a lot of things that were good on tape, and I know we’ll be excited about some things that we put on tape about tonight’s game,” head coach Mike Neu said. “We had 500 yards on offense, but the problem is we can’t have turnovers. That’s what gives us sour grapes, that’s what’s going to make me toss and turn at night.”
Redshirt junior Jack Milas got the start at quarterback in place of sophomore Riley Neal, who sat out with a knee injury. Even with the backup, Ball State (4-5, 1-4 MAC) put up 497 yards on a Western Michigan defense that entered the game allowing just 353 yards per game.
Milas, however, threw two interceptions and freshman receiver Damon Hazelton Jr. lost a fumble. The Cardinals were also 0-for-2 on fourth down conversions and didn’t force any turnovers of its own.
But again, context: Western Michigan entered the game with a plus-12 turnover margin, the best mark in the Mid-American Conference.
“We lost to a good football team tonight that did not make any mistakes,” Neu said. “We knew going into the game one of the glaring stats in their favor is the turnover margin.”
The Cardinals also put up 298 rushing yards against a front seven that usually allows 132 yards per game, the second-fewest in the MAC. Sophomore running back James Gilbert finished with 155 yards on the ground.
“They’re talking about their run defense, it’s like No. 1 or No. 2 or something like that,” Gilbert said. “Obviously they haven’t played us yet, so we just showed them what we could do.”
Gilbert now has 1,142 rushing yards on the season, the third-highest mark in the NCAA.
“I love the look in James’ eye,” Neu said. “We just need to make sure that ... you know, James is one of those guys that’s been consistent. We need to get everyone else at that level. That’s the goal, is to make sure all of our guys reach their full potential.”
Freshman running back Malik Dunner added 68 more yards and a touchdown. He flashed his potential when he lined up behind Milas in the pistol formation, with a tight end lined up on either side of the offensive line and both wide receivers lined up on the right side.
He ran to the right, then cut back to the hole created by the o-line in the middle of the field, his speed carrying him past the Broncos' defense for a 50-yard touchdown and a 7-7 tie.
“I’m proud of the young offensive lineman — their development, where they’re at in terms of the program and three guys playing new positions or starting for the first time,” Neu said.
Western Michigan (9-0, 5-0 MAC) also put up numbers that seem extreme, but they were really just in line with their season averages. The Broncos scored 52 points, but averaged 44.4 entering the game. They dropped 553 yards, but averaged 502.1 entering the game.
Even then, more than half of those yards came from senior receiver Corey Davis, a top-five wide receiver in the 2017 draft, according to CBS Sports. Davis set a Western Michigan record with 272 receiving yards.
The Cardinals (4-5, 1-4 MAC) will have to win two of their last three games to become bowl eligible. Next Tuesday, they host Eastern Michigan (5-4, 2-3 MAC), and next Wednesday, Ball State will travel to Toledo (6-2, 3-1 overall).
Ball State closes the regular season at Miami (Ohio) (3-6, 3-2 MAC) Nov. 22.
Although none of those teams are ranked, there are still lessons to be learned from the Western Michigan game. It’s just important to keep them in the proper context.
“Win, lose or draw, you’ve got to go in, watch the film,” fifth-year senior defensive back Aaron Taylor said. “Be a man, try to correct your mistakes.”