Cardinals, Rockets set to face off for some Halloween MACtion
MACtion is in full force as the Ball State Cardinals and Toledo Rockets are set to meet at the Glass Bowl for a Halloween night conference matchup — the third game in 12 days for both squads. The Cardinals, now 3-6 overall and 2-3 in conference play, hope to rebound from back-to-back blowout losses including a 52-14 defeat at Ohio a week ago. Toledo improved to 4-4 overall and 2-2 in the MAC with its impressive 51-24 victory against Western Michigan on the road. The win over the Broncos, along with next week’s showdown at division leader Northern Illinois, keeps the Rockets in the mix in the MAC West.
Ball State at Toledo
Kickoff: Wednesday, Oct. 31 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Toledo -18
Three Things to Watch
1. QB questions
Both Ball State and Toledo have suffered injuries at the quarterback position. The Cardinals will be without starter Riley Neal after he suffered a left knee injury in the loss to Ohio. A right knee injury forced Neal to miss nine games in 2017, but he had been healthy and started all nine games this season. The junior has completed 57.9 percent of his passes for 1,917 yards and 11 touchdowns with just four interceptions. Neal has also contributed 357 rushing yards and five TDs on the ground. Drew Plitt will start in place of Neal, as he did three times last year. Plitt has completed 18 of 29 passes (62.1 percent) for 235 yards and one TD with two interceptions. He also has one rushing touchdown among six carries.
Toledo’s Mitchell Guadagni is questionable to play due to a shoulder injury he suffered against Western Michigan. Guadagni, whose inconsistency cost him a start against Buffalo two weeks ago, played arguably his best half of the season in Kalamazoo before he was forced out of action. The junior has completed 57.5 percent of his passes this season for 1,053 yards and a 13:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio and has added 428 rushing yards and three scores on the ground. If Guadagni can’t go, Eli Peters will make his third start of the season. Peters, who has completed just 47.1 percent of his passes for 671 yards, has nine touchdowns to his credit and only two interceptions across seven games. He started against Buffalo when Guadagni was benched two weeks ago, and also against Bowling Green when Guadagni was sidelined while recovering from a concussion.
2. Long scrimmage plays
Toledo and Ball State both rank in the top half of the MAC offensively in long scrimmage plays. The Rockets have recorded 133 plays of 10 yards or more and 44 plays of at least 20 yards, both of which rank third in the league. The Cardinals have recorded 126 plays of 10-plus yards, ranking fifth on the conference leaderboard, and 37 plays of at least 20 yards, tied for sixth. Led by receiver Riley Miller, who has 23 plays from scrimmage of 10 yards or more, five different Ball State players have recorded at least 15 double-digit yardage plays, which is the most in the MAC. Three Toledo players have accomplished the feat, led by Guadagni’s 20.
Only three MAC schools have recorded an 80-yard play this season, and Toledo and Ball State each have one: Freshman running back Will Jones broke off an 80-yard TD run for the Cardinals against Eastern Michigan, and Peters and leading receiver Diontae Johnson hooked up for an 80-yard TD against Buffalo.
Limiting explosive plays will be key for both defenses, as both rank in the bottom half of the conference in that department. The Cardinals have surrendered 141 plays of 10 yards or more, which is the most in the league and ranks 141st nationally. The Rockets have allowed the second-most plays of 20-plus (51), 30-plus (28) and 40-plus (14) yards, behind only Kent State in each category among MAC teams and no better than 113th in the country.
3. Third-down conversions
Similarly, converting third-down opportunities and limiting third-down conversions defensively will play a key role. Ball State has posted the best third-down conversion rate in the MAC (45.2 percent), which ranks in the top 25 nationally, having moved the chains 70 times in 155 attempts. Of course, Neal and running back James Gilbert played a big role in that success. Neal is out, and Gilbert, who ranks second in the conference with 586 rushing yards, is questionable because of a back injury.
Toledo has struggled in the same situations and ranks 11th in the MAC and 121st in FBS with a 33.01 percent third-down conversion rate. As a more accurate passer and more dangerous runner than Peters, Guadagni would give the Rockets a big boost on third downs if he’s able to play.
Thanks to a solid pass rush led by Tuzar Skipper’s 6.5 sacks, the Toledo defense has held opponents to a 35.83 percent success rate on third downs, which ranks fourth in the MAC. Ball State, which also has a feared pass rusher in linebacker Christian Albright (4.5 sacks), has held opponents to a 40.17 percent success rate, which sits No. 8 on the conference leaderboard.
The injuries to Riley Neal and James Gilbert, as well as leading tackler Jacob White (questionable to play because of an ankle injury), put Ball State in a very difficult position. Toledo has a more talented roster and the home-field advantage, and though the Rockets might also be forced to play without their starting quarterback, it’s easy to see why Jason Candle’s team is still a heavy favorite. Funny things can happen during weekday MACtion, and Halloween seems like the perfect time for an unexpected upset, especially if the Rockets are caught looking ahead to Northern Illinois. Nevertheless, Toledo should survive and keep its hopes alive for a second straight division title.