Getting back on the Ball

One nonconference loss is bad enough, but two would be dreadful. The odds-makers do not think much of Ball State's chances against the Tigers on Saturday, giving as many as 25 points to the Cardinal effort. But Missouri will not be looking past their opponent, especially after their experience at Troy.

Missouri has plenty of worries entering this weekend's game, but its opponent, Ball State, might not top the list. After being upset at Troy last week, nobody around the Missouri program will look beyond this week's matchup.

Coach Gary Pinkel credited the Cardinals' schedule--their opponents registered a .643 winning percentage last season, making Ball State's nonconference schedule the 15th toughest in the country--despite their struggles early this season.

"They started off with Boston College, played really well and then played a very, very good Purdue team," Pinkel said. "Purdue looks like it's gonna be one of the top teams in the Big Ten, without question. Now they're coming out to play us."

Perhaps a more pressing concern is the hiccups the Tigers had against Troy, what Pinkel calls "Missouri beating Missouri." Three turnovers and a blocked punt marred their efforts in southeastern Alabama, all occurrences that Pinkel is not accustomed to seeing.

Penalties also forced the Tigers into some difficult spots, which Pinkel wants to avoid against the Cardinals.

"We got ourselves with some penalties and some long-yardage situations," he said. "They reduce your chance of converting third downs, the longer situation you get in."

The past week of practice has been spent on fixing problems as much as preparing for Ball State. That's not unusual, as Pinkel says the coaching staff is operating "like we do after every game."

Two of the aforementioned three turnovers came off the arm of junior QB Brad Smith, who has already thrown three picks, compared to seven all of last season. Smith said the coaching staff has not advised him to be more pass-oriented; instead, he said, those were just the opportunities that arose.

"I can't say that," he said. "Whenever a play was called and the situation was in, we try to do the best we can with that situation. We just didn't get it done."

Still, after falling behind 17-14 late in the first half, the Missouri offense sputtered and basically shut down. Smith said nerves were an issue, to a certain extent.

"It was a little bit, especially on offense," he said. "We need to find a way to get out of those. That's something we're trying to figure out."

Figuring out punt-team blocking assignments is another aspect Missouri must settle. The Trojans blocked a Brock Harvey punt in the third quarter last week, pinning the Missouri defense deep in its own territory.

To its credit, the defense held and did not allow Troy to get a point out of the short field, an accomplishment junior S Jason Simpson said was an important achievement.

"I think it was a testament to our defense," he said. "We got stuck inside our 30 three times. It's something we've been working on, really hard. That's the key to winning games and winning championships."

Simpson said the Tigers were "terrible" on special teams and that corrections must come immediately.

Conversely, special teams is one of the few bright spots for the Cardinals to this point. After a hard-fought 19-11 home loss to Boston College in its season opener, Ball State was dominated to the tune of 59-7 at Purdue last week. The defense turned in a fair performance against Boston College, allowing just 340 yards of offense. That changed last week, when the Boilermakers racked up 368 yards through the air and 599 yards of total offense.

Pinkel said the Cardinals bring "a combination of stuff on defense" and credited their aggressive play.

"They run well to the ball," he said. "They're very aggressive like they were last year. Again, they struggled a little bit against Purdue, but I think a lot of people are going to struggle against Purdue."

Last year, Missouri racked up 461 yards of offense in Muncie, piecing together a 35-7 win despite a concussion that sidelined Smith for the second half.

Sophomore Joey Lynch leads the offense after taking over as the team's top quarterback before the season opener. He has not had much help from his offensive line, which has allowed him to be sacked nine times, but Lynch has yet to throw an interception, racking up 226 passing yards and a touchdown in the process.

The Cardinals will be without top rusher Larry Bostic, who injured his right knee against Purdue and is out for the season. A converted wide receiver, Bostic accumulated 114 yards on 30 carries before the injury. Senior Scott Blair took his place on the depth chart released Monday, but true freshman Adell Givens, whose 60 rushing yards are the second most on the team, should see his fair share of action.

Missouri senior DE Zach Ville said he could care less about Ball State's tailback situation.

"If he's there or not, we're still gonna do our thing," he said.

Wide receiver Dante Ridgeway is Ball State's top threat. He has 12 catches for 101 yards this season, but has yet to find the end zone. Just a junior, Ridgeway is one reception short of the Ball State career receptions mark of 146, held by Deon Chester.

Ridgeway is the first game-breaking receiver the Tigers will face; he should be solid preparation for the quality of playmakers to come when Big 12 Conference play starts in two weeks.

Athletically, the Cardinals are no match for Missouri. Still, a team trying to regain some confidence after getting shellacked last week could present an intriguing test.

"We're just going to worry about us and getting our stuff correct," Simpson said. "If we execute perfectly and do our stuff correctly, we'll get it done."

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