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How Ball State’s run defense manufactured a MAC Championship Game upset

The Cardinals stuffed Buffalo to a season-low 134 rushing yards and forced the Bulls to air it out 42 times.

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

Five MAC teams received an opportunity to test their metal against the Buffalo Bulls this season. But week after week, opponent after opponent, there was no answer to solving Buffalo’s offense. Nobody even came within 19 points of the conference’s juggernaut. Built on the foundation of a sturdy offensive line, the Bulls finished their regular season undefeated, while leading the FBS in scoring average and rushing yards per game.

On a Friday night in Detroit, a formula for mitigation was finally established. Ball State assembled the perfect game-plan to conquer the giant, and the Cardinals controlled the line of scrimmage and forced Buffalo to a season-low 134 rushing yards. By clogging the central rushing lanes, playing contain on the outsides, and taking care of business offensively, Ball State pulled out a shocking 38-28 upset in the MAC Championship Game over the No. 23 team in the country.

“They had a nice plan,” Buffalo head coach Leipold said. “They weren’t gonna let us get the ball outside. They were gonna try to box it all in and make it go from there. I thought we threw the ball well, probably better than people gave us credit for. But they won that battle tonight and you gotta tip your hat off. I told Mike (Neu) after the game that his team outplayed us and he outcoached us.”

The nation’s leader in rushing yards per game, Jaret Patterson, entered Friday with more 300-yard performances in 2020 than sub-100-yard outings. The junior running back’s efforts were countered by Ball State stuffing the box and asserting their physicality. Patterson was often met by multiple defenders and finished the night with 47 yards on 18 carries. He’s no stranger for breakaway runs, but the longest scamper he managed against the Ball State defense was eight yards.

“They’re a super experienced group, especially those front seven guys — big, fast, physical, came down hard. Saw it in film, we prepared for it,” Buffalo quarterback Kyle Vantrease said. “Going into the game, we anticipated that we were gonna be able to move the ball like we have all year long and you’ve gotta have that confidence going into every game. But today they made a lot of plays.”

Unfortunately, Patterson exited the game with an apparent knee injury in the third quarter when he got gator rolled by a Ball State defender. The MAC Offensive Player of the Year was sidelined for nearly the entirety of the second half, except for one play in the early fourth quarter. Testing the status of his knee, Patterson bolted two yards to the sidelines on a handoff and never returned. He was equipped with a right knee brace which could potentially hamper the effectiveness of his phenomenal cutting ability.

Buffalo had one signature run all night. Kevin Marks broke free for an obstructed 67-yard touchdown run in the third quarter — which was the game’s only second half touchdown — but he obtained just 27 yards on his other eight carries. Ball State made its money on first downs by keying on the run, often leaving Buffalo in down-and-distance scenarios in order to move the sticks. Inside linebacker Jimmy Daw was the ringleader of that movement, registering three tackles for loss in a Defensive MVP performance.

“Our defense does not get enough credit,” Ball State head coach Mike Neu said. “They rose to the challenge. All that was talked about was this team that we’re facing is leading the country in scoring, leading the country in rushing... But it was preached in our building that you can’t beat 11 hats to the football and our guys took pride in that. They did their part, play in and play out, committed to their assignment, committed to their gap, and they were flying around.”

MAC Football Championship - Ball State v Buffalo
Ball State ILB Jimmy Daw celebrates as OLB Christian Albright returns a scoop and score to the end zone in the second quarter.
Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

Ball State’s defense wasn’t the only factor that forced Buffalo away from its gameplan. The Cardinals required the offense to do their part as well. By thriving on the offensive end, Ball State forced the Bulls to enter the uncharted territory of playing from behind. Prior to the MAC Championship, Buffalo did not trail for a single second this year. While Buffalo’s run game stalled in the second quarter, Ball State’s balanced offense thrived, and the Cardinals opened up a 35-21 lead entering halftime.

“I wouldn’t say they deflated us,” Buffalo wide receiver Antonio Nunn said. “It was more of a reality check because this season, we had never been there before. We didn’t expect that to happen. It was just hard.”

When Buffalo lined up for its first snap of the third quarter, it trailed 38-21. With the clock in heavy favor of Ball State, the Cardinals succeeded in thwarting Buffalo’s run-based gameplan. Suddenly, a team which hadn’t passed 30 times all season was forced to fully commit to the air.

“We always go into the game thinking run first,” Antonio Nunn said. “The passes just started connecting more and we were driving down the field. The passes was the gameplan toward the end of the game, but it was never the gameplan going into the game.”

In the past two years as Buffalo’s starting quarterback, the most passes Kyle Vantrease threw in a game was 27. Just one week prior in a 56-7 win over Akron, he dropped back only seven times. On Friday against Ball State, Vantrease escalated that number up to a career-high 42. He started 10/11 in the early going, prior to Buffalo diverting away from the run. Vantrease had a strong showing with 365 passing yards on 69 percent accuracy, but the over-reliance on his arm in the second half pushed Buffalo out of its typical comfort zone.

“Obviously, the being behind feeling is not what you want. It’s not what you expect going in,” Vantrease said. “As a quarterback you are ready no matter what whenever your number is called. Tonight it was called a lot more for me, and I was ready, but we didn’t make as many plays. We’re a unit so when one side of the ball is struggling, the other side’s gotta pick them up.”

MAC Football Championship - Ball State v Buffalo
Kyle Vantrease attempted 42 passes in the MAC Championship after throwing a combined 40 times in his previous three starts.
Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

Buffalo’s passing game was severely impeded by untimely drops. On two opportunities in Ball State territory in the fourth quarter, while trailing by 10, Buffalo dropped surefire first downs. The first drop was on a 3rd and 7 slant to Antonio Nunn — who otherwise shined with 182 yards on 13 receptions — and his drop caused the Bulls to punt from the Ball State 43-yard line.

The second miscue occurred deep in the red zone on a critical 4th and 2. Vantrease dumped it off in the flat to Marks, but the bright indoor stadium lights interfered with Marks’ vision and he missed the ball. Entering Detroit with 20 touchdowns on 21 red zone appearance this season, Buffalo came up completely empty handed on two red zone trips Friday night.

While Vantrease and the Bulls pieced together a solid showing through the air, Ball State ultimately rerouted Buffalo from its greatest strength in running the ball. While Buffalo was prepared for this outcome, the Cardinals’ execution of their aggressive game-planning was too much to overcome.

“They’re a good coaching staff. If we were gonna beat them, we were probably going to do it probably through the air,” Leipold said. “We talked about it in our morning meetings that it was gonna be more like our game against Miami where we had some of those explosive plays. We anticipated that.”