Toledo Looks to Remain in MAC Title Race Against Ball State

As the MAC Championship chase continues, the Toledo Rockets will welcome the Ball State Cardinals to the Glass Bowl for their final home game of the 2016 season. Our Tom Mauter has the preview.

Tom Mauter, Rocket Digest staff writer, tjmauter@comcast.net

November 14, 2016

 

The Toledo Rockets continue their quest,  playing to keep their hopes alive of winning the MAC title. This week they entertain the visiting Cardinals of Ball State Wednesday in the Glass Bowl on ESPN2 at 7 pm ET.

 

The Cardinals, under new head coach Mike Neu, are 4-6, 1-5 looking to string together something positive as their season winds down. Think two wins and a bowl trip!

 

Losing four of their last five contests, the Cardinals have been in these games with the exception of the Western Michigan blowout. Otherwise, the losses have been by 10 or fewer points. Last week, the surging Eagles of Eastern Michigan, and now bowl eligible, had to come from behind, scoring the winning touchdown with thirty-two seconds left. 

 

If Coach Neu’s name sounds familiar, think back to 1993 when he played QB for the Cardinals. He was the MAC’s MVP and directed the largest comeback in Ball State’s history. It turned a game in which Neu’s Cardinals were down 30 to 3 into a come from behind win, 31-30 . . . against the University of Toledo Rockets. Yeah that Mike Neu!

The Cardinals on Offense

Balls State is about as a balanced of offense as one can find. The BSU passing attack has been averaging 230 yards per game while the rushing game has been at 226 yards per game.

 

Want more evidence? Let’s look at the offensive first downs. The Cardinals have racked up 118 total first downs by running the ball. They have moved the chains 115 times via the pass. Then there is the offensive yardage. To date, total rushing yardage is 2260 while BSU has accumulated 2302 by the air.

 

The Cardinals’ running game is James Gilbert. He leads in every category including total carries, yardage and rushing touchdowns.  Gilbert has rushed 222 times for an average of 5.4 ypr. That’s out of a team total of 447 rushes. Darian Green is the only other running back to start, four games, and has a total of 47 attempts and a 5.4 yards per carry average. Green has one rushing TD while Gilbert has scored 12 times via the rush. Freshman Malik Dunner, has 24 carries with a 6.3 yards a carry average and a single rushing touchdown. WR KeVonn Mabon is good for a jet sweep carry per game averaging 6.2 yards a carry.

 

An unknown, as of now, is the status of RB Gilbert. He incurred a leg injury early in the second quarter against Eastern. He did not return but is projected to play against the Rockets. The question is opened as to how much.

 

The passing game is triggered by sophomore quarterback Riley Neal (6’6”, 220#). While a talented player, he is gaining needed experience. His learning process has registered 10 TD passes versus 11 INTs. He has connected on 187 of 311 throws for 2093 yards in nine games.

 

The balance of the passing game is skewed to #16 KeVonn Mabon with 67 receptions for 794 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Speedy freshman D. Hazelton, Jr. is second with 38 grabs including three for six points. WR Chris Lacanaria, #5, has 26 receptions for 11.2 yards per catch and one TD. Jordan Houge (18) Darian Green (16) and Devin Reece (10) make up the rest of the BSU receivers with double-digit receptions. This trio has combined for two TD catches. Nine different receivers have started with only one, Mabon, starting all 10 games. This is yet another challenge for Neal.

 

The big hurt for the offense has been 22 turnovers; eight fumbles lost to go with 14 interceptions including 11 thrown by Neal. Hopefully the Rockets will add to his growing pains.

The Cardinals on Defense

On defense, BSU is limiting opponents to 156.6ypg rushing the ball. By comparison, Toledo is yielding 160.6 yards a game on the ground. The Cardinals are giving up 30.3 points per game.  They have attacked the opponents’ running game by staking seven to eight in the box and run blitzing with linebackers. LB Sean Wiggins has been the key in the front seven leading the team in total tackles and is fifth in the MAC.

