Penn State’s stout defense presents plenty of challenges for the reigning MAC champs.
Time and Date: Saturday, September 11 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Location: Beaver Stadium — University Park, PA
Spread: Penn State (-22.5)
ESPN FPI: Penn State has 93.8% chance to win
All-time series: No previous matchups
Setting the scene
The Ball State Cardinals ride the country’s fourth longest win streak. Mike Neu’s program has rattled off 8-straight victories, attaining a MAC championship and the program’s first-ever bowl victory over that timespan. Ball State checked in at No. 23 in the final 2020 AP Poll, while Penn State suffered its first unranked season since 2015 with a 4-5 finish.
But the No. 11 Nittany Lions are back on the national radar after a spectacular defensive performance in Week 1, invading Camp Randall Stadium and leaving the state of Wisconsin with a ranked conference victory. The Cardinals still have seven AP votes to their name, but last week’s opener was not smooth sailing. Ball State was deadlocked with Western Illinois of the FCS at halftime but eventually escaped with a 31-21 victory that lacked an exclamation point.
The upset-minded Cardinals try to revert to their 2020 form when inhabiting the second largest stadium in the country. The win streak will be put to its greatest test yet in the intense environment of Happy Valley.
Ball State Cardinals outlook
The team may learn from it, but Ball State would probably like to have that opener back. After an inspiring 2020 run which concluded in convincing upsets over ranked Buffalo and San Jose State teams, the Cardinals weren’t in the clear against an FCS team until the fourth quarter.
Turnovers weren’t a factor at all and the team remained disciplined in the penalty department. The issue was that Ball State’s offense repeatedly struggled to move the sticks, punting four times by the 8:00 mark in the second quarter and six times total. Running backs were plugged at the line of scrimmage and the passing game remained conservative, lacking many attempts past the first down markers. Still, a win is a win, but it wasn’t the confidence booster Ball State hoped in preparation for the Nittany Lions.
The team returns 20 starters from last year’s MAC title team with the roster comprised of plenty of 22 and 23 year old veterans. At age 23, starting quarterback Drew Plitt is one of those established leaders. He fired two touchdown passes in his first in-game action since New Year’s Eve, but Ball State didn’t rely on his arm as much as usual in the opener. Plitt has shown the ability to throw 35-40 times in an outing and light defenses up through the air, but Ball State opted not to take that approach last Thursday.
However, Plitt’s protection behind an offensive line returning all starters was considerably improved. He absorbed 3.5 sacks per game last season but Ball State just completed its first game without allowing a sack since August 2018.
Starting running back Tye Evans was not in uniform due to a lower body injury last week, so Will Jones carried the bulk of the running game. He produced 93 yards on 18 attempts, and his efforts were complemented by an emerging secondary back in the fourth quarter. Look for Carson Steele’s contributions to amplify in the backfield after his 7-carry, 79-yard performance while putting on the closing touches to Ball State’s Week 1 victory.
But if there’s one name to know on this Ball State offense, it’s the FBS’s active leader in receptions and receiving yards. Justin Hall continued to add to his remarkable résumé with eight receptions, 137 yards, and two touchdowns in a statement showcase from the All-MAC wideout. If Hall replicates another performance of eight receptions, he cracks the top 40 for most catches in FBS history. The playmaker presents tremendous speed and route running, and Ball State utilizes his talents in a multitude of ways — including lining him up for jet sweeps on recurring occasions.
While Hall draws much of the attention from secondaries, his supporting cast consists of reliable names. Yo’Heinz Tyler enjoyed a career day in the 2020 MAC Championship Game and in Week 1, he ranked second on the team with four catches and 32 yards. Cincinnati transfer Jayshon Jackson also complements the returning wide receivers as the only other Cardinal to corral multiple targets from Plitt in the opener.
It came as no surprise that the Cardinals were able to stifle the run game of an FCS team in the opener. This team won the MAC title in 2020 by limiting Buffalo’s elite running back duo to well below their typical production.
Much of the potency on Ball State’s defense resides within the linebacker position where they retain four All-MAC linebackers from the 2020 season and a fifth linebacker in Jimmy Daw who won MAC Championship Game MVP. There are a lot of tackling machines in this experienced group and they’ll have their eyes set on containing Penn State’s running game.
Jaylin Thomas led the team in takedowns last week and currently holds the title as the conference’s active tackling leader. Brandon Martin also has made a name for himself by stuffing opposing running backs and his abilities earned him the 2020 MAC Co-Defensive Player of the Year. Thomas and Martin make up the inside linebackers, but the outside linebackers present plenty of firepower as well. Jimmy Daw finished 2020 strong with 12 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble, and an interception in his final two games while Christian Albright demonstrates solid pass rushing mechanics from the other outside slot.
The secondary didn’t perform to the level of expectation in Week 1 by allowing 367 passing yards and that’s mainly on the cornerbacks for allowing a single receiver to amass over 230 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Ball State is still working to replace the departed Antonio Phillips and must fix those coverage issues when heading up to Happy Valley.
Although the Cardinals are currently working out the kinks in the corners, they should feel comfortable about the depth at safety. Bryce Cosby is the vocal leader of this group and landed First Team All-MAC honors with a pair of interceptions to go along with 62 tackles in an abbreviated season. His partner Brett Anderson also registered two picks in 2020 and his hitting ability from the secondary sharply improves Ball State’s ground coverage.
