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2020 Mid-American Conference Football Championship Game Preview: #23 Buffalo Bulls vs. Ball State Cardinals

It’ll be noticeably empty in Ford Field this season due to COVID-19, but the action on-field will fill the room with ease.

NCAA FOOTBALL: DEC 04 MAC Championship Game - Northern Illinois v Bowling Green Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s a momumental clash in Detroit on Friday evening, as the Ball State Cardinals (5-1) take on the #23 Buffalo Bulls for the right to win a MAC title in a season which almost never happened.

Instead, 25 of the players named on the postseason all-MAC rosters are set to do battle in Ford Field for the right to lift the trophy, including Vern Smith Leadership Award trophy and MAC Offensive Player of the Year in Buffalo RB Jaret Patterson and MAC co-defensive player of the year in Ball State LB Brandon Martin.

There are plenty of intriguing storylines to follow for both sides of this inter-conference matchup.

It’s been 12 years since these two teams met in the MAC title game in Detroit, as the upstart Buffalo Bulls upset the #12 Ball State Cardinals to pick up the program’s only MAC title to date. This season, it’s Buffalo who comes in with the #23 ranking in the Associated Press Top 25, and looking to sneak into the penultimate College Football Playoff Rankings, while Ball State looks to play the role of spoiler.

This season’s MAC Coach of the Year, Lance Leipold, looks to avenge a blown lead vs. Rod Carey’s NIU squad in the 2018 MAC title game with a win on Friday evening, while Ball State seeks its first MAC title since 1996, the year before the MAC embraced the championship game concept. Mike Neu, who was part of Ball State’s 1989 and 1993 championship campaigns as a Cardinal QB, looks to add on to the school’s MAC legacy as a head coach.

The stage is set for what could be a potentially explosive event.


Game Info

  • When: Friday, December 18, 2020, at 7:30 p.m. ET/6:30 p.m. CT
  • Where: Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan.
  • Watch/Stream: The game will be nationally broadcast on ESPN2, with streaming on the ESPN App. A valid cable or satellite subscription is required for viewing.
  • Odds: Buffalo is a 13.5-point favorite to win the MAC title game over Ball State, with an over/under of 67.5 as of publication, per OddsShark. The line opened at Buffalo -11, with an over/under of 66 on Dec. 13.

Series History

Ball State has been the dominant party in this cross-division matchup, holding a 9-2-0 record over Buffalo since the teams first met in 1969.

That 1969 matchup, a 10-7 victory for Ball State, was the season opener for the two independent programs. Buffalo was a University Division member (present-day Football Bowl Subdivision,) while Ball State was a member of the College Division (present-day Division II.)

Buffalo would drop football after the 1970 season (another year in which they played and lost to Ball State) due to a student vote to stop funding the team. Football operations were then suspended for seven years, with Buffalo resuming play in Division III in 1977.

The series resumed in 2000, one year after Buffalo re-joined the FBS as a member of the Mid-American Conference, with Ball State picking up a 44-35 win in Buffalo to christen the conference matchup.

Buffalo’s first win in the series came in dramatic fashion in 2008, overtaking the undefeated and 12th-ranked Cardinals 42-24 thanks in part to two defensive touchdowns and a 35-14 Buffalo run in the second half (including 21 points in the third quarter alone) to seal the MAC title at Ford Field.

Buffalo also owns the last win in the series, with a 40-24 triumph over Ball State in 2017.

All-time stats

Buffalo:

  • Biggest margin: 42-24 (2008)
  • Longest/current streak: 1 game (2017-current)

Ball State:

  • Biggest margin: 49-14 (2014)
  • Longest streak: 6 games (1969-1970, 2000-2007)

(All stats courtesy of Winsipedia)


The Bulls

Quick Facts (2020 stats, through Week 6):

  • Points per game: 51.8
  • Points allowed: 21
  • Total yards: 511 (166.4 passing, 344.6 rushing)
  • Yards allowed: 367 (206.8 passing, 160.4 rushing)
Akron v Buffalo Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

The Buffalo Bulls, once again left out of the College Football Playoff Rankings, are currently ranked in the Associated Press Top 25, coming into the game at the #23 slot, rising up one from last week’s standing after a win over Akron in Week 6.

