3 keys to beating the Cardinals
LARAMIE -- Ball State has fielded a football program since 1924.
It's been a Division-I member since 1975.
It took 46 seasons to claim the school's first-ever bowl victory.
That happened last December when Mike Neu's team hammered Mountain West champions, San Jose State, 34-13 in the Arizona Bowl. That victory erased a history that included seven straight postseason losses. The Cardinals, for the first time ever, were nationally ranked when the final polls came out.
"It's high-character men doing things the right way," Neu told the media in Tucson. "We got here because of hard work. We embraced the underdog role, and we came out with a purpose. We wanted to seize the moment, and we've done that."
That party is over. As special as 2020 was, that was last year.
The Cardinals (1-1) won their season opener over Western Illinois. Last Saturday in Happy Valley, Ball State's eight-game winning streak came to screeching halt with a 44-13 loss to No. 11 Penn State in front of 105,000-plus inside Beaver Stadium.
Still, with 85% of its roster from last fall intact -- 16 super seniors and 20 returning starters -- winning a second consecutive MAC title is the goal. This squad has the horses to do it, too, and it all starts with quarterback Drew Plitt.
The super senior has thrown for more than 6,800 yards and 52 touchdowns as the signal caller in Muncie. He's completed 62.7% of his passes through two games this season and has tossed a pair of touchdowns to go with two interceptions.
His leading targets on the outside -- Justin Hall and Yo'Heinz Tyler -- are back, too. So is senior running back Will Jones, who has rushed for 109 yards on 26 carries so far.
Wyoming enters Week 3 with a perfect 2-0 record. That mark took two extended last-minute drives to achieve. Last Saturday, the Cowboys enjoyed a 42-16 lead over Northern Illinois late in the third quarter. Four Huskies' touchdowns on four consecutive drives, left the visitors trailing with less than five minutes remaining in regulation.
UW quarterback Sean Chambers, once again, led the Cowboys back from the brink, orchestrating late game-winning possessions against Montana State and NIU.
Craig Bohl said in his 38 years as a coach he has never seen a game flip the way the last one did. The cold sore on his lip, he joked, was about to be joined by another one thanks to the stress.
Wyoming's head coach also knows his team can't afford to have another fourth-quarter collapse against the Cardinals.
That quarterback is a main reason.
"I don't know if we faced a quarterback who's as polished and as methodical," Bohl said of Plitt. "He's always putting the ball where it needs to be put. They're a really good football team."
Here's what the Cowboys need to do Saturday if they hope to move to 3-0 in non-conference play:
No. 1 Hit Plitt
No secret here -- the Cowboys need to get in Plitt's kitchen.
That's easier said than done.
Ball State returns its entire starting five up front from a year ago. Over and eight-game span in 2020, that unit did allow 28 quarterback sacks, including six in an opening-day loss to Miami (Ohio), their only setback of the season.
So far this fall, that same line has kept Plitt fairly clean. He has been sacked just once on 67 drop backs. That came last week when Penn State linebacker Curtis Jacobs got in the Cardinals' backfield on a delayed blitz.
Wyoming hasn't been exactly torturing its opponents' signal callers so far this season. The team has just four combined sacks, 1.5 of which belong to defensive end/ tackle hybrid, Victor Jones. Chad Muma and Cole Godbout have one sack. Garrett Crall has been credited with half-a-sack.
Is Bohl surprised that his veteran pass rushers haven't had more success getting to the quarterback?
"I don't know if that's the case," Bohl said when asked if he thinks he needs more from that unit. "I think you need to attribute Northern Illinois. They did a good good job with some of their protections. They certainly didn't leave their quarterback hanging out to dry. They protected him some and we did get some hurries."
But more is expected from this group. They expect more from themselves.
Solomon Byrd, who opted out last season because of the virus, led the team in this very category with 6.5 sacks in 2019. He has been in the backfield throughout the first two games but has come up empty. Same can be said for Jaylen Pate.
A clean pocket -- plus an experienced quarterback -- can be troublesome. Wyoming has to make things uncomfortable for Plitt. Unlike last week against Rocky Lombardi, when they get to the QB, they need to bring him down.
That hasn't happened near enough with the experience in this group. A handful of sacks would go a long way in coming away with a victory Saturday.
No. 2 Hit repeat
Wyoming's re-engineered offense finally made an appearance last Saturday in DeKalb.
