Ball State (5-1) stunned Western Michigan (4-2) to win its first MAC West title since 2008 on Saturday afternoon, with the Cardinals scored 17 unanswered points in the second half to punch their ticket to Detroit, where they will take on the 24th-ranked Buffalo Bulls for the MAC Championship.
The game came right down to the end, where Western Michigan still had a chance to win on a wild final play which saw 13 laterals, a fumble, more laterals, and a touchdown by WMU’s Skyy Moore that was ultimately nullified by a penalty for a forward lateral.
With six seconds remaining, down 30-27, the Broncos had the ball near mid-field and unleashed the wild lateral play. The play started with a screen pass to WR Skyy Moore, who lateralled back to RB La’Darius Jefferson, who then lateralled to QB Kaleb Eleby. 11 more laterals ensued until the 13th lateral was a fumble.
Ball State’s bench charged the field, thinking the fumble had been recovered and the game was over only to find that the whistle had not been blown and the fumble was not yet recovered.
The ball was eventually recovered by Western Michigan and more laterals ensued with Skyy Moore ending up with the ball. Moore weaved through the chaos to reach the end zone. Unfortunately for Broncos fans, the score was called back due to a penalty, as one of the laterals was ultimately determined to be a forward pass.
It was timely defense and a championship performance from Ball State’s WR Justin Hall which keyed the improbable win over WMU. Hall dominated with 213 all-purpose yards, including 10 receptions for 175 yards and two touchdowns.
Western Michigan has got to feel like they let one get away here after a dominating offensive performance, including 492 yards and more than 37 minutes of time of possession. Nine receptions for 124 yards by D’Wayne Eskridge and 159 yards rushing by La’Darius Jefferson were not enough to get the win, as WMU’s red zone woes and two turnovers ultimately ruined their MAC West title hopes.
Western Michigan dominated the first half more than the 20-13 halftime score would suggest. The Broncos possessed the ball for almost 20 minutes and rolled up 325 yards of offense in the first half, but never could quite pull away from the Cardinals.
Ball State’s defense, combind with woeful WMU meltdowns in the red zone prevented an early blowout, as WMU ran 36 plays on its first four drives and made it to the red zone on its first three drives, only coming away with three points to show for their efforts.
On WMU’s first drive in the red zone, the Cardinals’ Jordan Williams knocked down a pass on third-and-eight to force a WMS field goal. On WMU’s third red zone drive, Ball State’s safety Bryce Cosby and linebacker Jaylin Thomas combined to force a turnover-on-downs by stuffing a run on fourth and two from inside the five yard line.
WMU’s second drive into the red zone, a nine-play, 70-yard drive, resulted in no points when a strong snap was too hot to handle for QB Kaleb Eleby, sailing 36 yards down field where it was recovered by Ball State’s Jimmy Daw. The Cardinals’ linebacker Daw made some notable plays throughout, including some nice special teams tackles and a critical stop of Eleby on third and one in the fourth quarter to force a field goal attempt which was missed.
The tide started to turn in the Broncos’ favor in the second quarter when WMU started finishing drives. The Broncos scored touchdowns on its last two drives of the half, a 24-yard pass from Eleby to Eskridge and a five-yard pass from Eleby to Jaylen Hall.
Ball State scored a touchdown late in the second quarter, on an 11-play, 73-yard drive, capped by a 32-yard pass play to Justin Hall from QB Drew Plitt.
Despite the touchdown, Ball State was never able to consistently sustain an offensive threat in the first half due to poor execution including several dropped passes or off-the-mark throws. The Cardinals’ early offensive struggles were compounded by the absence of RB Caleb Huntley, who missed his third game in a row reportedly due to a rib injury.
Western Michigan had Ball State on the ropes in the third quarter, but some Bronco blunders breathed life into a fading Cardinal crew.
Up 27-13 and driving, WMU bobbled the snap, resulting in a five-yard loss on second and one. The center-quarterback shotgun exchange was a major problem on the day for WMU, with at least five misadventures, either on dropped or bad snaps.
On the next play, Eleby’s errant throw on a screen pass was deftly picked by defensive linemen Chris Agyemang. Five plays and thirty yards later, Ball State got back within eight, 27-19, on a thirteen-yard touchdown pass to Yo’Heinz Tyler.
On Ball State’s next possession, Justin Hall electrified viewers with a 55-yard touchdown on a screen pass where Hall weaved through and outraced WMU defenders to the end zone. A two-point conversion tied the game at 27.
Western Michigan’s theme on the day of domination between the 20s then implosion in the red zone continued on the next drive. The Broncos marched 70 yards on 12 plays only for Thiago Kapps—pressed into duty after being benched the prior week due to performance—miss a 29-yard field goal.
The game came down to the final two minutes, where Ball State marched the ball into field goal position. Kicker Jack Knight, who had missed two extra points, nailed a 22-yard field goal to give Ball State the final 30-27 advantage.
With six seconds remaining, WMU launched its lateral play, only to come up short. The Broncos could not recapture the magic it found earlier in the season when they defeated the Toledo Rockets on a fake spike play in the waning seconds.
The newly-named Rocket Mortgage Mid-American Conference Football Championship Game will take place Friday, December 18th, at 7:30pm ET on ESPN. The Cardinals will face the #24-ranked Buffalo Bulls.
WMU’s regular season ends at 4-2, and they await any potential invitations to a bowl game.