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Previewing The Enemy: Ball State Cardinals

No. 11 Penn State football is back in Beaver Stadium this Saturday.

After opening the season with an electric victory over Wisconsin last Saturday, the Nittany Lions now welcome Ball State to Happy Valley. The Cardinals opened their season with a victory over Western Illinois and are currently considered one of the top contenders in the Mid-American Conference.

Despite opening the season with a ranked win, James Franklin’s squad now takes on a Ball State team that can’t be overlooked, either. The two squads have never faced each other, while the Cardinals boast a 5-25 record all-time against ranked opponents. With that, let’s take a closer look at Penn State’s week two matchup:

The Team

Mike Neu is in the early stages of his sixth season as Ball State’s head coach. Before opening 2021 with the win over Western Illinois last Thursday, Neu’s squad made noise all last year by finishing with a 7-1 record and winning the MAC. The Cardinals stayed hot by winning the Arizona Bowl 34-13 over No. 22 San Jose State, and closing the season ranked No. 24 in the AP Top 25 Poll.

Ball State now returns talent everywhere from last year’s fantastic season. The Cardinals bring back 20 of their 22 starters from last year and boast 16 seniors in the starting lineup. Several of those returning stars come on the offensive side of the ball, including quarterback Drew Plitt and wideouts Justin Hall and Yo’Heinz Tyler.

Despite all of the skill and experience, Ball State was hardly dominant in its week one victory over Western Illinois. The Cardinals led by just a touchdown entering the fourth quarter and allowed 437 total offensive yards to the Leathernecks. Plitt was also limited to just 188 passing yards on 17 completions.

All things considered, that’s not a “bad” performance for Ball State. However, the Leathernecks went an abysmal 1-5 in 2020, so Neu and his coaching staff likely wanted a cleaner performance from a Cardinals squad that has high expectations surrounding it.


Despite a mediocre performance in week one, Plitt will still be the focus for Penn State’s defense as the engine that makes this unit go. Now entering his third full season as the Cardinals’ starting quarterback, Plitt had his most efficient season in 2020 as he threw for 2,164 yards and 17 touchdowns.

Plitt’s favorite targets are both back this season. The aforementioned veterans, Hall and Tyler, combined for more than 1,200 receiving yards in 2020, while Tyler led the squad with eight touchdowns in the same amount of games.

Tyler had a quiet game against Western Illinois that included just four receptions, but Hall exploded back onto the scene. He paced Ball State with eight catches for 137 yards and two touchdowns, including a pretty deep-ball connection with Plitt for the Cardinals’ first score.

Ball State lost last year’s top rusher, Caleb Huntley, to graduation this offseason, but senior Will Jones could prove to be a capable replacement. The 5’10”, 208-pound running back was third on the Cardinals with 276 rushing yards last season, along with two touchdowns. Jones paced Ball State last week with 93 rushing yards and a score and averaged a productive 5.2 yards per carry.

Last year’s second-leading rusher was Tye Evans, but he’s been battling a leg injury all offseason and his status is unclear against the Nittany Lions. If the redshirt junior doesn’t suit up against the Nittany Lions, Brent Pry’s group can expect to see a steady dose of Carson Steele. Steele impressed in his role in week one, as he exploded for a 37-yard rushing touchdown against Western Illinois and finished the night with 79 yards on the ground.

The Cardinals also have a wealth of experience up front, as the group is led by four-year starters Kaleb Slaven and Curtis Blackwell at left tackle and right guard, respectively. Redshirt junior left guard Jaylen Turner is one of two non-seniors on the line, but he still started every game at right guard in 2020. Redshirt sophomore Damon Kaylor is the expected starter at right tackle. He joins the Cardinals after spending two seasons at Michigan State and not seeing any game action.

Despite just a 10-point win over Western Illinois last week, Ball State’s offense still managed 404 total yards on the day, 18 first downs, and didn’t commit any turnovers.


As has been the theme of Ball State’s team, there’s plenty of experience on the defensive side of the ball.

Penn State will have to face talented linebackers all day long against the Cardinals but may catch a break in not having to face last year’s MAC Co-Defensive Player of the Year Brandon Martin. He led Ball State with 90 tackles in 2020 but sustained an injury week one that could keep him out of Saturday’s contest.

Even without Martin, Ball State still boats talent at linebacker in Jaylin Thomas, Christian Albright, and Clayton Coll. The first of the trio finished 2020 second on the squad with 78 total tackles and picked up right where he left off last week by leading the Cardinals with nine. As for Albright, he led last year’s team with three sacks and added 31 total tackles to his campaign.

As for the secondary, Sean Clifford and Mike Yurcich will have to keep their eyes peeled for senior safeties Bryce Cosby and Brett Anderson II. Cosby already has 44 starts to his name at Ball State and eight interceptions over the course of that career, while Anderson made eight starts last season and grabbed two interceptions.

Ball State led the MAC with 10 total interceptions last season, a stat that should be at the front of Yurcich’s mind when drawing up any deep shots to Jahan Dotson this Saturday.

Considering last week’s performance, however, Ball State could have some holes in its pass defense compared to 2020. Western Illinois gashed the Cardinals for 367 yards through the air in week one, as senior wideout Dennis Houston absolutely exploded for 12 catches worth 237 yards and two touchdowns.

While there’s experience on the back end, expect cornerbacks JT Wahee and Amechi Uzodinma II to get tested early and often by Mike Yurcich.

In order for Clifford to have time to take shots downfield, the offensive line will need to protect him from defensive ends Chris Agyemang and Jack Sape. Each earned 0.5 sacks last season, while Agyemang managed to deflect three passes off the end last fall.

Special Teams

Jake Chanove is in his first season starting for Ball State at kicker. The redshirt senior had yet to see any game action until last week’s season opener but nailed all four of his extra points and a 35-yarder in his debut.

At punter, the Cardinals start Nathan Snyder. The fifth-year senior is ranked sixth in school history with a punting average of 40.5 yards, as he’s contributed at the position since his freshman season in 2017. He averaged 41.5 yards on his four punts last week, with a long of 46.

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About the Author

Will Pegler

Will is a senior majoring in digital and print journalism and is an associate editor for Onward State. He is from Darien, Connecticut and is a lifelong Penn State football fan. He loves a good 80's comedy movie, Peaky Blinders, The Office, and the New York Yankees and Giants. You can catch some of his ridiculous sports takes on his Twitter @gritdude and yell at him on his email [email protected]

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