FACTS & STATS: Site: Scheumann Stadium (25,400) -- Muncie, Indiana. Television: ESPN3. Home Record: EMU 0-0, BSU 0-0. Away Record: EMU 0-0, BSU 0-0. Neutral Record: EMU 0-0, BSU 0-0. Conference Record: EMU 0-0, BSU 0-0. Series Record: Ball State leads, 30-21-2.
GAME NOTES: Two teams that finished in the middle of the pack in the 2011 league standings open their season with a Mid-American Conference clash, as the Eastern Michigan Eagles head to Scheumann Stadium to take on the Ball State Cardinals.
Coach Ron English was named the MAC Coach of the Year after he guided his Eagles to a 6-6 overall record and a 4-4 league finish last season. Bowl eligibility was still just out of reach because two of EMU's victories came over FCS opponents. The Eagles will not face any FCS opponents in 2012 as they try to earn the school's first bowl bid since 1987. English begins his fourth year at the helm of the program with great optimism. EMU went just 2-22 in his first two years as a head coach before last season's big step in the right direction.
Ball State was one of just two teams with bowl eligibility to not be invited into the postseason in 2011. Coach Pete Lembo's squad went 6-6 overall and 4-4 in the MAC in his first season as a head coach in the FBS. Prior to 2011, Lembo compiled a 79-36 overall record in 10 seasons as the head coach of Lehigh (2001-2005) and Elon (2006-2010).
The Cardinals became bowl eligible in 2011 by defeating Eastern Michigan, 33-31, on the road. The victory gave Ball State a 30-21-2 advantage in the all-time series.
EMU's Alex Gillett begins the year as the team's starting QB for the fourth time after having to defend his starting spot in the offseason. Gillett was primarily a scrambler and led the team with 736 rushing yards last season, but he improved his throwing accuracy and footwork to become a duel threat for his senior campaign.
The Eagles ranked 14th in the nation with 218.3 rushing yards per game last season. All five starting offensive linemen from that squad return to pave the way for Gillett and the tailback duo of Javonti Green and Ryan Brumfield.
Gillett needs to find his top two wideouts Nick Olds and Demarius Reed more often this season to balance out the running game. Tight end Garrett Hoskins can also be a dangerous weapon. Hoskins finished 2011 second on the team with 328 receiving yards.
EMU had one of the toughest and most improved defensive units in the MAC last season and surrendered an average of 350.3 yards per game. The Eagles improved by 103.8 yards per contest from the previous season, but lost key players from 2011's successful lineup.
Defensive end Andy Malumba is the only returning player from the front four. Cy Maughmer and Travis Linser are the projected starting interior defensive linemen despite their lack of any collegiate game experience.
The linebacking corps is led by leading returning tackler Justin Cudworth. Strong side linebacker Bryan Pali and middle linebacker Colin Weingrad will both play significant roles alongside the team's leader.
The Eagles have a pair of talented cornerbacks in Marlon Pollard (54 tackles, one INT) and Marcell Rose (56 tackles, one INT). Rose leads the team with 27 career starts. NC State transfer Donald Coleman is expected to make his debut as EMU's new starting free safety.
EMU's secondary will be tested by Ball State's QB Keith Wenning, who enters his junior season with 4,159 yards. Wenning is just 134 yards shy of sixth place on the school's career passing yards list. Five offensive linemen with a combined 109 career starts are back to protect Wenning. BSU ranked 11th in the NCAA with only .92 sacks allowed per game.
Halfback Jahwan Edwards managed to accumulate 786 yards and 11 TDs on the ground as a true freshman in 2011. Barrington Scott has plenty of experience after starting the first five games last year. He has recovered from a season ending leg injury sustained against EMU last year and provides a great second option at running back.
The Cardinals' offensive system spreads the ball out to multiple receivers. Eight different BSU wideouts had 11 catches or more in 2011. Jamill Smith and Jack Tomlinson both emerged down the stretch and became featured players in the offense.
Ball State's defense was in clear need of adjusting after finishing 2011 at or near the bottom in every significant category. Poor fundamentals and injuries helped opposing offenses average 34.7 points per game versus the Cardinals.
Senior linebacker Travis Freeman ranked 9th in the nation in tackles (134) and has the potential to be a dominant player thanks to his ability to cover sideline to sideline. Fellow seniors Tony Martin and Kenneth Lee make up the other two-thirds of the LB unit.
Tackle Nathan Ollie is the only returning starter to the defensive line. Ollie's strong interior pass rushing should be positively complemented by speedy redshirt freshman Michael Ayers coming off the end.
Both Jeffery Garrett and Jason Pinkston return to man their starting cornerback positions. Their experience should be helpful for true freshman Chris Pauling, who earned the starting strong safety job in preseason.
This rivalry game has been decided by three points or less in each of the past three seasons. Although this is the opener for both teams, this game could play a factor in the MAC's West Division race later in the season. Gillett and the Eagles' running backs could have a big day on the ground, but they cannot afford any turnovers if they intend to leave Muncie triumphantly.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Eastern Michigan 35, Ball State 34Game Date and Time
Thursday, August 30th, 7:00 p.m. (et)