5 things to watch between Ball State and Georgia Southern football

Ball State football (1-2, 0-1 MAC) is coming off its first shutout victory since 2008.

This week, the Cardinals have a chance to even out their record against Georgia Southern at 6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 17 at Allen E. Paulson Stadium (ESPN+).

While the Eagles struggled last season, going 3-9, they have proven to be a formidable team under head coach Clay Helton, who previously coached at USC (2010-21), where he served as a head coach for six years, Memphis (2000-09), Houston (1997-99) and Duke (1995-96). He and offensive coordinator Bryan Ellis have helped turn the Eagles into one of the most prolific offenses in the Football Bowl Subdivision this season while the Sun Belt has been the premier Group of Five conference early in 2022.

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Here are five things to watch in the contest:

Who can win the battle on key downs?

Georgia Southern is one of the best teams in the country when it comes to third-down conversions. Ball State is one of the better teams limiting opponents' third-down success.

Something's got to give.

This season, Georgia Southern ranks No. 4 in the FBS with a 62% success rate on third down and is tied for 19th on fourth-down, converting 75% (3-for-4) of the time. Ball State's defense is 44th (31.8%) in third-down defense, which was helped by a strong showing against Murray State last weekend, and 99th on fourth down (31.8%).

"They do a good job of making plays in critical situations," Ball State head coach Mike Neu said. "When you're a team like that, we try to take pride in being one of those teams that's efficient on third-down, as well, and making sure you're efficient in the red zone."

If Ball State can't get Georgia Southern off the field on third down, it can be in for a long day. Good news for Ball State, however, is that the Eagles' third-down defense (94th, 40.5%) isn't great but the Cardinals third-down offense (74th, 38.8%), while it has improved, has struggled this season, as well.

Can Ball State take advantage of a Georgia Southern's run defense?

Expect Ball State to try and do one thing Saturday: Get the ball in running back Carson Steele's hands early and often.

The Cardinals' have one of the FBS' top running backs in Steele, who ranks 25th in total yards (305) and 20th in yards per game (101.7). Georgia Southern is coming off its first loss, a 35-21 defeat at UAB, in which it allowed 288 rushing yards (6.7 yards per rush), including 223 yards and four touchdowns to UAB running back DeWayne McBride.

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Can Steele put up similar numbers? He's run the ball 51 times in the past two weeks for 278 yards. The 20-plus rushing attempt games became commonplace for Steele late last season and the trend has continued early this year.

What will be interesting to see is who takes the reps behind Steele at running back. Redshirt senior Will Jones went down with an ankle injury and head coach Mike Neu said he is considered "day-to-day." The Cardinals have utilized three other running backs this season in Rico Barfield (15 carries, 61 yards), Vaughn Pemberton (12 carries, 50 yards) and Donny Marcus (three carries, one yard).

"If we have Will great because Will's been a valuable piece of the puzzle for us for a long time," Neu said, "but I'm confident and anxious to see which one of these young guys will step up and really take on a bigger role."

When will Ball State's defensive line step up?

All offseason, Ball State talked about the depth and experience of its defensive line. So far this season, the unit has been relatively quiet.

Joshua Tarango, Tavion Woodard and John Harris lead the unit with 10, eight and seven tackles, respectively. Combined, the defensive line, which did make some key plays with John Harris and Jack Sape each recording a pass breakup, has combined for two tackles for loss and one quarterback hurry through three games.

Three of Ball State's top four tackles are cornerbacks and safeties. Graduate nickel Jaquan Amos leads the way with three TFLs and safety Riley Jordan has the defense's only sack this season.

Ball State likes to rotate its defensive line, but even last year Tavion Woodard recorded 8.5 TFL and five sacks while Sape, Jordan Ward and Justen Ramsey, among others, were constant threats in the backfield.

With a combined 11 tackles for loss and one sack, Ball State's defense has been one of the worst in the nation at creating pressure for opposing offenses. For the Cardinals, that should start with the defensive line.

Who will win the turnover battle?

Stop me if you've heard this before. When Ball State wins the turnover battle, it tends to succeed. Ball State was 5-2 last season when it won the turnover battle. This season, it's 1-1.

Georgia Southern forced four turnovers in its opener against Morgan State but have not had one since. The Eagles are tied for 102nd in turnover margin (-0.67) while Ball State is tied for 47th (0.33).

Ball State has had at least one turnover in each of its first three games. Saturday, one additional turnover might make all the difference between the Cardinals going to 2-2 or 1-3 as they head back into Mid-American Conference play.

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Can Ball State limit Georgia Southern's offense?

This will be the key. Coming off its best performance of the season, can Ball State's defense hold serve against one of the best offenses in the country?

Here's the situation: Georgia Southern ranks 10th in the FBS in total yards (521.3 yards per game), 13th in passing offense (326.7 yards per game) and is tied for 47th in rushing offense (194.7). Former Buffalo quarterback Kyle Vantrease, who lost to Ball State in the 2020 MAC Championship, is 90-for-152 (59.2%) for 980 passing yards, six TDs and six interceptions.

The Eagles have four receivers with 100 or more receiving yards and two running backs with 200 or more rushing yards. They don't go backwards much, either, as one of four teams — Kansas, Oregon and TCU being the others — to not allow a sack thus far and tied for second with Ball State, TCU and Vanderbilt as teams which have allowed just two tackles for loss per game this season.

Ball State's defense will have its hands full Saturday and it'll be interesting to see if some of the success it saw against Murray State (allowing 155 yards and no points) will carry over.

"Our guys are excited," defensive coordinator Tyler Stockton said. "Obviously last week we can show that we can play really good defense when guys are doing their job, running to the ball, getting on blocks and tackles to we're really excited. I mean, they're one of the better offenses in the country. They have two brilliant offensive coaches that are coaching those guys and unbelievable skill players. Very good running backs, gritty offensive line and we've played Kyle Vantrease before and we can definitely see he's flourishing in this offensive scheme."

Robby General covers Ball State and East Central Indiana high school sports for The Star Press. Contact him via email at rgeneral@gannett.com or on Twitter @rgeneraljr.

This article originally appeared on Muncie Star Press: Ball State football vs Georgia Southern: What to watch in MAC game