Chambers threw the ball 13 times in the first half and connected on two touchdown passes to wide out Isaiah Neyor. The Cowboys rushed the ball 20 times. Titus Swen opened the scoring with a 22-yard jaunt to the end zone.
It was fairly balanced. It was unpredictable.
Most importantly, it worked.
Wyoming scored 28 points in the first 30 minutes of play. Chambers said that's the way this offense is supposed to look.
"I mean, it is," UW's redshirt sophomore QB said. "We're supposed to run the ball well, throw the ball well and stay on the field, you know? That's what we're going to try to do over the next 10 games. That's what we need to look like going forward."
The Cardinals gave up 240 yards on the ground last week at Penn State, including 66 from Nittany Lions' quarterback, Sean Clifford. Two other PSU ball carriers -- Keyvone Lee and Noah Cain -- also finished with more than 60 yards on the ground.
We know another QB named Sean who likes to run, too.
Tackling wasn't Ball State's strong suit last Saturday, either. Penn State averaged more than six yards per play and converted on 6-of-13 third-down attempts.
For the second straight week, the Cardinals could be without defending Co-MAC Defensive Player of the Year, Brandon Martin. Ball State's star linebacker was injured in the season opener against Western Illinois and was spotted on the sideline that afternoon on crutches with an ice bag on his right knee, according to the Star Press.
Wyoming needs to take full advantage.
Through two games, Ball State has given up plenty of big, explosive plays, especially in the pass game. Penn State completed four throws of more than 20 yards. Western Illinois hit a 75-yard touchdown pass and added a 34-yard pitch and catch.
The Cowboys' offensive game plan in DeKalb -- when executed -- was a thing of beauty. Xazavian Valladay ran with an edge. The front five bullied NIU up and down the field. UW fullbacks and tight ends sealed off oncoming linebackers left and right. The pass opened up the run and vice versa.
It's what Wyoming fans have been hoping for since 2018.
If the Cowboys can replicate what they did in the first half, plus play the defense we are accustomed to seeing from a Bohl-coached team, the visitors could be in for a long day inside War Memorial Stadium.
No. 3 Speaking of defense
The Cowboys gave up 477 yards of total offense against NIU. That equates to 233 yards passing and 244 yards rushing.
Wyoming allowed freshman running back Harrison Waylee to run wild in the second half. After holding him to minus-3 rushing yards in the first half, Waylee sprinted for 182 over the final two quarters.
It was ugly.
The Cowboys didn't tackle. Angles were bad. The intensity was all but gone.
Bohl fears his defense might have lost its "stinger" in the second half with such a large advantage on the scoreboard.
"I would like to think that we didn't, but some parts of me think that we may have let our guard down a little bit," he said. "We still got to mature as a football team. Maybe we felt like we had the game in the bag."
NIU erased that 42-16 deficit in just four drives.
Wyoming gave up just one 100-yard rusher in six games in 2020. The previous year, zero. With 11 returning starters on that side of the ball, UW has already allowed two backs to eclipse the century mark.
"I think it was really concerning," Muma said of the Cowboys' second-half troubles. "We just kept encouraging guys to just go out there and do what we can do best, because that's not our Cowboy defense, really. So, we're going to get it corrected this week."
Nickel back Keyon Blankenbaker said the defense got complacent. Bohl agrees.
"There's room for improvement there and we're going to work hard at that," he said. "I think we have a hungry football team that knows, particularly on defense, that we underachieved and we need to play better."
Ball State rushed for just 69 yards against Penn State. That wasn't the case in Week 1 against the Leathernecks. Jones carried the ball 18 times for 93 yards. Carson Steele added 79 more as the Cardinals racked up 216 yards on the ground in the 31-21 win.
The Cowboys have flashed brilliance at times, including snagging three interceptions at NIU and holding the Huskies to just six rushing yards on six carries in the second quarter, but consistency has been elusive with this group early on.
That can't happen this week.
Plitt is too good. The Cardinals' offensive line is too good. The playmakers on the outside are too good.
You'd have to imagine Jay Sawvel has been a busy man this week. The Cowboys' defensive coordinator, I'm sure, wants to prove these first two weeks have been the exception rather than the rule.
"Yeah, 100% these are all correctible things," Muma said. "I think we were just kind of shooting ourselves in the foot there."
After a lackluster offensive performance on offense in the opener, first-year offensive coordinator Tim Polasek called the team's mistakes on that side of the ball "correctable," too.
That worked out well in DeKalb. Will we be saying the same thing about the defense this Saturday?
UW vs. NIU September 11, 2021