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

The Ball State Cardinals are the top team in the MAC, thanks in part to a 21-0 swing in the second quarter to put the pressure on the favored Bulls.

MAC Football Championship - Ball State v Buffalo Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

When last these two teams met in Detroit, it was the upstart Buffalo which upset the ranked and undefeated Ball State’s hopes and dreams, with a dominant defensive performance in a 42-24 battle back in 2008.

It took 12 years, and a five-game winning streak to even qualify for the opportunity, but the Ball State Cardinals (6-1) completed their 12-year revenge arc on the #23 Buffalo Bulls (5-1) to secure the program’s first MAC championship since 1996 on Friday night, winning by a final score of 38-28.

The game started off at a torrid pace, with Buffalo’s Ron Cook blazing past defenders on the opening kickoff for 28 yards to set the tempo, a return which could have well gone for a touchdown were it not for Cook getting his feet tangled up along the sideline.

The Bulls found their way to the endzone anyway, as Buffalo’s talisman running back Jaret Patterson got on the scoreboard first, with a short rush up the middle to put Buffalo up 7-0 early in the proceedings. The score, Patterson’s 19th of the season, was set up by a long 54-yard catch-and-run by Antonio Nunn on a crossing slant route in the middle of the field.

Ball State answered back quickly on the ensuing drive, capping off an 11-play, 75-yard drive lasting just over four minutes with a 10-yard touchdown throw from Drew Plitt to Yo’Heiz Tyler to even the score with 7:47 to go in the first quarter. The score put Tyler at seven touchdowns for the season, and extended his streak of games with at least one scoring reception to six-in-a-row.

Buffalo once again answered the call on the next possession, this time through the air, as Trevor Wilson was on the receiving end of a Kyle Vantrease touchdown ball from 24 yards out to cap off an eight-play, 69-yard drive to go up 14-7 on the Cardinals.

Momentum had seemed to swing back into Buffalo’s favor after forcing a three-and-out at the 2:24 mark of the first quarter, as the Bulls marched down the field on an 11-play, 50 yard drive aided in part by an offsides penalty, but a f27-yard field goal attempt by Alex McNulty (0/1 on field goals coming into the game) was blocked by linebacker Jimmy Daw, presenting an opportunity for Ball State to get back into the game.

Drew Plitt snuck into the endzone on fourth and goal at the Buffalo one-yard line on a drive set up by the missed field goal and two deep passes to Justin Hall (25 yards) and Antwan Davis (13 yards) to pull the game back to a tie. Kyle Vantrease would do the same on the next drive, pulling off the play action bootleg from one yard out to complete a drive where Vantrease gained 75 yards through the air on contested throws to Antonio Nunn (17 yards) and Trevor Wilson (58 yards) on the previous two plays to put the Bulls ahead 21-14 at the 7:31 mark of the second quarter.

That’s when Ball State took control of the second quarter.

The Cardinals would start their 21-0 run with a Plitt-to-Hall touchdown connection to pull the game back even at 21 apiece with 5:55 remaining in the half after a six-play, 75-yard drive. The defense forced a rare Buffalo three-and-out on the next possession, taking only 1:35 off the clock.

On 2nd and 8 from their own 48, Ball State seemed to be in trouble after a George Wolo sack of Drew Plitt for a loss of four yards. Instead, Plitt got up, evaded pressure, and found a streaking Jalen McGaughey wide-open down the sideline for an easy 56-yard touchdown strike.

Five plays later, Jimmy Daw picked up the sack on Kyle Vantrese, the first sack given up by Buffalo’s offensive line of the season, and Christian Albright collected the fumble for a 34-yard touchdown to put the game on its head.

The Cardinals would take the newly-acquired 35-21 lead into the locker room at halftime, having held Heisman hopeful Jaret Patterson to just 47 yards and a touchdown in the first 30 minutes.

