It was a moment years in the making.
Ball State made seven trips to bowl season in the past, but no dice. The Cardinals were the only FBS program with zero bowl victories in more than two appearances. In a 2020 pandemic-riddled season that almost didn’t happen, the program took advantage of the opportunity to take the field.
After losing a head-scratcher to the Miami RedHawks to begin the shortened MAC season, the Cardinals re-adjusted their strategy, and reeled off six straight victories, including a triumphant and emphatic victory over a ranked Buffalo squad, to secure the Cardinals’ first MAC championship since 1996.
The Cardinals polished off a year of working towards their final mission with just hours remaining on the calendar on Thursday afternoon in Tucson, Arizona, capping off an incredible 2020 campaign with a 34-13 victory over the No. 22 Mountain West champion San Jose State Spartans.
The Cardinals came out in Tucson with their tails on fire. After defensive playmaking led the team to a landmark upset in Detroit, Ball State flew out of the gate with a pick six. Six plays into the Arizona Bowl, cornerback Antonio Phillips jumped a route and returned Nick Starkel’s pass 58 yards the other way.
By forcing three consecutive three-and-outs, Ball State’s offense was able to enter a rhythm. A trio of short rushing touchdowns by running backs Will Jones and Tye Evans, as well as quarterback Drew Plitt, escalated the Cardinals to a 27-0 advantage before the end of the first quarter.
And honestly, it could have been worse than 27-0. The next three Ball State possessions all ended in unfortunate circumstance in San Jose State territory, missing a field goal and fumbling twice. But these miscues were quickly forgotten because Ball State’s secondary literally had their hands all over this one.
The Cardinals picked off Starkel three times and intercepted San Jose State’s backup Nick Nash once. Phillips initiated Ball State’s takeaway movement with the early pick six. Then, free safety Bryce Cosby added a touchdown-saving interception by the goal line and strong safety Brett Anderson chipped in with a pick in zone coverage. Finally, in the late third quarter, a batted ball at the line of scrimmage landed in the hands of inside linebacker Jimmy Daw, the MAC Championship Game Defensive MVP. Ball State won the turnover battle 4-2 and outscored San Jose State 13-0 on points off turnovers — a pivotal decider in this game.
Ball State increased its lead to as large as 34-0 in the early third quarter on a 48-yard touchdown pass from Plitt to touchdown machine Yo’Heinz Tyler, who scored in each of his final seven games to finish 2020. San Jose State provided a quick scare with a kickoff return touchdown and another score on the final play of the third quarter to reduce the deficit to 34-13. But the Cardinals’ defense held on in the fourth to secure a piece of history for the program.
Plitt finished the afternoon with 217 passing yards and a touchdown. Tyler, his primary target, led all receivers in the game with 103 yards. Rounding out the stat sheet, Cosby shined with a team-high nine tackles and an interception in potentially his final collegiate game.
Now with two victories over otherwise-undefeated teams that were ranked at the time in San Jose State (7-1) and Buffalo (6-1), Ball State is in prime position to finish in the final AP Top 25 poll for the first time in program history.
After facing early adversity in the opener, Ball State finished strong with seven consecutive victories, a MAC West division title, a conference championship, and finally — an Arizona Bowl victory, the first postseason win in Ball State history.
2020 may be (mercifully) winding to a close, but the year will always hold a special place in the small town of Muncie, Indiana.