On Saturday at noon on the campus of Ball State University, the Ball State Cardinals and the Western Michigan Broncos will square off with a chance at a MAC Championship berth and the waiting Buffalo Bulls. It’s a small bit of normalcy for an otherwise garbage 2020. Raise your hand if you thought we’d actually make it through the football season (albeit truncated) and be one game away from Championship Weekend. Put your hand down. No one likes a liar. As an aside, asking me to write a preview where a MAC Championship berth is on the line featuring my alma mater is like asking Rudy Giuliani to explain the positive benefits of precision mask-wearing. But yet, here we are. I won’t tell if you won’t.
For the Broncos
It’s all offensive in Kalamazoo, and WMU has an embarrassment of riches at the WR position. D’Wayne Eskridge has five straight games with a receiving TD and ranks second in the country in receiving (128.8) and all-purpose (223.8) yards per game. Jaylen Hall has caught a TD in every game he’s played in this season (four of the team’s five contests) with two being a multi-score outburst. There’s also Biletnikoff watchlisted Skyy Moore, second on the team in receptions and third in TDs. QB Kaleb Eleby has thrown three or more TDs in four of five games this season including a 5-spot against CMU and is capable of shredding defenses and doing so quickly and without mercy. He is the nation’s leader in passing efficiency (212.7) and yards per completion (19.3). He is second nationally in points responsible for per game (24). Remember the name, he’s your next great MAC alum doing it on Sundays.
For the Cardinals
The Cards have their own QB/WR connection worth noting as Drew Plitt and Justin Hall continue to set the pace and the record book on fire. Plitt, the back-to-back MAC West Division Offensive Player of the Week recipient, has thrown for 670 yards and accounted for eight total touchdowns over the past two weeks. The MAC’s second-leading passer with 1,425 yards, Plitt threw for a season-high 366 yards last week at Central Michigan to go with four TDs passing and one rushing. College football’s active leader with 242 career catches, senior WR Justin Hall is three away from breaking Ball State’s career record held by KeVonn Mabon (244 from 2012-16). He passed Dante Ridgeway (238 from 2002-04) last week at CMU. On the ground, Caleb Huntley will be back this week for Ball State, after missing the past two games to injury. He has the FBS’ longest active streak of 100-yard rushing games with a school-record seven straight. He also has a seven-game touchdown streak (13 TDs in that stretch). Fourth nationally with 145.7 yards per game, Huntley needs 98 yards to become the seventh back in BSU history with 3,000.
With all that firepower on both sides of the ball, this one looks like a traditional MAC scoregasm waiting to happen. But what people are forgetting is Ball State actually does have a defense. And that’s the unit to watch. Ball State’s defense has surrendered fewer points each week than the previous week this season, most recently posting season bests for points (20), total yards (342), and passing yards (188) allowed in last week’s win at Central Michigan. If WMU runs roughshod over the BSU defense as they have done time and time again this season to nearly every other opponent, then it’s a shootout and one that likely favors the Broncos. If the Cardinals defense stands up as it has the last few games, forces turnovers, and doesn’t break every drive, then the Cardinals have a puncher’s chance, perhaps more than one. Call me crazy but in my opinion, this is Ball State’s to lose.
The larger picture is that it’s been a common refrain from BSU fans that the Cardinals are always just one step away. Fans point to the almosts and the could-have-beens and hope eternal that the next time a chance comes along, we will take it. It only took a global pandemic, tons of canceled games, and the strangest football season we have ever had to bring it back again. But we knew this was coming, didn’t we? I did.
It’s fitting that in 2020, with everything else going on, the Cardinals may actually have the pieces in place to compete for a MAC title. Leave it to Ball State to win a championship in the COVID era, where there’s a ready-made asterisk ready to be applied to the crown. It’s so Ball State that it would be fitting, poetic, and more than a little expected. That’s the way of things in Muncie, you see. There’s always a play that doesn’t quite get made, a win that just doesn’t quite come to pass, or some oddity that makes success unachievable. Let’s go ahead and close out 2020 with a bang and a title, shall we?
Excuse me while I take my victory lap. And speaking of victory laps, how fitting would it be for the Cardinal Revenge Tour to have a finale in the MAC Championship against Buffalo. Any BSU fan worth their salt still has nightmares of the Bulls and Detroit from 2008 when fumble after fumble hit the Ford Field turf along with an undefeated season. Dare we have hope? Dare we dream about the possibility of a MAC Championship and going through Buffalo to do it? First things first, and that’s Saturday at noon.