Ball State and Arkansas State, the combatants in this season's GoDaddy Bowl, have to wonder if they will make it to Mobile, Ala, early in January with the same coach that got them through the successful season that led to this reward.
Arkansas State is headed to the GoDaddy for a third straight time, this season under the direction of Bryan Harsin, former offensive coordinator at Texas and Boise State.
Each of the two coaches who preceded Harsin led the Red Wolves to Mobile, and then got a job running a program in the SEC. Hugh Freeze was at Arkansas State for one season and then was hired by Mississippi, and Gus Malzahn's one season with Red Wolves in 2012 landed him the top job at Auburn, which he has in the BCS National Championship Game.
Ball State coach Pete Lembo has put together three straight strong seasons and he is considered a top candidate for the open jobs at Connecticut and Wake Forest.
But whether under new leadership, or taking direction from the coach who got them this far, the Cardinals and the Red Wolves will go at it on Jan. 5 in Ladd-Peebles Stadium.
It will be a contrast of styles, with the Cardinals (10-2) taking to the air with regularity, and the Red Wolves showing a preference to pound the football on the ground.
Ball State led the Mid-American Conference and ranked ninth in the nation in passing offense with an average of 333.3 yards per game. The Cardinals also rank 13th in the nation in scoring offense, averaging 40.1 points per game.
Arkansas State (7-5) moves the ball on the ground through a variety of personnel and approaches, and averaged some 205 rushing yards per game.
There are additional contrasts at play between these two teams.
The Red Wolves are riding a streak of three straight Sun Belt Conference championships, winning outright titles in 2011 and 2012, and sharing the crown with Louisiana-Lafayette this season.
Arkansas State has gone 20-3 in the Sun Belt Conference over the last three seasons, posting a .869 winning percentage in conference games.
Ball State has played in the shadow of Northern Illinois during its run of three straight Mid-American Conference West Division titles. The only MAC loss the Cardinals suffered this season was to the Huskies.
Under Lembo for the last three seasons, the Cardinals have improved each year, and are 24-12 overall and 17-7 in the MAC during that stretch.
Arkansas State, which won four of its last five games to get this far, relies on a multi-pronged approach to running the football, with running back Michael Gordon rushing for 717 yards and 10 touchdowns, quarterback Adam Kennedy rushing for 514 yards and four scores, and running back David Oku adding 511 yards and six touchdowns.
The Red Wolves have rushed for nearly 2,500 yards and 30 touchdowns, while Kennedy also passed for 2,349 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Ball State moves on the arm of senior quarterback Keith Wenning, who has passed for just shy of 4,000 yards this season and thrown 34 touchdown passes, while hitting on better than 65 percent of his passes.
The Cardinals are well-balanced, with running back Jahwan Edwards rushing for 964 yards and 13 touchdowns.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
--Ball State QB Keith Wenning had the misfortune of playing in the shadow of Jordan Lynch, the Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback who led Northern Illinois to three straight MAC championship games. In any other recent era, Wenning would have grabbed the offensive headlines in the conference, with his accuracy and field savvy. Wenning completed 296-of-454 passes for 3,933 yards, with 34 touchdowns and only six interceptions, so when the Cardinals attack Arkansas State, look for Wenning to try to move this team with a variety of passes.
--Arkansas State RB Michael Gordon carried the ball 106 times this season, gaining 717 yards and averaging nearly seven yards per carry. One of the keys for the Red Wolves is to keep the high-powered Ball State offense off the field, and a running game featuring Gordon is the critical element in that approach. Gordon scored seven touchdowns, and popped a 91-yard run this season. He also had a 51-yard pass reception, and another touchdown as a receiver.
--Arkansas State LB Qushaun Lee led the Red Wolves in tackles this season with 119, including six stops for losses. To be successful in the bowl game, the Red Wolves will have to pressure Ball State QB Keith Wenning and not let him get comfortable setting up in the pocket, so look for Lee and company to use the blitz.
--Ball State LB Ben Ingle led the Cardinals this season with 105 tackles and also had an interception. When it comes to squaring off with the Red Wolves, slowing the potent running game is the essential element for Ball State's defense. If the Cardinals can force Arkansas State out of its comfort zone, the advantage should swing their way.
