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2021 Week 13 Midweek MACtion Preview: Buffalo Bulls @ Ball State Cardinals

A rematch of the 2020 MAC Championship Game highlights the final Tuesday night of the regular season.

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

Game Notes

  • Time and Date: Tuesday, November 23 at 7:00 p.m. ET
  • Network: ESPN+
  • Location: Scheumann Stadium — Muncie, IN
  • Spread: Ball State (-6.5)
  • ESPN FPI: Ball State has 59.5% chance to win
  • All-time series: Ball State leads, 10-2
  • Last meeting: Ball State 38, Buffalo 28 — December 18, 2020
  • Current streak: Ball State, 1 (2020)

Setting the scene

Eleven months ago, this matchup transpired on the Mid-American Conference’s grandest stage in Detroit. That December night, Ball State shocked Buffalo 38-28 to win the program’s first MAC title since 1996. Both the Cardinals and Bulls finished the 2020 season ranked in the final AP Poll for the first time in their respective histories to conclude the memorable year.

This season, there will be no highly-anticipated rematch in Detroit. Instead, Ball State and Buffalo move the scene to Muncie, IN on a Tuesday night for the regular season finale. Stakes are still present, however. Buffalo was eliminated from bowl contention and clinched its first losing season since 2016, but Ball State is vying for its second straight bowl bid. The Cardinals can become the sixth and final MAC West team to attain bowl eligibility with a victory in their home stadium.


Buffalo Bulls outlook

Armed with a new coaching staff, Buffalo’s 2020 campaign was not going to be easy to replicate in Maurice Linguist’s first season. Buffalo’s 2021 took a difficult turn last Wednesday night when an overtime fumble ended the team’s hopes of bowl eligibility. With postseason out of play, Buffalo hopes to finish the year on a high note and exact revenge from the 2020 MAC title game.

One rare constant was noticeably missing from Buffalo’s Week 12 loss to Northern Illinois. After starting 25 consecutive games for the Bulls, quarterback Kyle Vantrease was sidelined with an injury. Program veteran Matt Myers took over the signal caller reins and finished 16/23 with 162 yards in his first start since 2019. ESPN2’s broadcast stated Vantrease is out for the remainder of the season, so the Bulls will ride Myers for the season finale.

Regardless of who trots out at quarterback, Buffalo has a strong affinity to keep things grounded. Although wind certainly played a factor, the Bulls’ run-pass split was 51 to 23 last week vs. Northern Illinois.

Running back Dylan McDuffie has emerged into the workhorse option for the run-heavy offense. He has fielded 20+ handoffs in each of his past six games, and five of those resulted in 100-yard performances. McDuffie will receive the majority of carries, but Ron Cook Jr. and Kevin Marks should also provide secondary support in the run game. Tuesday night will be the final game of Marks’ storied Buffalo career, which features 3,031 rushing yards and 33 rushing touchdowns up to this point. Heading into his final stand, Marks ranks third in both categories in program history.

Coastal Carolina v Buffalo
Buffalo RB Kevin Marks averaged over 100 rushing yards per game in 2020 and crossed the 1,000 yard rushing mark in 2019.
Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

Another storied senior departing from the program is inside linebacker James Patterson. The Maryland native saved his best for his final go-around, and he boasts career-bests across the board — 104 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, and 4.0 sacks. Patterson, the team’s primary stalwart in containing the ground, will have a major role Tuesday night against a Ball State run game which has caught fire in the last month.

Unfortunately, the college career may already be wrapped up for another star Buffalo defender. Longtime defensive end Taylor Riggins led the MAC in sacks in 2019, and unfortunately, injuries have prevented on-field availability since that All-MAC campaign. With Riggins and his partner Max Michel sidelined throughout the month of November, the defense has called upon senior defensive end Eric Black to step up. Last week, Black recorded a pivotal sack and forced a fumble to help the Bulls force overtime with the MAC West champion Huskies. He’ll look to recreate those havoc plays against a Ball State team which typically refrains from turning the ball over.

Other departing names in blue and white witnessing their final collegiate action Tuesday include grad transfer receiver Quian Williams, who leads the team with 61 receptions and 805 yards, as well as the outside linebacker pairing of Kadofi Wright and Tim Terry Jr.


