BY SHAEMUS KREIDER | Ball State Sports Link
There’s been no larger game for the Ball State Cardinals than tonight’s MAC Championship. With dueling five-game win streaks, the Cardinals have a shot at their first MAC title since 1996.
The last time that Ball State got to this point? The year was 2008, and the opponent was Buffalo.
A favored Cardinals team was torn apart by an upstart Buffalo. Buffalo was the underdog in some part to their recent entry into the MAC. Everything is different now.
Buffalo has produced talent such as Khalil Mack. The Bulls have been built up in recent years by a new attitude. Hard-hitting football on offense and defense.
This year, the offense has ran 46 times per game, and rushed for 27 touchdowns in just five games. It’s a tough task for Mike Neu and the crew, but they have shown they are up to the task with their recent play.
Since the opening of the season, Neu’s focus has been improvement, week-to-week. Every week, Ball State comes out of the gate better than the week before.
In the first three weeks of the season, Ball State was perhaps unimpressive to some with a 2-1 record in three one-score games against uninspiring MAC opponents.
It was not hard to see Ball State finish with three losses against perennial MAC favorites Toledo, Western Michigan and Central Michigan.
But, under the watch of Neu, the opposite has happened. The once-troublesome defense is now a winner, holding Western Michigan to seven second-half points last week.
A 2020 MAC Champion will be determined in large part by that Ball State defense.
Key 1: Stuff the box.
It’s easier said than done, but Ball State needs to stop the Buffalo running game. Buffalo has averaged 344 yards per game on the ground. There are 22 FBS Schools who have fewer total yards per game this season, including teams like Michigan State, Kansas State and Army.
How does Ball State stop the run? Stacking the box.
Buffalo does not throw the ball often. Kyle Vantrease, the Buffalo quarterback, is not impressive. With two All-MAC players in the secondary, Ball State can trust its safeties and corners in one-on-one coverage. Stacking the box ensures the holes tighten for MAC Player of the Year Jaret Patterson.
Key 2: Go to the bench.
Ball State linebacker Anthony Ekpe earned All-MAC honors this week. Ekpe’s four sacks are best on the Cardinals. He also doesn’t start.
Tyler Stockton’s defense is one of the deepest units in the nation, in large part because of transfers like Ekpe. Ekpe and Jimmy Daw (Ball State’s Defensive Player of the Week) have been leaders for the Cardinals, who have seen production come from Ekpe, Daw, J.T Wahee, and Josh Tarango.
Against a ball-hogging Bulls offense, the Cardinals will need fresh legs to march to a MAC Championship. Ball State’s defense will be tested, just like last week, but it will be on those substitutes to perform under pressure.
Key 3: Keep the same mindset.
The Ball State Cardinals, in the face of a global pandemic, have been able to withstand hardship and make it to a MAC Championship.
A win would mean so much to Ball State and Muncie. It would mean even more to the 100-plus young men who inhabit Scheumann Stadium each week.
The Cardinals should not look at this perspective until the game clock strikes 0:00. Just like Neu has said, the Cardinals need to go 1-0 this week.
If you are on Ball State, you need to not look ahead — or behind — but stay in the moment to have a championship mindset. It’s how the greats do things. This is how the Cardinals fly on Friday.