 

The force of the front four is DE A. Winbush with 9.0 TFL and 6.0 sacks to go with 4.o QB hurries. DE Joshua Posley is having a stellar season with 10.0 TFL, team high, and 3.0 sacks.

 

The Cardinals have limited opponents to just 15 rushing touchdowns worthy of a hat tip.

 

The secondary is another story. The Cardinals have been beaten over the top 21 times while yielding more than 313 passing yards per game.

 

The top performer of the secondary is sophomore CB Marc Walton with 11 pass breakups and three of Ball State’s six interceptions. He is battling Kent State’s Najee Murray for top honors in the MAC. Ranking sixth on the team in total tackles, he should be receiving post league honors. Junior CB David Moore has broken up ten passes as well making for a solid one-two defensive combo.

 

Fourth down conversions have been a plus for Ball State with the Cardinals converting on 55% of their fourth down attempts while limiting opponents to a successful conversion rate of 27% on fourth down. The OL has given up 18 sacks while the DL has rung up 25 sacks.

The Cardinals Special Teams 

Kyle Schmidt is the punter and has a strong leg with a good coverage unit – allowing 4.4 yards per return, third best in the MAC and 20th in the nation. The Cardinals are returning punts, on average, 6.27 ypr about the same as Toledo, 6.67 ypr. Schmidt is averaging 41.2 yards per punt with a net of 38.4 yards average.

 

He also kicks off for the Cardinals. The Cards kickoff coverage unit is good, limiting an average return of 21-yards. The ability of Schmidt to pooch kick on kickoffs is a favorable factor in minimizing big returns.

 

Morgan Hagee is an accurate field goal kicker connecting on four of his last five attempts. Overall he is 11 of 15 with two of his misses coming from 48 and 50 yards out. He is perfect on his 34 PAT attempts.

 

KeVonn Mabon returns kickoffs, sporting a 23.1 yards per return average and a season long return of 46 yards on 19 returns. Five other Cardinals have returned kickoff with Darian Green second in handles with eight for a 20.9 average.

 

Punt returns are primarily handled by Aaron Hepp, with a 6.1 yards per punt return.

 

The Cardinals play with the heart that Neu is looking forward. Now it’s about gaining the experience that will eliminate the costly penalty here and there and reduce those pesky turnovers.

PLAYERS TO WATCH 

#23 CB Marc Walton and #13 CB David Moore – if they are in pursuit of Rocket receivers it will be a long night for Coach Neu’s Cardinals

#3 LB Sean Wiggins – where he makes tackles will be telling

#16 WR KeVonn Mabon – triggers the BSU offense in air

#34 RB James Gilbert – look for affects of his leg injury from the previous game

WHAT TO LOOK FOR

·      Neal will throw to go to Mabon early and often

·      Neal will throw deep mixing in crossing routes and tunnel screens

·      Gilbert runs to the right side early with power and speed pending injury impairments

·      #4 Dunner, true freshman, is a bigger back with speed but has trouble staying in as a pass blocker; he tends to be flagged for holding

·      Cardinals employee a two tight end formation with a big wide receiver bunched in near the linemen for a power run formation – dubbed the nasty cluster

·      John Stepec to add to his MAC-leading TFLs

·      Aaron Taylor #7 on a delayed blitz from the right edge

·      The Rockets to bring pressure from the defensive left edge

·      Cardinals to blitz on any down to attack the running game and keep Woodside uncomfortable, if possible

·      Ball State to have problems covering Thompson, Jones and Johnson one-on-one on deep throws with too much speed to cover

·      Cardinals on read option jet sweep to either side with RB up the middle

·      Ball State QB to fake a pitch back to the running back going to the offensive left and throw back to the tight end on a drag route to the right;

·      Group tackling by the Rockets on Gilbert

·      Run blitz by the Rockets to keep Gilbert going to side to side instead of straight up the middle

·      Not much opportunity for Rockets kickoff returners to break a return beyond the 30-yard line

 

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Game Weather Forecast - Cooling from a day-time high of near 60 degrees to a low of near 40 degrees; winds to be light and variable – a non-factor. Nice night to be in the Glass Bowl.


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