I've thought about this preview all week. Hell, really all season. I think most in the know about these Cardinals had this particular game circled in red as THE GAME for this year. It's obviously all the more critical now, given the Cardinals' successes on the field, the opportunity for some special things to happen post-season, and the fact that the Cardinals control their own destiny for a berth in the MAC title game.
To listen to pre-game chatter on the Central Michigan side is shocking and eerily similar to the Indiana pre-game. Apparently Ball State is an extremely weak, overrated, mid-tier MAC school that is the same team as last year that got blown off the field by Central Michigan. Coach Brady Hoke is apparently a scam artist getting weak off cupcake scheduling and a gimmicky offense that is run by a QB that is not all that good to begin with. I'll have a post up tomorrow debunking the myths about this year's Cardinal team, but for now I'll leave it alone.
On the Ball State side of things it's been guarded optimism. Most fans believe this Cardinal team is a special one and capable of doing things on the gridiron no other team has done before in Muncie. Central has been a demon in and of itself and most are optimistic that they can be exorcised a bit in Mt. Pleasant. There's been concern about the weather, concern about Dan LeFevour, concern about the CMU crowd and the potentially small BSU one. There's concern about the mid-week game time. There's concern about the national stage. There's concern that all this might be just too good to be true.
But we're about 27 hours from game time and it's put up or shut up time for both these squads. Whoever loses is out of the MAC West race, and for Ball State a loss is a death knell to any BCS hopes they might harbor, however small those chances might be.
Central Michigan University Chippewas
Record: 8-2 (6-0 MAC)
Last Week: W 33-30 @NIU (OT)
Ball State University Cardinals
Location: Muncie, IN
Record: 10-0 (6-0 MAC)
Last Week: W 31-16 @Miami
Offense: Barring a complete collapse of the weather in Mt. Pleasant, this one should be very offensively centered. When CMU has the ball, they'll look to Dan LeFevour at QB to lead the 4th ranked offensive unit in the conference. They are 2nd in the pass department in conference, 7th in the rush, and LeFevour is a mobile, experienced, good-decision maker in clutch moments. The Chips average 279 through the air and 131 on the ground all while putting up 28.7 points per game (good for 5th best in the MAC).
LeFevour has completed 68% of his pass attempts this season, as well as throwing 3 INTs to his 13 TDs. He doesn't allow for the offense to self destruct or get in challenging situations, thanks largely to the mobility he has. He is the team's leading rusher and 9th in the MAC with 56 yards per game and 5 TDs on the year. The Chips have a quality back-up in senior Brian Brunner, who filled in for LeFevour while he was banged up earlier in the year. Brunner isn't as mobile as LeFevour, but is a much bigger weapon to stretch the field. Brunner was also the field general for the victory for the Chips at Indiana. Two of the Chips' weapons at the wideout position are Bryan Anderson and Antonio Brown. Both have 5 scores on the year, though both are containable. It certainly helps that defenses usually have at least one player spy LeFevour, as it opens up the coverage down the field.
The offensive line for the Chips has been susceptible to pressure up front, sitting at 10th in the MAC in sacks allowed, even with LeFevour's mobility. Last week against NIU the Chips gave up 3 sacks in an overtime win. If the offensive line for the Chips shores up, opens holes, and protects the pocket, then LeFevour will have the time needed to step into throws or take off.
For Ball State, it's the tale of two offenses this season. There's the offense that gets hot and takes advantage of opportunities and early drives and there is the offense that struggles to get going, sometimes to the tune of a first quarter shutout. Nate Davis and company take a high octane attack capable of shredding people through the air, but different than the Ball State team of last year, this Cardinals team has a consistent and steady running game.
MiQuale Lewis and Cory Sykes demonstrate weekly the speed and elusiveness that makes them premier running backs in the MidAmerican Conference. Lewis has accumulated 1273 yards and 17 TDs this season, good for 9th in the nation in rushing yards. At the skill positions the Cardinals are deep with any one of Briggs Orsbon, Darius Hill, Myles Trempe, Louis Johnson, Dan Ifft, or Madaris Grant making big catches and stretching defenses. All have their shortcomings, none are especially scary, but together, they are an outstanding corps of wideouts and tight ends.
The offensive line for the Cardinals is one of the best you've never heard of. The o-line deserves much of the credit for the success of the Cardinals running game and for protecting Nate Davis to the tune of 8 sacks through 10 games, good for 6th best in the nation. They rendered All-MAC defensive end Larry English virtually non-existent for the NIU game, a player who recorded 5 tackles, 2.5 for loss, and 1.5 sacks against the Chips the following week.
