BY NATHAN GANGER | Ball State Sports Link
For months the saying around Muncie has been “Detroit or Bust.” The goal since the end of last season was to get to the MAC Championship game.
After one of the wildest endings to a football game you’ll ever see, Ball State (5-1) is headed to Detroit to take on Jaret Patterson and the No. 23 Buffalo Bulls (5-0).
Here’s what to watch for in Friday’s MAC Championship:
How does Ball State slow down Jaret Patterson?
Defending Jaret Patterson is the toughest task this Ball State team has faced all year. No one has had much success slowing him down.
Patterson’s “worst” game of the season came in the second week of the season against Miami Ohio, where he ran for 73 yards and two touchdowns.
He bounced back in a massive way over his next two games, combining for 701 yards and 12 touchdowns. Against Kent State, who was 3-0 at the time and one of the hottest teams in the MAC, Patterson causally ran for 409 yards and tied the NCAA record with eight touchdowns.
On the season, Patterson has run for 1,025 yards in just five games which also matched a college football record. He accounts for nearly 60 percent of Buffalo’s total rushing yards. Starting quarterback Kyle Vantrease has just 85 passing attempts, compared to Patterson’s 123 carries.
Especially as the game gets towards the end, one thing to watch is fatigue for Ball State’s defense. It takes a ton of focus and energy to defend Patterson and doing that for 60 minutes is an incredible challenge.
Ball State’s best chance at slowing him down starts with bringing him down at first contact. They cannot let Patterson break free into open space where he is at his best. The defensive line will need to create penetration and at least create contact on Patterson, giving the linebackers time to get to him.
Star linebackers Jaylin Thomas (16 tackles, 0.5 TFL) and Brandon Martin (14 tackles, 2 TFL) had tremendous games versus Western Michigan and will have to be just as good, if not better for Ball State’s defense to contain Jaret Patterson. Ball State has been decent against the run this year, allowing 147.8 rushing yards per game on just 3.9 yards per carry.
Can Ball State continue to create timely turnovers?
Just about every time the Cardinals need a takeaway, the defense answers the bell. There was the AJ Uzodinma interception vs Northern Illinois, the fumble at the end of the game at Toledo and most recently the interception by Chris Agyemang vs Western Michigan.
Those turnovers always have significantly shifted momentum towards Ball State. Look for the defense to be aggressive in trying to punch the ball out of Jaret Patterson’s hands. That is easier said than done because Buffalo rarely has turned the ball over in 2020.
The Bulls have just one turnover in the last four games. Brandon Martin, Chris Agyemang and company will need to continue to cause turnovers for Ball State to win.
Can Buffalo’s defense contain Justin Hall?
Justin Hall has been on a tear this season. Against Western Michigan, the senior exploded for 10 receptions for 175 yards and two touchdowns.
When Sports Link’s Mason Plummer asked Hall what he exploited in Western Michigan’s defense, he simply responded “everything.”
Buffalo’s defense has been stingy this year, giving up 21 PPG. Through the air, the Bulls only allow 206 yards per game. It’s not just through the air that Hall hurts defenses, he also is used in end arounds and in the wildcat formation.
Hall has tallied five receptions or more in each game this season, including 100+ yards receiving in two out of Ball State’s last three games. Buffalo will need to know where Hall is at all times.
If Buffalo decides to double team Hall, look for Yo’Heinz Tyler and Antwan Davis to step in. Tyler has scored a touchdown in every game this year, totaling six scores.
Buffalo will need to make sure Hall exploits nothing in its defense instead of him exploiting “everything” like he did versus Western Michigan.