Wyoming Football: First Look at the Ball State Cardinals
The Cowboys host the defending MAC champs in non-conference play. Here’s our preview of what to know about Ball State Cardinals football.
Wyoming hopes to emulate its MAC foe in 2021.
Wyoming Football: First Looks at Non-Conference Opponents
#ChirpChirp will make its way to War Memorial Stadium this fall when the Wyoming Cowboys host the Ball State Cardinals on September 18. The defending MAC champions recently achieved what Wyoming itself hopes to do in 2021, so while they aren’t exactly the same kind of team overall, Ball State won’t lack for confidence on the road against the experienced Pokes.
Location: Muncie, Indiana
Mascot: Charlie Cardinal
2020 Record: 7-1 (5-1 MAC)
Head Coach: Mike Neu (sixth year, 22-34 overall). The last time we saw the Ball State Cardinals on the gridiron, they beat the unexpectedly depleted San Jose State Spartans in last year’s Arizona Bowl. In a lot of ways, their journey to victory in Tucson emulated the same path that their defeated opponent had taken over the last few years. Neu inherited a team which had gone 3-9 in 2015 and, after dropping to 2-10 by 2017, made the jump from a 2019 season defined by heartbreak (three consecutive November losses by eight combined points) to a 2020 campaign where everything finally came together as envisioned.
Granted, their luck in close games essentially reversed itself last fall — after losing by seven to Ohio in the season opener, Ball State had four wins come by seven or fewer points — but they also didn’t have any glaring weaknesses and bring back nearly every major contributor from last year’s top 25 finish.
WR Justin Hall
What the 5-foot-9, 187-pound Hall lacks in physical stature, he’s more than makes up for in his ability to frustrate defenses throughout his decorated college career. Hall is a four-time all-MAC honoree, landing on the first-team offense in the last two years, already holds the school record for career catches, and should claim the record for career receiving yards sometime this fall on the strength of his resume as a yards-after-catch monster.
Justin Hall – the touchdown catch, followed up by the stare down
— Hustle Belt (@HustleBelt) December 19, 2020
FS Bryce Cosby
Ball State’s answer to Andrew Wingard, Cosby is another long-time Cardinal who has been integral to the program’s revival. His journey’s latest chapter culminated with a spot on the MAC’s first-team defense in 2020 after he picked up 62 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and two interceptions.
QB Drew Plitt
Dustin Crum is the MAC’s superstar in the making and Kaleb Eleby is the conference’s hottest young gun, but Plitt is the guy whose steady hand helped guide the Cardinals to new heights. After being pressed into starting duty back in 2017, he has improved every single year and played his best ball down the stretch last fall when Ball State needed it most.
LB Christian Albright
Albright has proven to be one of the MAC’s most durable players with 35 consecutive starts on his ledger, but for years he’s also been someone Ball State can rely upon for a big defensive play, as well.
Like Cosby, Albright also landed on the all-conference team for the first time in 2020 as a second-team defender. He had 31 tackles, six tackles for loss and three sacks in eight games, as well as a critical fumble recovery for a score in the MAC championship.
Ball State didn’t pile up points at quite the same rate as some of its MAC compatriots last fall, but don’t mistake that for being slouches on that side of the ball: The Cardinals ranked 30th in points per drive and 24th in offensive available yards percentage and, aside from having to replace their leading rusher from a year ago, should be a tough test for the Cowboys defense.
That departed running back, Caleb Huntley, won’t be easy to replace but sophomore Tye Evans (80 carries, 375 rushing yards, two TDs) and junior Will Jones (69 carries, 282 yards, two touchdowns) proved they could help Ball State survive when Huntley was injured down the stretch last year. They’ll benefit, too, from having perhaps the MAC’s most fearsome pass-catching duo in Hall and Yo’Heinz Tyler (16.1 YPC on 81 career receptions), as well as rising redshirt freshman Jalen McGaughry (five catches, 171 yards, three TDs).
Ball State definitely blurred the line between being lucky and good on defense in 2020, ranking just sixth in the MAC in yards per play allowed and 75th nationally in available yards percentage allowed, but 40th in points per drive allowed. Strong performances on third and fourth down (35.3% and 35% conversion rate allowed, respectively) helped, but it can be dangerous game relying on that to happen two years in a row.
One element that could use improvement is a pass rush that ranked 91st in the country with a 5.1% sack rate and 120th on standard downs (First downs, second-and-7 or fewer, third-and-4 or fewer, and fourth-and-4 or fewer) in particular. Anthony Ekpe popped up to lead the Cardinals with five sacks in 2020, but no one else had more than three sacks, a strange contrast to the reality that the Cardinals front seven was one of the best in the country at stopping the run.
That potential development could be doubly critical since Ball State will also go into 2021 without last season’s top cornerback, Antonio Phillips. Even with him, the good (ten interceptions, 140.11 passer rating allowed) may or may not have outweighed the bad (65.1% completion rate and 7.9 YPA allowed) in 2020.
This should be a fistfight between two very good teams with a lot at stake. Ball State is out to prove that 2020 wasn’t a fluke while Wyoming will hope to take that last big step toward title contention themselves, and it should come down to whether the Cardinals offense or the Cowboys defense can gain the upper hand for most of the game’s sixty minutes. For my money, I’d bet on the latter, especially if the Pokes can finally put it all together on offense and exploit the potential holes in Ball State’s own defense, too.
Wyoming 30, Ball State 24