Stopping Ball State's Run Game Paramount
EMU's got to figure out how to get the ball out of Carson Steele's arms and into the hands of its offense instead.
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Week 8 Football Preview: Eastern Michigan at Ball State
Saturday, Oct. 22 (2 p.m., ESPN+)
Every game at this point of the year feels like it’s more important than the last one, and that feeling is both honest and valid this week after Eastern Michigan’s recent home loss. Things looked good for EMU when it came home after its biggest win at Western Michigan ever, but the mood turned after its disastrous loss to Northern Illinois. With a 4-3 overall record (1-2 MAC), EMU has to head down to Muncie, Ind. to take on Ball State in a pivotal MAC West battle.
EMU is one of four teams in the division with 1-2 MAC records, while Ball State is second in the MAC West with a 2-1 record. Both schools need a win to set themselves up for division-deciding battles against Toledo, which enters the weekend with a 3-0 MAC record.
While EMU and Ball State aren’t rivals, this is generally a very competitive series that’s had some close games in recent years.
“It will certainly need to be a complete game,” EMU coach Chris Creighton said Monday to the media. “We’ve had some really good, close football games with Ball State throughout the years. Last time we were down there two years ago, they won and basically scored as time was running out. (It was a) one-touchdown game last year and every year [it’s just] tight, tough football.”
This’ll be the ninth time Creighton will coach against Ball State in his career and has a 3-5 record against the Cardinals, 3-3 since Mike Neu was hired as his alma mater’s football coach on the other side. EMU’s lost the last three in a row with scores of 29-23 in 2019, and 38-31 in each of the last two games.
What’s at stake?
A win for EMU this week would put the team in the biggest Put Up Or Shut Up game of the year against Toledo, which will hold the MAC West’s lead through this weekend regardless of its result at Buffalo, the East’s leader (3-0). An EMU win and losses by NIU and Central Michigan would give EMU the #2 spot in the West (win 2-2 tiebreaker over BSU). Then, in this scenario, the winner of the EMU-Toledo game would have their third divisional win of the year. But, none of that is possible without beating Ball State first.
Losing to Ball State would be such a punch in the gut for EMU. Without getting too weeded about what it could mean for Chris Crieghton’s job security, the Eagles would see its MAC record fall to 1-3 with the MAC’s best-looking team (so far) coming up. EMU might mathematically still be in the hunt for a MAC West title, but EMU’s best chances at reaching postseason play is by finding at least two more wins over its final four games to try to reach a bowl game.
“I don’t know how we can be more urgent,” Creighton said. “You always can be, but I can’t tell you that I want to win right now more than I did a week ago. I guess I could tell you that, but it wouldn’t be true. You’re always trying to find ways to work harder, work smarter, practice better, and all of that, but a week ago we were trying to do that 100%.
“The reality (is) when you have two losses in the conference, (…) you have to play your absolute best.”
EMU has to stop the run
Eastern Michigan’s defense has to stop the run. Seems fundamental and rudimentary enough, but it’s paramount to beating Ball State.
Last year, Ball State ran the ball 40 times for 200 yards and scored four touchdowns vs. EMU.
The year before, they ran it 52 times for 304 yards, three scores.
In 2019, 47 times for 196 yards and two scores on the ground.
Right now, Ball State has the MAC’s leading rusher in Carson Steele, the only MAC player listed on Bruce Feldman’s preseason Freaks List (via The Athletic). Steele’s 789 rush yards (on 168 carries, 4.7 avg.) and 8 TD are MAC-leading marks, and is third in the nation with 24 carries per game.
There is no secret here. EMU knows what it’s going to see out of Ball State’s offense. The team will have to study up on what blocking schemes it’ll have to look out for, but we all know who’s getting the ball.
But the question of the week is this: will EMU’s defense be able to stop the guy with the long, flowing blonde hair?
So far, this team’s had trouble stopping almost any team with, at worst, a halfway decent run game. Northern Illinois just bluntly ran the same handful of run plays for 287 yards at 5.9 per clip to a 29-point win. Buffalo, too, had 201 rushing yards against EMU.
Ball State’s got more than a running back, though. Its quarterback, John Paddock (Bloomfield Hills, Mich. native), is young and Neu, a former quarterback, has shown some decent growth in his first year as the team’s starting quarterback and he has three talented receivers — Jayshon Jackson, Yo’Heinz Tyler, Ali Abdur-Rahman — to throw to. Feels like a very similar situation to the Buffalo game which had an offensive run game worth respecting plus three receivers that will make the defense try and defend the whole field.
Steal the ball, steal a possession
Creighton sounds like a broken record for how often he says that his team didn’t win the turnover battle in a game.
It hasn’t happened yet, so let’s say EMU finally wins it the turnover battle this week. Hold that information and look at this chart:
EMU is in the upper-left quadrant peeking over Stanford and Vanderbilt’s shoulders. For educational purposes, that’s a great neighborhood to be in. But this is a football chart, and this is telling us that EMU’s offense can certainly finish drives [with touchdowns] if the defense gives it extra possessions. The problem is that EMU only has five takeaways to 15 turnovers.
Sure, the offense has to quit coughing the ball over itself, but EMU’s -10 turnover margin is tied for second-worst in the nation.
Winning the turnover game within the football game has been dismal for EMU this year, which is easy to hang onto and expect more of this year. But if this is the game where EMU turns that around, even for just this one game, this team’s shown that it’s capable of putting points on the board if it gains any extra possessions.