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The Ball State game.

Ball State Cardinals
2008 record: 3-0 (1-0 in the MAC)
2007 record: 7-6 (lost to Rutgers in International Bowl)
2007 Sagarin: 83
Conference: Mid-American
Coach: Brady Hoke (6th year, 25-37)
Series: IU leads 4-0
TV: 7pm, BTN
IU and Ball State meet for the third consecutive season, and each team has a noteworthy streak entering this game. IU, despite having bad teams more often than not during the last three decades, has won 20 in a row against MAC opponents since losing to Miami in 1977. Ball State, despite some noteworthy close calls in recent years (at #2 Michigan in 2006, at Nebraska in 2007), has never defeated a then-member of a BCS conference (Ball State has three wins against Connecticut before its Big East days). Perhaps none was closer than the IU-Ball State game in Muncie in 2006. Ball State led 23-7 at halftime but did not score in the second half, and IU eeked out a 24-23 win. I mainly remember watching the game through squinted eyes on a computer that was really fast enough for streaming video, and that the game was Kellen Lewis's first major appearance.
The football history between the two schools is relatively short. In 1997, Cam Cameron's first IU team beat BSU 33-7; in 1999, IU won 21-9; In the aforementioned 2006 game, IU won in the only game thus far in Muncie, 24-23; and IU won last year in Bloomington, 38-20. Nevertheless, this year's Ball State team probably is the strongest Cardinal unit in over a decade. In particular, Ball State has assembled an impressive set of players at the offensive skill positions. The Cardinals have ever received some major national hype, even if it was from a shameless, compromised homer. Here are the players to watch:
  • Nate Davis, the Cardinals' quarterback, is dangerous. Last year, despite a pedestrian completion percentage (56 percent), he was extremely productive, throwing 30 touchdown passes and only 6 interceptions. This year, he has thrown 9 touchdowns but 3 interceptions, but his is completing 75 percent of his passes and averaging 303 yards per game. While not the runner that Kellen Lewis is, he ran for 235 yards and 5 touchdowns last year and is averaging 6.3 yards per carry on his 7 rushes this season. Davis threw for 332 yards in last year's game against IU, but was only 26-48 and threw 2 of his 6 interceptions.
  • Receiver Dante Love already has 433 receiving yards and 3 touchdowns this season, and the senior caught 100 yards for 1398 yards and 10 touchdowns last year. At 5-10, he's the anti-James Hardy, but that's all the more to his credit that he has accomplished so much. Love was a bright spot for Ball State in last years game--he caught 14 balls for 177 yards.
  • 6-6 tight end Darius Hill, also a senior, caught 65 balls for 926 yards and 11 touchdowns last year, and this year he has made the most of only 11 catches, with 168 yards and 3 touchdowns.
  • Miquale Lewis is the only runner who has received significant carries, and he too has been outstanding. Lewis has gained 363 yards and scored three touchdowns and averages 6 yards per carry. Lewis was injured in September 2007 and didn't play against IU, but was on track for an excellent season.

In sum, Ball State has talent and experience at the offensive skill positions. Even without Lewis, Ball State managed to gain 7.1 yards per offensive play in last year's game. Fortunately, IU's offense was even better, averaging an astounding 10 yards per offensive snap. Amazingly, there were 10 punts in the game despite all that production, which obviously indicates some big plays. It also points to the unit that could decide this game: Ball State's defense. Unquestionably, Ball State has played a tougher schedule than IU to this point (Ball State has played Northeastern, Navy, and Akron, which really says something about IU's schedule). Still, the two teams are at opposite ends of the I-A defensive rankings. Currently, IU ranks #11 in total defense at 215 yards per game; Ball State is ranked 81 with 385 yards allowed. Ball State is allowing more than five yards per play to opposing offenses. Certainly, Navy always gains a bunch of yards. Unquestionably, IU's defense will allow more yards than its current average. What Ball State's defense does will be interesting to watch.

More on this intriguing matchup as this week continues, including an exchange with Over the Pylon.