What’s at stake: For Ball State, not much at all. The real victory came when Auburn agreed to tack on that extra $50,000 on the check or whatever. I suppose being on the blunt end of one of those 50-point woodsheddings where the favorite piles up four touchdowns in the first quarter and goes scrubbing even before the halftime whistle would sting … but the Cardinals have opened up 0-3 with losses to Army, New Hampshire, and North Texas just a year removed from an undefeated regular season. There’s not a whole lot Auburn can do to them that hasn’t already been done.
As for the Tigers, well, a loss would obviously be a just a bit of a hitch in the Gene Chizik return-to-prominence plan. As unlikely as a BSU victory is, though, it’s probably more relevant to say that a comfortable, three-TDs-or-more win would both give Auburn a boost as they try to break their way into the polls and national consciousness–not to mention give Chizik and Co. a chance to simultaneously give their ironmen starters some much-needed rest and their frighteningly green backups some valuable experience. Margin of victory matters this week.
When Auburn has the ball
If there’s any consolation for Ball St. fans in this time of misery and disappointment, it’s that at least their beleaguered defense is getting better–after getting shredded for 512 yards by the Mean Green in the opener, the Cards gave up 322 and then just 265 yards (and 3.6 a rush) to Army’s option attack.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that Auburn (still No. 1 in total offense amongst teams that haven’t played a I-AA tomato can) is not North Texas, New Hampshire, or Army. Perhaps the even worse news is that starting safety Sean Baker is out, turning what had been almost a passable pass defense by MAC standards (currently 57th in opposing YPA) into a great big giant question mark; the Cards now have just one member of last year’s starting back seven in the lineup.
As for the defensive front, all four starters are back and the effort against both Army and New Hampshire was acceptable, but any team that gives up 296 yards rushing to North Texas (at home!) is in for a world of hurt against Auburn’s weaponry. If Auburn is focused and on its game, there’s no reason this won’t be another 500-yard, 40-point outing.
When Ball St. has the ball
The horror, the horror: Ball St. is currently 112th in the country in total offense and 110th in turnover margin, and that’s after playing–say it with me–North Texas, New Hampshire, and Army (two of them at home).Take the strength-of-schedule and turnovers into account, and you can make the argument that the Cards have been the worst offensive team in the country to date.
The main culprit, as you know if you read our Q&A this morning, is an offensive line that’s replacing four multi-year starters and is one of the least experienced in D-I. Quarterbacking can’t be far behind, though: Kelly Page and Tanner Justice are averaging less than 5 yards an attempt and have thrown 6 picks to just 2 TDs, giving Ball St. the second-worst team passer rating in the country. This is some dire, dire stuff, folks.
The result is that Ball’s one legitimate threat–senior running back MiQuale Lewis, he of the 1,736 yards last season and all-MAC honors–has had zero room in which to run, averaging just 3.4 yards on his 41 carries. It’s not the way a warrior like Lewis ought to go out.
I respect Lewis enough–and think Auburn’s defense just soft enough–to think he’ll get a few yards here and there. But this line trying to hold off Auburn’s pass rushers and these quarterbacks trying to complete passes against Auburn’s secondary can only end in disaster.
When special teams are on the field
No real help here for BSU: they’ve lost both returners and their punter from the ’08 squad. There’s always the hope that they could break a big kickoff return against an Auburn unit that we all know has a ton of kinks to work out … but other than that, there’s nothing to get excited about.
Intangible reason for worry
Uh, that Auburn is coming off three straight emotional victories, starts the meat of their SEC schedule next week, and will be completely unable to avoid seeing Ball St. as the calm between those two storms? I think that’ll do it.
Intangible reason for confidence
We don’t need intangible reasons for confidence this week. But there’s a couple of them back at the old site if you want to read the cheese-puffery I cranked out over the summer.
1. No injuries. 2. Benton and Blake catch two passes each. 3. Seriously, no injuries.
Success is / failure is: First string on the bench to start the third quarter / first string on the bench midway through the fourth quarter.
Your bottom line
Well, the former Hoosieroons at least have one other reason to thank Auburn besides the Publisher’s Clearinghous Sweepstakes payout–this game isn’t Auburn’s opener.
If it was, and this game had Auburn’s full attention, it would have been seriously, seriously ugly. But it doesn’t. Whatever Auburn’s players and coaches might say, they know what this is–a chance to catch their breath and rest up before the long slog ahead. The second- and third-stringers are going to see serious time, the offensive sharpness we’ve seen these first three weeks isn’t going to be there, and the energy level in J-Hare is going to be seriously down.
If Auburn was playing a mid-major with teeth, this would be a cause for concern. Fortunately, they’re not. Unless Justice (who’s sat for most of the season behind Page) blows up in miraculous fashion, the Card offense is going nowhere. Unless the defense has improved in equally miraculous fashion since the North Texas implosion, the Card D is going to provide little-to-no-resistance.
I’m expecting Auburn to play their worst game of the season by a mile … and if that won’t be enough to blow BSU out of the stadium, it’ll still be enough against the Cards to earn the comfy victory the team needs.
And so, in one final attempt to look spectacularly wrong …
Auburn 37, Ball St. 9
I’m a lot more worried about Ball State now that I found out that the Silver Surfer used to be their mascot.