The win over Akron saw backup RB Kevin Marks (15 carries, 182 yards, two touchdowns) steal the show, as potential Heisman candidate Jaret Patterson (16 carries, 105 yards, two touchdowns) earned a much-needed rest vs. the Zips. Buffalo had secured the MAC East division in the previous week, after contact tracing protocols for Ohio cancelled what would have been the division-deciding game.

Now, the nation’s leading rushing offense (344.6 rushing yards per game average) is set to try and win a conference title. It’s a rush game that’s impressive even by Buffalo’s high standards, eclipsing last season’s all-time program record for rushing yards per game (250.5) by over 90+ yards per game in 2020. Patterson, Marks and company have also combined for 27 rushing touchdowns so far this season (third all-time in program history,) matching the program’s 2008 mark in half as many games.

Patterson will have the opportunity to break several individual marks in the school history books, inclduing becoming the second Bulls rusher to eclipse 4,000 career yards, joining former NFL starting RB Branden Oliver. Patterson needs 163 to reach the 4,000 yard mark plateau, and 212 to reach Oliver’s all-time mark. Patterson’s 205 yards per game average (and nation’s second-leading 8.0 yards per carry) could get him to within breathing distance of both marks on Friday night.

Their passing offense hasn’t had many reasons to show off in recent games, as this is a team which certainly hasn’t trailed very much in the truncated season, but have good pieces should it need to be called upon in key situations, with Kyle Vantrease (821 yards, six touchdowns, one interception,) 2019 all-MAC third-team WR Antonio Nunn (20 receptions, 353 yards, three touchdowns) and deep threat Trevor Wilson (eight receptions, 191 yards, two touchdowns) all available. The tight end duo of Zac LeFebvre and Jovani Ruiz will also prove pivotal to the Bulls aerial attack, with 15 combined receptions for 211 yards and two touchdowns.

For all the talk of Buffalo’s offense, the defense has been a bit buried in the narrative. The Bulls defensive unit has proven to be one of the most effective in the MAC, limiting opponents to 21 points per game on average, 21-of-70 (30 percent) on third-down conversions, picked up 4 of their 6 forced fumbles and nabbed five interceptions on 22 pass break-ups. Buffalo also collected 12 sacks on the year, to go along with 24 tackles-for-loss, and scored in bunches, with four defensive touchdowns by four different players, including Kadofi Wright, Tim Terry Jr., Isaiah King and Tyrone Hill.

Malcolm Koonce followed up on a breakout 2019 campaign with another excellent season in 2020, with 24 total tackles, five tackles-for-loss and four sacks for the Bulls in just five games. Linebacker James Patterson, brother of Jaret, leads the team in total tackles (43), while Hill (17 tackles, six pss break-ups,) Wright (13 tackles, five pass break-ups, one interceptions) and Cory Gross Jr, (25 tackles, one tackle-for-loss, one interception) have led the defensive backs.

If there’s one untested unit on the Bulls, it’s special teams. 2020 all-MAC third-team kicker Alex McNulty is perfect on extra-point attempts in 2020 (36/36,) but has only attempted one field goal all season, which he missed. Coach Lance Leipold said the lack of field goals was due to a change in philosophy on fourth-down calls this year, but it’s still a concern for a team which hasn’t trailed often, should they find themselves in that situation.

Evan Finegan, back after a brutal leg injury in 2019, has had a serviceable season, averaging 37.3 yards per punt, with four punts downed inside the 20-yard line out of the 14 total over five games.


The Cardinals

Quick Facts (2020 stats, through Week 5):

  • Points per game: 33.7
  • Points allowed: 27.5
  • Total yards: 457.8 (338 passing, 176.6 rushing)
  • Total yards allowed: 432.2 (246.6 passing, 115.6 rushing)
COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 12 Western Michigan at Ball State Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Unlike their East division rival, who was a favorite of coaches and media alike in the preseason, Ball State snuck their way into championship consideration in a season where prognosticators considered the Cardinals a middling roster in danger of facing another rebuild.

The Cardinals picked up the motto “Detroit or Bust” during fall camps, and rode it all the way to a seat on the bus to Ford Field, as the Cardinals won their final four games of the season to advance to their first MAC title game since 2008. In doing so, Ball State swept all their MAC West opponents—also for the first time since 2008.

They had to do so without veteran offensive presence Caleb Huntley, who picked up an injury against NIU in the third game of the season and opted out of the season prior to the division deciding game vs. WMU to better prepare for the 2021 NFL Draft. Huntley, who picked up 437 yards and six touchdowns in his three appearances, is still the team leader in both categories, which goes to show how significant of an impact he had when on the field.

