Ball State football ready to crack tough Western Kentucky red-zone defense

The Cardinals beat Tennessee Tech 28-13 on Sept. 16 at Scheumann Stadium on family weekend. Ball State rushed 228 yards and passed for 238.

Statistics (per game)

Ball State

Points: 33.3

Points allowed: 22.7

Rushing yards: 186.3

Passing yards: 219.7

Third-down conversions: 30-51 (58.9 percent)

Red zone touchdowns: 11-14 (78.6 percent)

Western Kentucky

Points: 20.0

Scoring defense: 20.0 

Rushing yards: 85.7

Passing yards: 242.7

Third-down conversions: 18-43 (41.9 percent)

Red zone touchdowns: 7-9 (77.8 percent)

Scoring a touchdown seems simple — cross the goal line with the football and get six points.

It gets tricky, however, when the field shortens in the red zone. Ball State football (2-1) scored touchdowns on 11 of its 14 trips inside its opponents’ 20-yard line this season, but Western Kentucky (1-2, 0-1 Conference USA) has only allowed its opponents to score four touchdowns in 12 red-zone trips.

“When a team is that successful in situational football you’ve got to make sure you break down all the film,” Cardinals head coach Mike Neu said. “We’ve gotta look at what we’re doing because obviously they’re going to game plan, they’re going to see what we’re doing, so we’ve got to be very sound with our plan. We’ve got to change up if we have got a tendency.”

Ball State and Western Kentucky both played Illinois on the road this season. The Cardinals lost their season opener against the Fighting Illini 24-21, and the Hilltoppers lost 20-7 the following week.

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“The first thing you want to do naturally is to go ‘how close did we play ‘em and how close did they play ‘em?’” Neu said. “But really that doesn’t have anything to do with it.”

Neu says he’s careful to not take too much away from results against similar teams because injuries change from week to week and each team’s strengths and weaknesses line up differently against each other.

Still, linebackers coach Johnny Curtis says there’s still some benefits to having film against a common opponent.

“I think the biggest thing for us is understanding personnel, seeing their personnel match up against guys that are common opponents,” Curtis said. “It gives you an idea and a little bit of a gauge of what you can and can’t do in a game.”

One thing Ball State’s opponents notice on film is the Cardinals’ efficiency. Ball State is third in the country with a 58.9 percent conversion rate. The Cardinals score touchdowns on 78.6 percent of their trips to the red zone, which is second in the Mid-American Conference.

Part of Ball State’s efficiency comes from the versatility of its tight ends, especially in the red zone. Redshirt sophomore tight end Danny Pinter and redshirt freshman tight end Nolan Givan only have 11 combined catches this season, but three of those are touchdowns.

“Really this summer we spent a lot of time trying to develop ourselves in the passing game and I think it’s showing now,” Pinter said.

The stats are far from gaudy, but their ability to both block and catch passes gives Ball State an advantage in heavy packages.

“There’s so much more technique to [blocking] than people really see,” Pinter said. “It’s all about your feet and your hands and knowing how you want to approach each block. That’s why we spend so much time on it, you’ve got to break it down.”

Ball State’s three running backs — junior James Gilbert, sophomore Malik Dunner and freshman Caleb Huntley — each have more than 100 rushing yards on the season, and they’ve combined for 499 yards and seven touchdowns. Givan says they’re so dangerous that opponents can bite hard on play-action fakes near the goal-line.

“It gives the defense a lot to think about because the touchdown I scored [against Tennessee Tech], I faked a block and just slipped out,” Givan said.

On the other side of the ball, Ball State’s defense has to prepare for a Western Kentucky team that’s scored touchdowns on seven of its nine red-zone trips.

The Cardinals, however, are getting redshirt sophomore middle linebacker Jacob White back after he broke his hand against UAB and sat out the Tennessee Tech game.

RELATED: Ball State freshman linebacker honed his reflexes on the soccer pitch

“It’s a small break and he’s gonna cast it up and he’s gonna be able to play,” Curtis said Tuesday. “Unfortunately at linebacker that’s the nature of the beast, those injuries occur. But he’s going to be back this week and he’s going to pretty much be 100 percent — just with that cast for protection.”

Neu is confident White’s cast won’t hold him back.

“He had a one-handed interception today in practice,” Neu said Wednesday. “That showed me what I needed to see.”

The game against the Hilltoppers is also a homecoming of sorts for Cardinals defensive coordinator David Elson, though he wasn’t available to the media this week.

Ball State and Western Kentucky are scheduled to kick off at 7 p.m. Eastern (6 p.m. local) in Bowling Green, Kentucky.


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