Season preview: Ball State Cardinals
LARAMIE -- After a seven-point setback in last season's opener, Ball State reeled off five straight regular season victories.
Win No. 6 claimed a MAC Championship.
Win No. 7 clinched the program's first ever bowl title.
With sixteen seniors taking full advantage of the NCAA granting an additional year of eligibility because of the coronavirus -- and 85% of the 2020 roster returning to Muncie, Indiana -- the Cardinals once again find themselves the team to beat in a conference loaded with unknowns.
Having a three-year starting quarterback with 6,510 career passing yards and 50 touchdowns only adds confidence.
Let's take a look at the matchup:
Who: Ball State at Wyoming
When: Sept. 18, 2021 at 2 p.m. MST
Where: War Memorial Stadium, Laramie, Wyoming
Television: Stadium Network
Series: First meeting
BSU's returning starters: Offense (10), Defense (10), Specialists (2)
UW's returning starters: Offense (10), Defense (11), Specialists (4)
What to watch for when the Cardinals are on offense:
Those stats above belong to Ball State's 6-foot-2, 217-pound senior signal caller.
The Loveland, Ohio product is on the Senior Bowl and Manning Award watch list. That will happen when you rank 18th nationally in passing efficiency (155.6), 23rd in completion percentage (.656) and lead the 27th best offensive attack in the nation in yards per game with (447.2). The Cards also scored more than 34 points per game for good measure.
In just eight games in 2020, Plitt threw for 2,154 yards and 17 touchdowns. That earned him second-team All-MAC honors.
Not only will Plitt be the focus of defensive coordinators this season, he's bringing some friends to the party -- old friends.
Plitt's top-two targets last fall -- seniors Justin Hall and Yo'Heinz Tyler -- both return to the lineup after snagging a combined 91 passes for 1,272 yards and 12 touchdowns. Tyler hauled in eight of those scores. Hall is the active leader in the FBS with 257 career receptions. He's earned All-MAC honors four times.
But wait, there's more.
Ball State returns its entire front five, led by four-year starters Kaleb Slaven and Curtis Blackwell. This unit may be fully intact, but that doesn't mean the numbers were always pretty. The Cardinals offensive line allowed 29 sacks in 2020. That's an average of nearly four per game. They also helped facilitate 50 tackles for loss, an average of more than six per outing.
Those guys obviously gave Plitt enough time to do plenty of damage in the passing game, they also opened holes for Cardinal running backs who averaged 178 yards a night. Ball State will likely go with the duo of Will Jones and Tye Evans in the backfield this fall.
Last season's leading rusher, Caleb Huntley, is now with the Atlanta Falcons.
Ball State was one of the best teams in the nation at extending drives in 2020, converting .467 of its third-down attempts (56-of-120). The Cardinals were also efficient in the red zone, scoring 23 touchdowns and kicking seven field goals on 37 trips inside the red zone.
A plus-9 in turnover margin, in just eight outings, will also win you plenty of games.
What to watch for when the Cardinals are on defense:
"What we did a year ago and the confidence that generated for our guys on that side of the ball … they've worked extremely hard to be recognized now as having a championship defense," Ball State head coach Mike Neu told ballstatesports.com after the annual spring game last May. "I'm not surprised because our defense has been very solid from start to finish this spring."
Having nine returning starters, including four linebackers and the entire secondary, certainly helps matters.
It all starts with Brandon Martin, the Co-MAC Defensive Player of the Year in 2020. The running back-turned-middle linebacker tallied 90 tackles and a sack last season. Fellow linebackers -- Anthony Ekpe, Christian Albright and Jaylen Thomas -- also earned all-conference accolades.
Thomas finished with 78 tackles and a sack, and safety Bryce Cosby registered 62 stops, a sack and two interceptions to go along with a fumble recovery. Ekpe led the Cardinals with five sacks and safety Brett Anderson II and cornerback Antonio Phillips each added a pair of picks. Phillips now plays for the Cincinnati Bengals.
Ball State allowed just under 26 points per game and finished the season with 10 interceptions and seven fumble recoveries.
The Cardinals also return two of their three down linemen in nose guard Justen Ramsey and defensive end Chris Agyemang. That duo combined for 22 tackles and a sack last season.
This ball-hawking, aggressive defense allowed opponents to convert just 37-of-104 third-down conversions in 2020. They also gave up just 23 scores inside the red zone on 31 attempts.
Cardinals' special teams:
No surprise here -- Ball State has one of the top kick returners in the nation in Hall, who averaged 24.6 yards per return a year ago. The speedster also handles punt-return duties.
Senior punter Nathan Snyder has a big leg, booming 11 punts more than 50 yards. He averaged 43.6 yards on 29 attempts.
Jacob Lewis only attempted three field goals a season ago. He hit two of those, including a 51-yarder. He was 8-for-9 on extra-point attempts.
You can only imagine the confidence this program has after knocking off Mountain West champion, San Jose State, 34-13, in the Arizona Bowl to claim the first postseason title in school history.
Add in one of the best quarterbacks in the country, a veteran offensive line and receiving corps, and you likely have an even more explosive offense in 2021. The defense, as you read, is also stacked.
If the Cardinals can continue to force turnovers and get teams off the field on third down, look out.
This squad has depth and experience, but you can't put a price on "mo" -- momentum.
Will be interesting to see how Ball State performs in Week 2 in Happy Valley before turning around and traveling 1,200 miles to the thin air of Laramie. Toledo is a popular choice to win the MAC and is returning 98% of its roster from 2020. That's the most in the nation.
If the Cardinals can navigate a tough first half of their schedule, look for them to not only be on the road for the holidays, but to add a second bowl trophy to the case.
Ball State 2021 schedule:
Sept. 2 vs. Western Illinois
Sept. 11 @ Penn State
Sept. 18 @ Wyoming
Sept. 25 vs. Toledo
Oct. 2 vs. Army
Oct. 9 at Western Michigan
Oct. 16 at Eastern Michigan
Oct. 23 vs. Miami (Ohio)
Nov. 2 @ Akron
Nov. 10 @ Northern Illinois
Nov. 17 vs. Central Michigan
No. 23 vs. Buffalo