Ball State football opens up MAC play against run-heavy Western Michigan

Ball State offensive lines up to snap the ball on Sept. 23 at Western Kentucky University's Houchens Industries-L.T. Smith Stadium. Ball State plays Western Michigan on Saturday. Rebecca Slezak, DN
Ball State offensive lines up to snap the ball on Sept. 23 at Western Kentucky University's Houchens Industries-L.T. Smith Stadium. Ball State plays Western Michigan on Saturday. Rebecca Slezak, DN

Team statistics (per game)

Ball State

Total offense – 398 yards

Total defense – 362 yards

Pass offense – 232 yards

Rush offense – 167 yards

Kickoff returns – 30.5 yard average*

Punt returns – 14.5 yard average**

Western Michigan

Total offense – 357 yards

Total defense – 373 yards

Pass offense – 138 yards

Rush offense – 219 yards*

Kickoff returns – 29.8 yard average**

Punt returns – 17.3 yard average*

*First in conference rankings
** Second in conference rankings

There’s no secret to what Western Michigan does on offense – they run the ball, a lot.

Through four games, the reigning Mid-American Conference champions lead the conference with 876 rushing yards on 177 plays, compared to 93 plays through the air.

Its ground attack is spread between a trio of running backs – redshirt junior Jamauri Bogan, redshirt sophomore LeVante Bellamy and senior Jarvion Franklin – who've combined 694 yards on the ground. Bogan and Bellamy are fifth and sixth in the MAC in average yards per game, respectively.

“We know that their identity is to run the ball and to keep it on the ground and we’re up to that challenge,” redshirt sophomore linebacker Jacob White said. “We know that we have to be sound in our gap fits and wrap up … We just have to get to the ball and make sure we are great on tackling efficiency and wrapping up and getting them down to the ground.”

This season, Ball State has played against run-first teams like Illinois and Alabama-Birmingham, having split success. Ball State allowed just 71 rushing yards on the ground to Illinois, but 336 yards to UAB. The Cardinals 144 rushing yards against per game is good for fourth in the MAC.

While the Cardinals offense is injury-ridden, the defense remains relatively healthy, with only cornerback Marc Walton sitting out of practice.

As Ball State prepares for a run-heavy offense, Western Michigan’s defense will have to prepare for a more balanced offensive attack.

Missing quarterback Riley Neal, running back James Gilbert, offensive lineman Vinnie Palazeti and wide receivers Jordan Hogue and Corey Lacanaria, the Cardinals offensive attack shouldn't change much, as they're expected to split time between the rushing and passing game.

RELATED: Ball State freshman leads receiving corps as it enters MAC play

Ball State is fourth in the MAC in terms of total offense, averaging nearly 400 yards per game – 167 on the ground and 232 through the air. With senior quarterback Jack Milas and underclassmen running backs Caleb Huntley and Malik Dunner in the backfield, the Cardinals may pass some more, but the process of preparing for the game isn't changing.

“For us, first and foremost, it’s about having a great week of practice,” wide receiver coach Alex Bailey said. “It’s the same [process], we don’t look look too many games ahead. … Every week we just focus on who we have this week. This week it just happens to be a really good team in the MAC, just like every team in the MAC, and our approach is going to be the same.”

While both teams have 2-2 records entering conference play, Western Michigan’s win-loss record can be deceiving. Western Michigan opened up the season with losses against No. 4 University of Southern California (49-31) and Big Ten opponent Michigan State (28-14).

Ball State, on the other hand, has losses from Big Ten opponent Illinois (24-21) and Western Kentucky (33-21). 

The biggest turning point this week, however, may just be the special teams play of both teams, particularly in the returning game. Ball State and Western Michigan are among the top two MAC teams in terms of kickoff and punt return average.

RELATED: Special team play leads Ball State football in win over UAB

Both teams have returned kickoffs for touchdown, with Dunner returning one for Ball State in its win over Alabama-Birmingham and Western Michigan senior cornerback Darius Phillips returning kickoffs against both the USC and Michigan State.

Phillips hasn’t attempted a single kickoff return in his previous two games, but remains a point of concern for Ball State.

“He’s dangerous, so we’ve got to have a good special teams game plan on what we want to do,” head coach Mike Neu said. “He’s got a 100-yard kick return against USC opening week, take another one back against Michigan State. As a defensive back, when he gets an interception, he’s capable of taking it the distance.”

Ball State and Western Michigan are scheduled to officially open up conference play at 7 p.m. on Sept. 30 in Kalamazoo, Michigan.


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