Advantage: The Chips have one player responsible for their success as Dan LeFevour is the straw that stirs the drink. For the Cardinals, it's a team effort, with Davis, the receivers, Lewis, and most importantly... the offensive line. I'll take my chances that one player has a bad night before an entire offensive unit. For Chips fans who may think this Cardinals team is a one trick pony wearing #13, you're wrong. Dead wrong.
Defense: By the numbers alone, the CMU defense isn't all that daunting. They are 8th in the conference in points allowed per game (28.7) and 12th best for yards allowed at a staggering 406 yards per game. The Chips are solid against the run, allowing a 2nd best in conference 133 yards per game. But that may be because teams just choose to throw the ball a whole lot more against these Chips.
Pass defense hasn't been their strong suit, as CMU yields an average of 273 yards per game, good for dead last in the MAC. That has to make Nate Davis' mouth water. But it's feast or famine for the Chips in the defensive side of things. A pressure based defense gets to the QB a fair number of times, a conference leading 27 times to be exact. If a QB is composed, can make good reads, and avoid the pressure though, this defense is ripe for the picking. The secondary has only picked off 7 passes all year.
For Ball State it has been a bend but don't break sort of season for a unit much maligned early on. The Cardinals have given up less than 20 points in each of their last 5 outings and a team hasn't scored more than 24 all season. The Cardinals lead the MAC in interceptions and have a defensive secondary virtually unrivaled in the MidAmerican conference.
The key defensively for these Cardinals will be the play of the defensive front 7, and more specifically their ability to limit the opportunities of Dan LeFevour on the ground. If they can force him to beat him with his arm, and go through this secondary to do it, then it will be a successful day for Ball State. The key to this lies in the hands of Davyd Jones, Bryant Haines, and Brandon Crawford.
Advantage: Push. The Chips have a serviceable defense, but they have yet to face an attack like the Cardinals. You are just as likely to have Nate Davis drop 300 on you through the air as you are to have MiQuale Lewis throw up 150. It would be clearly be in the Cardinals favor were it not for the pressure and sacks that CMU is able to put on opposing QBs.
Coaching: Butch Jones is a quality head coach in his second year at the helm for CMU. It is a safe bet that he won't be there for long as the BCS conferences come calling after several more years like this one and the last one. Jones has a MAC title under his belt, but it is yet to be seen if it his truly his success or the success or his predecessors at CMU. In a few years he may be one of the hottest coaches in the country if he continues to win, recruits well, and does it clean.
Brady Hoke has returned to his alma mater and made the most of his first opportunity to be a head coach. In just six years he has righted the ship that was left for him by Bill Lynch and made the Cardinals a winner and himself a hot commodity in the coaching market that's starting to heat up.
Since Central Michigan is too
Ball State University:
Charlie Cardinal. Feathered. Fierce. Robin-sized.
Advantage: I have said it a thousand times, there's a way to balance being Indian themed and having a mascot. Look at the horse and spear at Florida State. Quite simply, CMU either took the bitch way out and never had one in the first place, or they're too scared now to try it. If Notre Dame can make a Fighting Irishman respectable, I'm sure you could slap some feathers on someone.
Overall: If you suggest that Ball State wins this game, Central Michigan fans will remind you quickly of last year's 58-38 win in Muncie, laugh at your obvious failure to understand the pecking order in the MAC and then continue doing whatever it is they do in Mt. Pleasant. But the fact is that this is a Ball State team vastly different from last year's edition. A run game is present. The Cardinals are at full strength. Momentum is rolling. The defense figured out how to stop teams when it counts.
The common opponents for the Cards and Chips have been Indiana, Northern Illinois, and Toledo. And while the Cardinals and Chips are both 3-0 against them, BSU's average margin of victory was 28, with their smallest margin at 22. For CMU, their average margin was 2.3 points, with one of their wins coming in overtime. The Chips have won 5 games this year by a margin of 3 points or less. Some will say that makes them tough. I will say that the truly tough don't have close games. They come out and stomp ass from pillar to post.
Many BSU fans are predicting a closely fought game, an epic showdown, and a battle that is worthy of the term "classic". CMU fans will have you believe that it won't be close. This flash in the pan Nate Davis will bomb on national television, the dream season ends, and Ball State and their pissant fans will once again remain subservient to the Chips. The bottom line is that opinion, much like those who spew it, are ridiculous. They are right in that it won't be close. They are wrong as to who that large margin will favor. The Cards win. Large. Stylish. Going away.
Ball State 41
Central Michigan 24