The game would settle down from there, with ony 10 total points scored in the third quarter. Jack Knight posted a field goal from 21 yards out to put Ball State up 38-21 at the 9:09 mark, while Kevin Marks took one cut and found 67 yards of open space to gain his first score of the night to cut the deficit to 38-28 with just over a minute remaining. Ball State went three-and-out and punted as the clock hit zero to pin Buffalo at their 28 yard line.

First-team all-MAC DB Antonio Phillips christened the fourth quarter with a SportsCenter worthy interception, ripping a sure reception from Trevor Wilson’s hands and gifting Ball State a new possession. Buffalo linebacker James Patterson, brother of Jaret, would return the favor on the next series, getting in front of a tipped pass to nab Buffalo’s first takeaway of the night.

The drive eventually fizzled out, with Kyle Vantrease (a former starting punter) pooch punting on 4th and 8 from the Ball State 44. The Cardinals would follow suit on the next possession, with Nathan Snyder gifting UB the ball at their own 48.

On 4th and 2 from BSU’s 14-yard line with 8:31 remaining, Lance Leipold elected to go for it, instead of kicking the field goal, perhaps a reaction to the earlier blocked field goal. The wheel pass to Kevin Marks was dropped past the sticks, resulting in a turnover on downs.

Ball State QB Drew Plitt pooch punted the ball back to Buffalo with 5:01 remaining, pinning Buffalo at their own 4, down 10 points and needing a quick score.

Vantrease went 7-of-9 for 44 yards to wind down the clock, including a 10-yard pass on 3rd and 11 to Antonio Nunn to set up 4th and 1 at their own 47. This time, with no other choice but to try for the conversion, Leipold and the Bulls turned to the running game, with Vantrease handing the ball off to Kevin Marks. Jaylin Thomas burst through the offensive line and picked up the tackle-for-loss to essentially seal the game for the Cardinals.

Ball State QB Drew Plitt (20-of-32, 263 yards, three passing touchdowns, one rushing touchdown, one interception) was named the game’s offensive MVP, while Ball State linebacker Jimmy Daw (seven tackles, three tackles-for-loss, strip sack, blocked field goal) won defensive MVP honors in the game.

Tye Evans (18 carries, 94 yards) led the rushing attack for Ball State, with WR Justin Hall (six carries, 55 yards) also contributing in the backfield via jet sweeps. On the receiving end for Ball State, Yo’Heinz Tyler led in receptions (six) and yards (91), while Hall (five receptions, 45 yards, touchdown) and Jalen McGaughy (a 56-yard touchdown reception) also contrinbuted on the day.

Defensively, Co-defensive MAC Player of the Year Brandon Martin paced the Cardinals, with 13 total tackles, with DB AJ Udozinma close behind with 10. Christian Albright contributed the defensive touchdown on an otherwise quiet night, while Antonio Phillips’ interception contributed to BSU’s turnover margin.

Jaret Patterson, who came in averaging 205 yards per game on the ground, had to settle for 18 carries, 47 yards and a touchdown, with minimal contribution in the second half due to a lingering injury. Kevin Marks took reps in Patterson’s stead, finishing with nien carries for 93 yards and a touchdown strike.

Kyle Vantrease (29-of-42, 365 yards, one passing touchdown, one rushing touchdown, one interception) relied on Antonio Nunn for emergency yards early and often due to Patterson and Marks’ struggle with the BSU defense. Nunn finished the day leading all receivers with 13 receptions for 182 yards. Trevor Wilson hauled in the lone receiving touchdown, finishing with six receptions and 118 yards.

James Patterson led all players in tackles (11) and also had a pass break-up and an interception in the fourth quarter in a stellar effort for the Bulls defense. As a unit, the Bulls defense picked up five tackles-for-loss and four sacks, with Tyrece Woods (six tackles, two tackles-for-loss, two sacks) causing the most trouble along the defensive line. It was a quiet day for potential NFL prospect DE Malcolm Koonce, who collected six tackles and a tackle-for-loss.

Both teams now await their postseason fates, as they will be the Mid-American Conference’s lone representatives in the 2020 Bowl Season.