South Florida presents big challenge for Ball State

Ball State better tighten the chinstraps on its bonnets, and be ready for a physical, nasty and tenacious South Florida team come Saturday afternoon.

We saw the Cardinals stomp Mid-American Conference West opponent Eastern Michigan on Aug. 30. We watched a robust Clemson bunch expose the Cardinals’ defense two weeks ago, and we crossed our fingers in the waning seconds before placekicker Steven Schott sent everyone home in Bloomington, IN., with a last-second, 42-yard game-winning field goal.

But the Bulls are no Eastern Michigan or Indiana. They’re a bigger, faster and rugged squad that’s looking to feast on the Cardinals, and spoil Family Weekend.

Since coach Skip Holtz took over in 2010, the Bulls have amassed a non-conference mark of 10-2, featuring a 23-20 triumph at No. 16 Notre Dame in 2011, and a 37-7 thumping vs. Ball State.

Over the last three years, the Bulls’ offense has had their way against non-conference opponents. In five non-conference games in 2010, the Bulls averaged 184.2 yards per game on the ground and 168 yards per game through the air. In 2011, the Bulls were even better in those areas, averaging 206 rushing yards per game and 262.2 passing yards per game in five non-conference games.

Through two non-conference games this season, the Bulls average 147 yards rushing and over 300 yards passing per game.

And despite dropping their Big East Conference opener 23-13 to Rutgers last Thursday night, the Bulls will arrive in Muncie hungry and determined to get back on track.

Their offense is capable of scoring in bunches. Senior quarterback B.J. Daniels threw for 2,604 yards in 2011, the third highest total in the Big East. And through three games this season, Daniels is averaging over eight yards per passing attempt.

It will be up to the Cardinals’ defensive line to put pressure on Daniels when he drops back in the pocket, and contain him when he tucks the ball and takes off.

Senior linebackers Travis Freeman and Tony Martin will need to be aggressive, and shed blockers to find the ball. It will be crucial for Freeman, Martin and junior Kenneth Lee to contain the Bulls’ feisty running game, preventing their monstrous offensive linemen from opening up running lanes for Daniels, senior running backs Demetris Murray and Lindsey Lamar, along with junior Marcus Shaw.

But the most glaring hole in the Cardinals’ defense is the secondary. The Cardinals are 115th in the nation in passing yards allowed per game, at 327. This unit was torched by Clemson quarterback Tahj Boyd, who threw for 229 yards and three touchdowns on Sept. 8. And the results weren’t much better against Indiana last week, when the combination of sophomore Cameron Coffman and true freshman Nate Sudfeld tossed for 423 yards and four touchdowns.

Coach Pete Lembo has remained firm in his belief of rotating multiple players in the secondary. Lembo has used three different combinations at both safety positions, and Saturday could mark the fourth with sophomore Brian Jones likely to get the nod at strong safety.

This unit is by far the weakest on this team, and after the dust settles Saturday night, we’ll know if this group has improved or regressed further.

The Bulls represent perhaps the biggest test of the season for Lembo, and we’ll see if he can get his team to rise to the challenge once more.

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