In the absence of Huntley, head coach Mike Neu, at 2-1 with his job potentially on the line, engineered an offense led by Drew Plitt and the short passing game to resounding success. The Cards threw for an average of 306.3 yards per game (up from 251.6) and also had a 7:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio (improved from 4:3) in the second leg of the season to help buoy the Ball State offense in Huntley’s absence.

Plitt (1,674 yards, 13 touchdowns, five interceptions through the air) led one of the better passing attacks in the MAC, thanks in part to Yo’Heinz Tyler’s ascension (32 receptions, 413 yards, team-leading six touchdowns) over the last five games of the season. The ever-dependable Justin Hall, who placed on the 2020 all-MAC first team earlier this week, led Ball State with 44 receptions for 610 yards and three touchdowns, while Antwan Davis (31 receptions, 344 yards, one touchdown) served as a valuable third option. Fullback Cody Rudy has also been a significant contributor out of the backfield, as the five-foot-eleven, 245 lb. senior has 10 receptions for 101 yards and a score.

Ball State has relied on Tye Evans (56 carries, 250 yards, one touchdown) and Will Jones (34 carries, 154 yards, one touchdown) to fill in the gaps in the running game, which has proven to be an iffy proposition thus far. But they’ve also shown some individual flashes of brilliances in their limited runs. With more reps should come more precision.

On defense, Ball State is a talented group, hailing some of the most elite talents in the conference at several positions.

Co-defensive player of the year Brandon Martin (72 total tackles, 6.5 tackles-for-loss, one sack), first-team all-MAC selection Anthony Epke (13 tackles, seven tackles-for-loss, five sacks) and Jaylin Thomas (66 total tackles, 5.5 tackles-for-loss, one sack) anchor the defense from the linebacker position, giving BSU one of the best cores in the conference.

2020 first-team all-MAC safety Bryce Cosby is the third-leading tackler on the team (44 total tackles, 4.5 tackles-for-loss, one sack, one interception, four pass break-ups on five passes defensed) in a secondary which also features second-team all-MAC cornerback Antonio Phillips (24 tackles, five pass break-ups on five passes defensed) and battery-mate AJ Uzodinma III (23 tackles, two tackles-for-loss, two sacks, one interception returned for a touchdown, five pass break-ups on six passes defensed.)

Christian Albright (28 tackles, six tackles-for-loss, three sacks, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery) leads a defensive line which also features Joshua Tarango and Chris Agyemang, who have combined for 20 tackles, 5.5 tackles-for-loss, one sack, three pass break-ups and an interception.

Much like Buffalo, Ball State has also been on a bit of an adventure with special teams, as redshirt freshman Jack Knight is currently sitting at 8-of-12 on field goals in 2020, and 19-of-21 on extra points attempts— which has previously affected Ball State’s late game strategies. Knight has proven clutch when necessary, however, with at least two game-winning field goals to his name.

Nathan Snyder handles punting duties, and has had a decent season, averaging 42.9 net yards per punt, with eight of his 19 boots over 50+ yards, and four landing inside the 20-yard line.


Prediction

It’s a classic meeting of the unstoppable force meeting the unmoveable object, and that alone should make for an entertaining game.

Ball State should be the toughest test yet for a Buffalo side which has (admittedly) not been terribly challenged in 2020 for the most part. The Cards defense is easily the deepest the Bulls have faced up to this point, with contributors all over the board. They’re also on a hell of a confident streak, winning both by the margins and by blowout en route to this game.

Buffalo’s mental fortitiude will certainly be tested, and Lance Leipold, known for his excellent gameplanning, will have to account for all those potential pieces. It could well be the most balanced effort we’ve seen from Buffalo all year, as they will likely try to ease the pressure off the run game with some passes to keep Ball State honest.

But if there’s one thing to be confident in for Buffalo, it’s the strength of their offensive line and their running back stable, which has several contributors that can break the backs of any defense it comes across. The offensive line could especially prove to be the difference, as it is a unit which has allowed zero sacks in five games and helps to push forward an offense that picks up 511 yards and 51 points per game on average.

Either way you look at it, it’s hard to deny that this will be Buffalo’s moment to shine, as it’s likely the last opportunity they’ll get to impress CFP voters for a higher end-of-season ranking.

I personally think the game will be closer than the bettors would indicate, but that over/under could well be within reach.