Dec. 5, 2008 — It’s a Friday night in Detroit, MI. For the fifth-straight season the MAC Championship will be held in the city’s relatively-new Ford Field. It’s been a rough year at the venue, as the Detroit Lions are in the midst of completing the first 0-16 season in NFL history. But there’s a promising draft prospect from Georgia named Matthew Stafford who looks poised to correct the direction of the franchise.
Outside of the football universe, the nation suffered its fourth largest stock market crash in history just four days prior. In lighter news, Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” is a week away from topping the Billboard charts, and don’t dare touch Dale’s drumset — because Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly’s comedy Step Brothers is all of the rage in the theaters.
Meet the contenders
Meanwhile, there’s an emerging program from Muncie, IN disrupting the college football rankings. The Ball State Cardinals cleared their regular season schedule with a flawless 12-0 record, and they sit No. 12 in both the AP Poll and BCS standings. Ball State is led by sixth-year head coach Brady Hoke, who guided the program to its first winning record since 1996 just one year prior.
The Cardinals flaunt a Heisman dark horse quarterback in Nate Davis who is no stranger to 300-yard, 4-touchdown games. Davis, owner of 25 touchdown passes to just six interceptions, is equipped with a talented receiving corps which includes wideout Briggs Orsbon and one of the nation’s elite tight ends, Darius Hill. Defensively, Ball State strong safety Sean Baker is an emerging freshman talent, corralling six interceptions in his first 12 showings.
Ball State proudly boasts a top 20 scoring offense, a top 30 scoring defense, and sits two wins away from perfection — with eyes fixated on becoming the first 14-0 MAC team in history. While perfection remains in play, the No. 12 Cardinals are not in consideration for a BCS bowl bid as No. 6 Utah of the Mountain West essentially clinched the lone Non-AQ conference berth.
The Cardinals flew through the regular season unscathed. They only won one of their first 12 games by fewer than 12 points. But to get to that 13th win and their first MAC Championship since 1996, all that stands in their path is a 7-5 Buffalo squad.
Buffalo is a battle-tested team, though. Captained by head coach Turner Gill, the Bulls lost three MAC games — one by 2, one by 3, and another in overtime — but never bowed out in blowout fashion. They also emerged on top in several close games, winning three overtime contests over the course of the season.
Like Ball State, Buffalo’s offense rushes into battle with a talented quarterback. The ever-consistent Drew Willy isn’t on Heisman ballots, but he’s quietly piecing together a 3,000 yard season while throwing 22 touchdowns and five interceptions as a senior. The Bulls enter with a considerable advantage in the rushing department with 1,000-yard halfback James Starks, who will counter Ball State’s stout running defense.
All signs point to Ball State coming out on top in Detroit. For one, the Cardinals are dominant in this series, manufacturing a 5-0 all-time record against the Bulls. Additionally, Buffalo has never upended a ranked team or finished with a winning record since joining the FBS ranks in 1999. Lastly, it’s 12-0 vs. 7-5 and these teams’ résumés aren’t relatively close.
Reliving the shocker in Detroit
Ball State runs out of the tunnel at Ford Field decked in all white. Buffalo charges onto the turf wearing blue helmets, jerseys, and pants. The Bulls kick it off to the undefeated Cardinals, and shortly after the contest commences, a punt fest breaks out.
A mundane start is quickly interrupted by a swig of action, as the center-to-QB exchange is mishandled and Buffalo pounces on a loose ball. Operating in a short field, Willy completes a goal line to his No. 1 wide receiver Naaman Roosevelt, and the underdogs lead 7-0.
By halftime, Ball State regains control. The Cardinals churn out a long touchdown drive and capitalize on a Starks fumble. As the first half expires, Ball State kicks the go-ahead field goal to enter the break at 10-7.
Then, the third quarter hits and things get rowdy.
After the teams trade touchdowns on their opening drives of the half, Ball State clings onto a 3-point advantage while piercing deep into Buffalo territory. Eight yards away from a double-digit lead, Davis decides to escape the pocket on a designed passing play and call his own number. He approaches the left pylon, begins to launch around the 3-yard line, and leaps in midair. The ball is exposed for a split second, and Buffalo punches it out.
Before Davis can locate the football, Buffalo cornerback Mike Newton is sprinting the other way. No Cardinal is even close, and four Bulls defenders sprint with him at full speed to celebrate Buffalo taking a 21-17 lead with 3:52 remaining in the third quarter.
Despite trailing at the end of the third quarter, Ball State is one touchdown from usurping Buffalo’s lead. Davis steers the Cardinal offense back into the red zone, reaching as far as the Buffalo 15-yard line. On 3rd and 3, Davis lines up in shotgun and disaster strikes again. A low snap ricochets off of Davis and a Ball State lineman inadvertently kicks the ball far behind the line of scrimmage. Buffalo cornerback Sherrod Lott scoops it up, and in a déjà vu play, he runs unobstructed to the end zone for a 74-yard touchdown.
After two consecutive turnovers leading to defensive scores, things do not get kinder for the 12-0 team. Ball State’s first two possessions of the fourth quarter are plagued by a turnover on downs and its fourth fumble of the night. Buffalo cashes the fumble in for a 29-yard scoring drive, and four of the Bulls’ first five touchdowns followed up a Ball State fumble. Fittingly, the night ends on a Ball State interception in the end zone, increasing the Cardinals’ turnover total to five.
Turnovers spoil the Cardinals’ dream season, causing Buffalo to clinch its first MAC title ever at 8-5. The Bulls decisively win the second half, exiting Ford Field with a 42-24 result branded on the scoreboard. Mike Newton is rewarded for his game-changing 92-yard fumble recovery in addition to registering a team-high nine tackles.
The MAC champion Buffalo Bulls secure their first bowl bid in program history, however it does not go as smoothly. They fall 38-20 to Connecticut in the now-defunct International Bowl, but the accomplishment of hanging the 2008 conference championship banner still resonates to this day. Ball State, with a chance to tie the 2004 Miami RedHawks for the best MAC single-season record of the BCS era, cannot complete the job. The Cardinals suffer a brutal 45-13 beatdown at the hands of Tulsa in the GMAC Bowl.
It was a long wait for the program, but twelve years later, Ball State finally returns to the conference mountaintop. But this time, the roles are reversed as the underdog Cardinals look to oust the undefeated, nationally ranked Bulls in the 2020 MAC Championship Game at Ford Field.