The day is finally here, at 3:30 p.m., fans will officially be back in Beaver Stadium for Penn State Football. The long and agonizing wait will be over. That being said, before then, we have to put our finishing touches on preparing for today’s game which includes our weekly interview with football frenemies.
This week we caught up with our friend Steve Helwick of Underdog Dynasty to learn more about the Cardinals.
1. This Ball State team last season won the MAC, what are the general expectations surrounding this team in 2021?
After finishing last season No. 23 in the AP Poll, Ball State returned 20 starters. With essentially the entire band back together, the expectation for this program is to run it back for another MAC championship. Only Alabama, Oklahoma, and Texas A&M currently ride win streaks longer than the Cardinals’ 8-game run, so this team has every reason to believe it can sustain the level of play from 2020 and even invade the rankings.
However, Thursday’s opener against Western Illinois of the FCS was definitely a sour start to the MAC title defense season. Ball State entered halftime deadlocked at 7 apiece and only escaped with a 10-point victory. The offense looked rusty in the first half and the secondary permitted too much production through the air. Ball State dropped its opener a year ago and hasn’t lost since, so the hope in Muncie, IN is that the Western Illinois game was more of a learning experience than a sign of things to come.
2. Most casual fans are probably not familiar with Ball State, who are two players on each side of the ball that fans should be looking out for on Saturday?
Offensively, the answer is simple. Justin Hall leads all active FBS players in career receptions and receiving yardage. He possesses many incredible talents, ranging from his speed to his route running to his catching ability, and Ball State lines him up all over the field. You’ll see him in motion often and he primarily lines up in the slot, so he might draw frequent matchups with Jaquan Brisker or another safety. Hall is also a jet sweep phenom and his 89 career rushes demonstrate Ball State’s affinity for getting him the ball in a multitude of ways.
Defensively, I could provide you with a multitude of names worthy of recognition. Ball State’s entire linebacking corps in a 3-4 defense landed All-MAC honors in 2020 with two linebackers recognized as First Team selections. One of those First Teamers is reigning MAC Co-Defensive Player of the Year Brandon Martin who ranked eighth in the FBS with 11.3 tackles per game last year. Martin ate up backfields with 6.5 tackles for loss and he was instrumental in shutting down Buffalo’s third-ranked rushing attack in the conference title game.
3. What do you believe Ball State must do to make this one a game, not necessarily win, but just stay in it for as long as possible?
To stay in this one as long as possible, Ball State must be unforgiving with its run defense. The All-MAC linebacker quartet must shed blocks and hunt down Noah Cain, Keyvone Lee, and the Penn State running backs around the line of scrimmage and force the Nittany Lions to beat them through the air. Ball State has been successful in stacking the box and forcing opponents to air it out in the past, and that would be the optimal approach to Saturday’s matchup. Wisconsin put the clamps on Penn State’s running game, and if they didn’t leave Jahan Dotson and KeAndre Lambert-Smith inexplicably wide open downfield on numerous occasions, the Badgers would have enjoyed an immaculate defensive outing against the Nittany Lions.
4. How do you think Ball State will handle going into such a hostile environment like Beaver Stadium?
This is actually an interesting question because Ball State’s success story was molded in silence last year. The Cardinals rose to the top of the MAC while playing in front of minimal to zero fans. Their first true road atmosphere since 2019 will transpire in the second largest stadium in the country, and Happy Valley presents as powerful a homefield advantage as there is in college football. That energy is going to radiate heavily within the Penn State defense — especially on third downs — and I think the environment could negatively impact Ball State’s offense when fighting down-and-distance situations.
5. What is our prediction for Saturday’s game, who do you believe will be the standout player for the Cardinals in the game?
Penn State 38, Ball State 10. The Nittany Lions’ defense impressed me more than any unit in the country last weekend. It’s honestly absurd that Wisconsin scored only once on four possessions inside the 10-yard line, and Penn State features high-caliber talent (Arnold Ebiketie, Ellis Brooks, and Jaquan Brisker) in all levels of the defense. That being said, it’s tough to imagine Ball State registering more than two scores in Happy Valley, but Justin Hall is bound to make a few plays to get the Cardinals on the board.
When the Nittany Lions have the ball, they’ll see more offensive success than the prior week but Ball State should still manufacture several stops and possibly turnovers. I don’t trust Penn State to drop 50 on teams yet, but I think a strong connection between Sean Clifford and Jahan Dotson allows the offense to enter a better groove this week. For Ball State, I’ll hand MVP honors to outside linebacker Jimmy Daw who seems to improve every time he takes the field. The 2020 MAC Championship Game Defensive MVP racked up 12 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, and an interception in Ball State’s final two games in 2020, and he’ll bring his physical hitting ability to the Nittany Lions’ rushing attack.
Once again thank you to Steve for answering our questions! Have a great day everyone and enjoy the game.