Penn State Nittany Lions outlook
Penn State’s defense had everything thrown at them last Saturday and they remained resilient. Wisconsin scored only once in four opportunities inside the 10-yard line. A crunch-time first and goal opportunity at the 1-yard line is a death sentence for most defenses, but the Nittany Lions staved off Wisconsin from scoring the go-ahead touchdown in the final minutes. After dropping five straight to start 2020, everything feels fresher in Happy Valley with a statement road win to usher in the new year.
Now fans are back in the 106,000+ seat venue of Beaver Stadium for the first time since 2019. With all the hype surrounding the program, the main question for Penn State becomes: how can the offense crank it up a notch?
Penn State’s offense was nothing to marvel at last fall, and the Nittany Lions acted upon the lack of scoring output by hiring Mike Yurcich from Texas this offseason to coordinate the unit. The offense did not manage 30 points in regulation in its first seven games last year, but the tide started to turn in the final two weeks of the season as 39 and 56 points were dropped on Michigan State and Illinois, respectively.
The offense felt like it was back to square one Saturday, but to be fair, points are usually at a premium when Wisconsin is on the other sideline. The Badgers have fielded a top 10 scoring defense in five of the last six seasons.
Penn State struggled to move the ball on the ground, and the team totaled 50 rushing yards on 18 attempts. The run game has often been a strength for this Nittany Lions team which returns Noah Cain, who suffered a premature injury in the opener last fall. Now that he’s back on the turf, his physical running style is often called upon in fourth quarters when Penn State needs to run the clock and move the chains. Cain’s closing duties were on full display last week and he assembled a 34-yard rush, 16-yard reception, and go-ahead touchdown in the final frame to beat Wisconsin.
The passing game is led by third-year starter Sean Clifford, who captained Penn State’s offense during the 2019 Cotton Bowl run. Clifford’s 2020 campaign didn’t go as smoothly as he endured 22 sacks and dealt with plenty of duress in the pocket. Wisconsin applied pressure Saturday, and while Clifford struggled against heavy blitz packages at first, he eventually adjusted and found his receivers on islands — completing three passes of 40+ yards to bolster the offense after a scoreless first half.
Jahan Dotson should be the main focal point for Ball State’s cornerbacks. He makes plays in every level of the field and his tremendous hands and route-running make him an enticing prospect for the 2022 NFL Draft. Including the Wisconsin game, Dotson now has three consecutive 100-yard outings and holds the designation of the best player on Penn State’s offense.
Parker Washington and KeAndre Lambert-Smith round out the receiving corps. Both receivers fielded four passes in Saturday’s win and should be key components of the offense going forward. But surprisingly, Penn State has yet to break in a tight end to replace 2021 second round pick Pat Freiermuth. Amassing zero tight end receptions in Week 1 is a trend certain to change as the Nittany Lions turn their focus to Ball State.
Let’s reiterate that stat from earlier: Wisconsin had four trips inside the 10-yard line last week. They scored one touchdown and came up empty-handed on three occasions. That’s absurd dominance from Penn State.
The Nittany Lions were defensively sound all across the board last week, recording two sacks, six tackles for loss, four pass deflections, one fumble recovery, and most importantly, a pair of interceptions in the final three minutes.
For a school which designates itself as “Linebacker U”, the star of the unit is situated at middle linebacker. Ellis Brooks tallied a team-high 11 tackles and a sack in Madison, but the Nittany Lions will have to operate without Brooks for a half after he was assessed a fourth quarter targeting ejection. That leaves outside linebacker Brandon Smith — eight tackles last week — as the primary name to keep tabs on in the linebacking corps.
Penn State’s defense received a nice in-state gift from the transfer portal this offseason in the form of Arnold Ebiketie. The Temple transfer caused plenty of havoc in the opener with seven tackles and a sack, shedding blocks with regularity against Wisconsin’s typically sturdy offensive line. Ball State’s offensive line finally finished with a sack-free outing in Week 1 and keeping Ebiketie in check is the key to doing it again.
It’s hard to tell which position group is best on Penn State’s defense, but there is a lot of talent in the secondary. Graham Mertz completed less than 60 percent of his passes and tossed two interceptions to Penn State defensive backs a week ago. The experienced cornerbacks Tariq Castro-Fields and Joey Porter Jr. likely focus on containing Yo’Heinz Tyler and Jayshon Jackson, while the versatile safeties will have their go at Justin Hall — who usually lines up as a slot receiver. All-Big Ten strong safety Jaquan Brisker snatched a pivotal goal line interception last week, and he’s the last player Drew Plitt should try to place his passes near this Saturday, as he led the Nittany Lions in pass deflections in 2020.
Penn State plays a MAC team nearly every season, so it comes as a surprise that it’s the first-ever meeting between the Nittany Lions and Cardinals. While a hypothetical 2020 matchup between these teams would seem more evenly matched, everything has shifted in the Nittany Lions’ favor after each team’s Week 1 performance.
Ball State’s offense was great in 2020, but it was never explosive as the Cardinals attained the 40-point mark on one occasion. We saw last week what the nation’s most elite defenses like Texas A&M can achieve against electrifying offenses like Kent State. So, after Penn State’s remarkable defensive showing at Wisconsin, there is concern as to how much damage the Cardinals can inflict on the scoreboard.
Also, Ball State doesn’t present as unforgiving of a defense as Wisconsin and Penn State should experience more success in the passing game this week, especially after Western Illinois surpassed 360 yards through the air on the Cardinals’ defense.
The Cardinals are a strong team and should remain MAC West contenders, but it’s difficult to see this game trending in their favor after our early-season sneak previews of each program involved in this matchup.
Prediction: Penn State 38, Ball State 10