Time and Date: Thursday, December 31 at 2:00 p.m. ET
Location: Arizona Stadium — Tucson, AZ
Spread: San Jose State (-9.5)
ESPN FPI: San Jose State has 63.0% chance to win
All-time series: No previous matchups
The Ball State Cardinals are MAC champions. The San Jose State Spartans are Mountain West champions.
Those statements weren’t expected to be true prior to the 2020 season kicking off, but Ball State and San Jose State have been two of the greatest surprises in this year full of unprecedented occurrences. Ball State’s last winning season transpired in 2013, but the Cardinals are 6-1 after upsetting undefeated Buffalo in the MAC Championship Game. San Jose State’s last winning season transpired in 2012, but the Spartans are 7-0 after upsetting perennial powerhouse Boise State in the Mountain West Championship Game.
Only two bowl games in 2020 feature a matchup of conference champions. The College Football Playoff semifinal at the Sugar Bowl is one of them. The Arizona Bowl is the other. Given the résumés of the participating teams, this will be the most anticipated Arizona Bowl of all-time, upgraded to a national television slot on CBS this New Year’s Eve.
Ball State Cardinals outlook
After winning its first MAC championship since 1996, Ball State has the chance to make more history. The Cardinals are one of eight FBS teams without a single bowl win to their name. Out of those eight teams, no team has more postseason experience than Ball State, which will be playing in its eighth bowl game Thursday.
Head coach Mike Neu finished below .500 in each of his first four seasons with Ball State, but signs of a MAC championship contender were evident in 2019. This year, the offense jumped into one of the top 25 scoring units in the country. Meanwhile, the linebacker-led defense became one of the premier run stopping units in the MAC.
Ball State won its sixth straight game in Detroit by executing in both phases, but the defensive prowess was especially impressive. As a run defense, the Cardinals stacked the box and funneled Buffalo’s star running backs into the center of the field, where they were greeted by a cluster of linebackers and safeties. The Cardinals effective run defense operates with three All-MAC First Teamers, including the conference’s Co-Defensive Player of the Year in Brandon Martin who operates at the heart of the unit. Anthony Ekpe is the premier pass rusher on the Cardinals with a team-high 5.0 sacks while free safety Bryce Cosby excels as a Swiss army knife in pass coverage and stopping the run.
In the MAC Championship Game, the defensive MVP was handed to inside linebacker Jimmy Daw, who blocked a field goal, forced a fumble which was recovered by a touchdown, and played a hand in stopping the run game. With San Jose State’s run game picking up steam in recent weeks, Daw must sustain his playmaking ability in order to contain the Spartans from imposing their will on the ground.
On offense, redshirt senior quarterback Drew Plitt is playing in potentially his final game as a Cardinal. During Ball State’s six game win streak, Plitt has remained a model of accuracy with a 60 percent or greater completion rate in each contest. Ever since running back Caleb Huntley suffered an injury and subsequently opted out of the season, the Cardinals’ offense has shifted toward more of a passing attack, and Plitt has handled that with success.
He is surrounded by a slew of weapons including First Team All-MAC wide receiver Justin Hall, the FBS active leader in receptions. Through seven games, Hall leads the team in receiving yards with 665. He has a knack for getting YAC (yards after catch), which makes him a viable threat on tunnel and bubble screens. Additionally, Hall has 231 rushing yards on 7.7 yards per carry since his speed comes in handy for jet sweeps.
Hall isn’t the only name to watch in Ball State’s receiving corps. Yo’Heinz Tyler made his mark in the MAC Championship Game with 91 yards and a receiving touchdown — his team-leading seventh of the season and Antwan Davis is the third member of Ball State’s receiving group to average at least five receptions and 59 yards per game. While running back Tye Evans had a breakout performance of 94 yards against Buffalo, the Cardinals will likely rely on Plitt and the receivers to bolster the offensive production in Tucson.
San Jose State Spartans outlook
San Jose State is finally on the mountaintop of the Mountain West for the first time in history. Even though the Spartans haven’t qualified for a bowl game in five years, upon reaching the postseason, the program has been quite prosperous. San Jose State rides a four-game bowl winning streak dating back to 1990, defeating Bowling Green in the 2012 Military Bowl and Georgia State in the 2015 Cure Bowl in its recent outings.
Similar to Mike Neu at Ball State, Brent Brennan entered the program in 2017 and after patience from the school’s athletic department, unhinged success is finally on display. San Jose State isn’t just a conference champion — it’s one of four currently undefeated teams in college football.
The 2020 Spartans’ 7-0 record is derived from their defensive dominance. At 17.9 points allowed per game, San Jose State owns the 13th best scoring defense in college football. Brennan’s team is especially adept at stopping the run and that was how the Mountain West was won — Boise State only managed three rushing yards on 25 attempts against the Spartans.
It begins up front with one of the best defensive end duos in the sport. Viliami Fehoko and Cade Hall (Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year) combine for 22.5 tackles for loss and 15 sacks this season, yet San Jose State only played seven times. Fehoko and Hall will battle against a Ball State offensive line which hasn’t been the best in pass protection this season, as Plitt has absorbed four sacks in two of his last three games.
Also present on San Jose State’s defense is a pair of Tres at the safety positions. Tre Webb and Tre Jenkins are two of the best hitters on the Spartans defense, and both safeties have contributed at least 40 tackles in an abbreviated schedule. Given Ball State’s offense which features many quick screens and slants, the Tres will have their work cut out for them to stop Hall and the rest of Ball State’s receivers.
Offensively, the Spartans plan to take the field with Nick Starkel, a transfer quarterback on his third destination. Formerly a Texas A&M and Arkansas signal caller, Starkel found a perfect home in San Jose where he landed a Second Team All-Mountain West appearance. Against Boise State in the conference title game, Starkel went completely nuclear. He threw for 453 yards and three touchdowns on 52 attempts, proving San Jose State can dominate through the air if needed.
Starkel’s horde of weapons includes big-play wide receivers Bailey Gaither (41 receptions, 725 yards, 4 TD) and Tre Walker (38 receptions, 546 yards, 4 TD), but the Spartans are also equipped with a dangerous red zone threat at tight end. Derrick Deese Jr. stands 6’4”, weighs 235 to serve as the perfect strong-armed receiver on 50-50 balls in the end zone. As a result, Deese has a team-high five touchdowns this season.
The Spartans’ running game hasn’t made as much noise this season, but San Jose State proved in its games against Hawaii and Nevada that Tyler Nevens can take over a game by himself. The senior running back is like a mini Derrick Henry. He’s 6’0”, 225 pounds, and runs violently. No stranger to the stiff arm, Nevens can plow defenders over, and that’s what he did in 152 and 184 yard performances in San Jose State’s final two regular season games.
Bowl season hasn’t gifted us with many close games yet, but the Arizona Bowl seems like an exception. Ball State and San Jose State are extremely balanced teams fighting to cap off spectacular conference title seasons.
San Jose State has not allowed more than 24 points in a single game this year, and the Spartans should be able to control the pace of this low-scoring matchup. If there’s one glaring weakness on Ball State, it’s the Cardinals’ 119th ranked pass defense. If Starkel and the gang can carry over the performance from the Boise State game, the Spartans hold a considerable advantage in Tucson.
Ball State’s run defense and the Cardinals’ ability to maneuver down the field with their passing attack should keep this one close. Still, San Jose State completes the fourth undefeated season of the College Football Playoff era, joining the likes of 2017 UCF, 2018 Clemson, and 2019 LSU.
Prediction: San Jose State 27, Ball State 20