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Penn State Football Can’t Overlook Ball State

On Saturday, No. 19 Penn State football is set to begin its non-conference slate after picking up an early season-defining conference road victory over No. 12 Wisconsin.

Although the Nittany Lions certainly showcased their ability to take down one of the nation’s most talented squads, their next opponent poses a different type of challenge presented by an experienced, veteran-laden Ball State squad searching for its fourth Power Five win in school history.

Led by sixth-year head coach Mike Neu, the Cardinals returned nearly all of their production from their most talented roster in school history a season ago. In 2020, Ball State skyrocketed to an impressive 7-1 record including a Mid-American Conference title and the program’s first-ever bowl win in a convincing 34-13 triumph over No. 22 San Jose State.

The feat earned the Cardinals their first-ever season-ending AP Top-25 berth by finishing the year at No. 24 in the country. Now, with 20 of 22 starters returning from the program’s first conference championship-winning roster in 24 years, the dark horse bunch is likely hungry for a chance at one of college football’s most successful programs.

With 16 seniors in its starting lineup, Ball State is one of the most experienced teams Penn State will face all season. Fifth-year quarterback Drew Plitt is the engine that propels the Cardinals’ high-octane attack, as he’s entering his third full season as a starter coming off of a second-team All-MAC campaign. In just eight contests during 2020, Plitt threw for 2,164 yards and 17 touchdowns in his most efficient season under center.

Furthermore, Plitt will likely leave the program as the most productive quarterback in school history. At the moment, the Ohio native ranks fourth in Ball State history with 6,708 career passing yards.

The Cardinals have nine other All-MAC players returning from its previous roster, including a duo of proven veteran wide receivers in Justin Hall and Yo’Heinz Tyler. Hall is returning for his fifth season as Plitt’s favorite target, touting an ungodly career receiving total with 265 receptions for 2,909 yards. The four-time All-MAC selection is also a threat on the ground and has rushed for 622 yards while averaging 7.0 yards per carry.

The flurry of talented skill players has the support of a solid offensive line anchored by five returning starters from its championship campaign. Seniors Curtis Blackwell and Kaleb Slaven lead the way for the unit as four-year starters, making the Cardinal offensive line a tough matchup for the Nittany Lion’s inexperienced starters in the defensive trenches.

On defense, Ball State lacks the same amount of firepower marked on the other side of the ball, but coordinator Tyler Stockton still returns nine starters from a bend-don’t-break group from a year ago. The Cardinals run a 3-4 defensive scheme, with four proven All-Conference linebackers headlining the front seven.

Co-conference Defensive Player of the Year Brandon Martin is the undisputed leader of the core. The star senior earned the postseason accolade by tallying 90 tackles in eight games. On the backend, the Cardinals’ secondary led the MAC with 10 interceptions in 2020, making both components of the defense a tough matchup for Mike Yurcich’s second go-around calling the shots for the Nittany Lions.

Last Saturday, Ball State showed signs of rust in its first challenge of the season versus Western Illinois, an FCS opponent. The visiting Bulldogs limited Plitt to just 17 completions for 188 yards, contributing to the 7-7 halftime score. Ultimately, Ball State was able to establish the run behind its powering offensive line, ultimately leading to a 31-21 opening victory.

Despite starting slow in week one, Neu will surely have his group ready to face the most talented squad on his schedule this Saturday. While the Nittany Lions are favored to end Ball State’s impressive eight-game winning streak, James Franklin and Co. should be wary of a veteran Cardinal group sandwiched between his team’s date with Auburn the following week.

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About the Author

Connor Krause

Connor Krause is a junior from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania double majoring in journalism and business. He is a lifelong Penn State football and basketball fan and enjoys rooting for Pittsburgh sports teams. In his free time, Connor can be found playing golf or pick-up basketball. You can follow his Twitter and Instagram @ckrause_31.

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