MUNCIE, Ind. — Midweek MACtion is back. Ball State (4-4, 2-2 MAC) travels to Akron (2-6, 1-3 MAC) Tuesday for a 7 p.m. game to get the Mid-American Conference slate started.
Akron holds a 12-11-1 all-time advantage over Ball State. The Zips won the previous two meetings with the Cardinals, most recently a 31-3 victory on Oct. 7, 2017.
Akron comes in after losing two straight games to Miami (34-21) and Buffalo (45-10) while Ball State saw its three game winning streak end in a 24-17 loss to Miami.
Down two games to MAC West Division front-runner Northern Illinois, Ball State is in must-win territory this week and throughout the remainder of the season if it wants to compete in the MAC Championship game.
Here are five things to watch Tuesday night:
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Ball State offensive explosion?
Ball State has yet to have a real explosive game on offense this season. Last year, the Cardinals averaged 448.5 yards per game. This year, Ball State’s best offensive game came in a 433-yard effort against Eastern Michigan where it scored or at least had the chance to score on eight of its 10 drives.
In 2021, Ball State’s best passing game (310 yards, four touchdowns) came against Western Michigan, and its best rushing game (216 yards, two touchdowns) came against Western Illinois. Against Akron, which ranks 115th in the nation in team defense (449.1 yards per game), Ball State might have an opportunity to have its best offensive game of this season.
Akron is susceptible on the ground (217.5 yards against, 21 touchdowns) and through the air (231.63 yards against, 17 touchdowns). Five different opponents — Auburn (316 yards), Ohio State (237 yards), Ohio (398 yards), Miami (Ohio) (245 yards) and Buffalo (231 yards) — have run for more than 200 yards on the Zips this season.
Akron also gives up 38.88 points per game and allows opponents to convert on 52.75% (48 of 91) third down attempts and score touchdowns on 71.43% (25 of 35) red zone visits.
Coming off a nine-day break, Ball State’s offense should be ready to go in this one.
Battle of standout freshmen
Ball State and Akron each have a freshman playmaker on offense.
For the Cardinals, it’s running back Carson Steele, who has rushed for 428 yards and five touchdowns off 84 attempts (5.1 yards per rush). For the Zips, it’s wide receiver Konata Mumpfield, who has recorded 495 receiving yards and six touchdowns off 41 receptions.
In a year when so much of the focus has been on the amount of experience across college football, it’ll be interesting to see which one of these freshmen makes a bigger impact for their team in this game and throughout the rest of the season.
Time of possession
Once again, Ball State plays a team that ranks in the top-20 in the country in time of possession. Army (38:39) and Western Michigan (36:38) rank first and second, respectively. Akron (32:02) comes in ranked 19th.
Good news for Ball State fans: The Cardinals beat both Army and Western Michigan in rather dominating fashion. Ball State will look to continue that trend against Akron who, despite owning the time of possession, has nearly been doubled by its opponents in points per game this season.
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“We’ve had some similar type of opponents when you talk about time of possession and being a little bit lopsided that way,” Ball State head coach Mike Neu said. “It still comes down to us making sure we sustain drives, we do our part that way when we do have the ball.”
Akron’s two quarterback system
Akron has used three different quarterbacks this season, though redshirt senior Kato Nelson has not played since their victory over Bowling Green on Oct. 9.
Instead, the signal-calling duties have fallen in the hands of redshirt sophomore DJ Irons (77 of 117, 890 passing yards, eight TDs, four interceptions) and redshirt freshman Zach Gibson (45 of 65, 515 passing yards, six TDs, zero interceptions).
Gibson had limited attempts last week, but did go 25-for-39 for 291 passing yards and three interceptions against Miami (Ohio) two weeks ago. Irons, meanwhile, has been Akron’s best runner this season with 300 yards (3.3 yards per carry) and two touchdowns.
Both Irons (65.81%) and Gibson (69.23%) have impressive completion percentages and Irons has had 10 or more rushing attempts in all but one of the six games he has played in this year.
Ball State third and fourth down defense
Miami’s third and fourth down conversions hurt Ball State.
This season, the Cardinals have allowed their opponents to convert on 37.74% (40 of 106) third downs and 47.06% (eight of 17) fourth downs, ranking 51st and 47th in the country in each category, respectively.
Miami, however, went 5-for-12 on third down, scoring on each drive it converted at least one third down on, and 1-for-1 on fourth down — a fourth-and-10 play that came after a false start and led to the game-winning score early in the fourth quarter.
While two offensive turnovers and two missed turnover opportunities on defense didn’t help, allowing Miami to convert on late downs proved to be too much for Ball State to overcome in its homecoming defeat.
Akron ranks 97th in the country on third down conversions (35.8%). In its two wins, Akron is 47.6% (10 of 21) on third down conversions. The Zips have playmakers, so the Cardinals will need to make stops on key downs to keep them from getting into a rhythm.