BOWL HISTORY: This is Ball State's seventh appearance in a bowl game, and the Cardinals are hoping to improve on their 0-6 mark. The last couple trips have been ugly, a 38-17 loss to Central Florida in the 2012 Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl, and a 45-13 loss to Tulsa in the 2008 GMAC Bowl. Arkansas State is making its third consecutive appearance in the GoDaddy Bowl, and playing in its fourth bowl game overall as a member of the BCS. The Red Wolves are 1-2 in FBS level bowls, beating Kent State, 17-13, in last year's GoDaddy Bowl.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm really excited for all the players and coaches and everybody in our football family. I always thought this would be a really neat opportunity for our team, if we ever got the chance to go and play in this game." -- Ball State coach Pete Lembo, in the Muncie Star-Press.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Scouting the running game: Ball State features the more versatile attack, with RB Jahwan Edwards grinding out 964 yards rushing and scoring 13 touchdowns in a pass-oriented offense. The Cardinals passed for more than twice the 1,837 rushing yards they had this season. Arkansas State is more run-oriented, relying on moving the ball via the rush 540 times this season while throwing the ball 342 times. Sophomore RB Michael Gordon is the first option for the Red Wolves, and his 6.8 yards per carry average is a testament to his elusive running style.
Scouting the passing game: Senior QB Keith Wenning owns nearly every passing record in Ball State history after completing 296-of-454 passes for 3,933 yards with 34 touchdowns with only six interceptions this season. He threw six touchdown passes in the regular season finale against Miami, passing for 445 yards. Wenning's favorite targets are TE Zane Fakes, with 37 catches for 382 yards and two touchdowns, and WR Jordan Williams, with 68 catches for 1,016 yards and 10 touchdowns. Arkansas State QB Adam Kennedy completed 215-of-310 passes for 2,349 yards, with 11 touchdowns and six interceptions. WR J.D. McKissic led the Red Wolves with 73 receptions for 590 yards and four touchdowns. WR Julian Jones had 51 catches for 630 yards with four touchdowns, averaging better than 12 yards per catch.
Scouting the run defense: Opponents averaged 183 yards rushing per game against the Red Wolves, with 4.8 yards per carry, and scored 21 rushing touchdowns against Arkansas State. DL Ryan Carrethers is a 330-pound run stopper for the Red Wolves, while LB Qushaun Lee is the team's leading tackler. Ball State did not do its best defensive work against the run this season, allowing its opponents 2,337 rushing yards. The Cardinals counter the run with three of their most sound tacklers -- LB Ben Ingle, LB Zack Ryan and S Brian Jones. Those three accounted for 280 tackles this season, and helped the Cardinals hold the opposition to 24 points per game.
Scouting the pass defense: Ball State DE Jonathan Newsome plays a vital role in pass defense with his rush, accounting for eight sacks and 11 tackles for losses. The Cardinals limited the opposition to 13 passing touchdowns in 12 games, while grabbing 12 interceptions. Ball State DB Jeffrey Garrett had 49 tackles with a team high five interceptions and two fumble recoveries. Arkansas State allowed about 235 passing yards per game, about 100 yards fewer than Ball State QB Keith Wenning averaged. The Red Wolves got three interceptions and 10 pass breakups from DB Rocky Hayes, and will need a very active secondary to slow Wenning.
Scouting the special teams: The most intriguing story line here concerns the two punts Arkansas State has blocked this season. Ball State P Kyle Schmidt has punted 42 times this season without having one blocked. Ball State K Scott Secor has connected on 17-of-21 field goal attempts, with a long of 47 yards. PR/KR Jamil Smith is the top return man for the Cardinals, with a 90-yard kickoff return to his credit. Arkansas State has big-play potential with its special teams as well, with PR/KR J.D. McKissic averaging 30 yards per kickoff return and owning a 98-yard return for a touchdown this season.
Intangibles: Ball State dominated Virginia on the road as part of a seven-game winning streak, and had one of the best seasons in its history overshadowed by a Northern Illinois team that went unbeaten in the regular season. The Cardinals have something to prove and are using this bowl game as their opportunity to make a statement. Arkansas State was one of two Sun Belt teams to land a bowl bid, and the Red Wolves hope to show that they are better than their 7-5 record indicates.
--Ball State RB Horactio Banks injured a knee in mid November and was lost for the season.
--Ball State S Christopher Calloway is questionable for the bowl game because of a neck injury.
--Ball State DB Keith Lee is questionable for the bowl game because of a knee injury.
--Ball State WR Chris Shillings is questionable for the bowl game due because of a leg injury.
--Arkansas State DB Jamaris Hart had his season end in early October because of an Achilles injury.
--Arkansas State K Brian Davis has been named a First Team Academic All-American, the school's first since 2008. Davis maintains a 3.75 cumulative GPA as an accounting major, and has 53 career field goals, and a Sun Belt Conference record 315 career points by kicking.
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