Ball State Cardinals outlook

Ball State is one of the most senior-heavy programs in the country, so the senior night presentations will be quite a spectacle in Muncie. The Cardinals have 10 All-MAC selections from their 2020 conference championship season suiting up at Scheumann Stadium for the final time — QB Drew Plitt, WR Justin Hall, WR Yo’Heinz Tyler, ILB Brandon Martin, ILB Christian Albright, G Curtis Blackwell, OLB Anthony Ekpe, OLB Christian Albright, FS Bryce Cosby, and P Nathan Snyder.

The stacked senior class is headlined by Justin Hall, who holds the title of college football’s active receptions and receiving yards leader for at least one more week. With 316 receptions under his belt, Hall is ninth all-time in the category and the star remains 11 catches away from crashing the top five leaderboard. Versatility is the name of Hall’s game, and he has scored touchdowns in a multitude of ways this season by producing five as a receiver, six as a rusher, and one as a lethal return specialist.

It’s the final stand for Drew Plitt who has been a program staple at quarterback since 2017. Plitt shined in his 2020 matchup against Buffalo by posting 263 yards and three touchdowns in the upset, and he hopes to generate a similar showing in order to extend Ball State’s season and defeat the Bulls one last time.

Ball State’s defense will be almost unrecognizable next fall given the senior talent on the current unit. All four linebackers who qualified for the 2020 MAC Championship Game are departing seniors. Inside linebacker Brandon Martin, the 2020 MAC Co-Defensive Player of the Year, missed the majority of the season but he shined two weeks ago with 10 tackles and an interception in a triumphant return to action. The other inside backer, Jaylin Thomas, has been sharp all season with 92 tackles, five tackles for loss, and three interceptions.

Outside of the linebacking corps, one of the team’s vocal leaders is making his final stand in Muncie. Free safety Bryce Cosby was credited with engineering the 2020 MAC title run by crafting the mantra “Detroit or bust” during the offseason, and the team followed suit on Cosby’s demand. The safety is four tackles away from hitting the century mark and he also serves as Ball State’s leading pass rusher and backfield stopper with team-highs in sacks and tackles for loss.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 12 Western Michigan at Ball State
Ball State FS Bryce Cosby has a loaded stat-line as a Cardinal which includes 379 tackles, 21.5 TFLs, 5.0 sacks, and 9 interceptions.
Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Although the seniors will be the focal point Tuesday night, one true freshman enters the matchup on an offensive tear. Carson Steele has provided Ball State’s offense a nice boost throughout the second half of the season. One year ago, he was Mr. Football in the state of Indiana. Now, the 6’1”, 215 pound power back is rumbling through defenders on a weekly basis. Steele is averaging 108.6 yards per game in his last five contests. Pitted against the nation’s 115th ranked rushing defense, the youngster might serve as the most important offensive player with bowl eligibility on the line.


Prediction

This late-season matchup won’t come with the hype of the 2020 MAC Championship Game, but given the bowl eligibility stakes and slew of talented seniors involved, Ball State vs. Buffalo is a worthwhile finale to Tuesday night MACtion.

Buffalo fell flat against Miami (OH) on both sides of the ball and the Bulls’ season seemed destined to stumble to the finish. But the team displayed competitive spirit when hosting Northern Illinois, and if the Bulls can get Dylan McDuffie going, they’ll have the formula for to end the season with an inspiring upset. Ball State allowed 219 rushing yards and three touchdowns to Central Michigan’s Lew Nichols last week, so the Cardinals must work at sustaining tackles at the first level.

Offensively, thriving through the air is the x-factor for Ball State’s offense. When Drew Plitt exceeds 200 passing yards this year, his team is 3-1. Otherwise, the Cardinals record is 2-5. Getting Justin Hall involved in the offense is of utmost importance, but when his sidekicks Yo’Heinz Tyler and Jayshon Jackson are serving as viable threats, that’s when Ball State is at its best.

On senior night, Ball State’s loaded class should deliver at home, especially with bowl eligibility on the line. Cardinals improve to 6-6 with a victory.

Prediction: Ball State 31, Buffalo 21