BY MASON PLUMMER | Lead Writer | Ball State Sports Link
Detroit or Bust. The mantra of the 2020 Ball State football team came to fruition Friday evening. The Cardinals took down No. 23 Buffalo 38-28 at Ford Field in Detroit to claim its first MAC Championship since 1996.
Every workout, every practice, every game, there was one thing on the minds of the players on this Ball State team: Detroit or Bust. However, the journey was not over by just making it to Detroit for the MAC Championship game.
Ball State head coach Mike Neu instilled in his team long ago that just making it to Detroit was not good enough. He wanted his team to go in Friday night and finish the job that had been in the works for the previous 12 months.
“It sure sounds great, it’s music to my ears to hear that Ball State is the 2020 MAC Champions,” Neu said. “It’s been 24 years. I am so proud of our guys, what happened to us in the second half is what we are as a football team.
“We are made of a lot of grit and toughness and all heart. It took four quarters, the game ebbs and flows but our guys just battled.”
Through all the ups and downs this season, the cancelling and eventual rescheduling and reshaping of the entire Ball State football season. It all came down to this game.
There was one final roadblock in the way of Ball State meeting its goal of winning the 2020 MAC Championship and it would not be denied.
For Neu, it was his third MAC Championship, but his first as the head coach of Ball State. Playing quarterback, Neu was a member of the 1989 and 1993 championship teams and now achieved another championship, but from the sidelines.
It was a back and forth game early in Detroit, with Ball State and Buffalo trading scores early on. Leading 14-7, Buffalo looked poised to take a commanding 17-7 lead until Jimmy Daw once again came up with a huge, momentum-shifting play for Ball State.
“Right before the play started I told AJ Uzodinma to run upfield, because I thought I could get a hand on it,” Daw said of his field goal block. “He stepped hard up field and I jumped through and got a hand up.”
His field goal block sparked both the Ball State offense and defense and gave the Cardinals the confidence to keep driving at Buffalo.
It was the first blocked field goal by a BSU player since Joshua Howard had one Nov. 5, 2011 at Eastern Michigan.
Daw’s block was only the second time all season Buffalo did not score on a trip inside the red zone. The Bulls entered the game 20-for-21 (all touchdowns).
Daw has been known by many to have the knack of being in the right place at the right time and against Buffalo, it was no different.
Daw also had a strip-sack of Bulls quarterback Kyle Vantrease which Ball State linebacker Christian Albright scooped up and took to the house for a touchdown.
“One of our trainers, Dave, comes up to me every game and tells me that I am always the guy that changes the game in four or five plays,” Daw said. “I am just trusting my guys and the coaches are putting me in the right spot to make as many plays as I can.”
Offensively, Drew Plitt had his best game in a Ball State uniform when his team needed him the most.
Plitt was cool, calm and collected in the pocket as he torched the Buffalo defense to the tune of 20-for-32, 263 yards and four total touchdowns. He surpassed his head coach for fourth place on the Cardinals’ career list with 6,293 yards.
“We have another game left, we aren’t done yet,” Plitt said. “We have to go out and get another ‘W’ like we do each week. We are going to enjoy this and celebrate. This is a huge accomplishment for us and Ball State in general.
“It’s been 24 years since we have won this and after all of the tough times the community has been through, they can now look to us for some positivity.”
Plitt was aided by the tough running of Tye Evans in the Cardinal backfield. Evans shouldered the load on the ground as he carried the ball 18 times for 96 yards.
He may not be the shiftiest running back in the country, but Evans provided some gritty runs that earned Ball State the yards it needed to drain the clock down the stretch.
Yo’Heinz Tyler and Justin Hall were back to their usual best again Friday as well, racking up six receptions for 91 yards and a touchdown, and five receptions for 45 yards and a touchdown, respectively.
Tyler’s touchdown catch marked his sixth game in a row with a receiving touchdown, cementing himself as Plitt’s favorite target in the red zone. It was Tyler’s 14th career touchdown, moving him into the top 10 in program history in a tie for ninth.
The defense ended up stealing the show for Ball State however, as defensive coordinator Tyler Stockton dialed up the perfect game plan to take down potentially the nation’s best running back in Buffalo’s Jaret Patterson.
The Cardinals defense held Patterson to just 51 yards on 18 carries and one touchdown. Buffalo had been reliant on him throughout the season, but Stockton took away the Bulls best player with his schemes and it worked to perfection.
Inside linebacker Brandon Martin, the nation’s fourth-leading tackler at 12.0 per game entering the night, led all players with 13 stops. It was the sixth-double-digit tackle performance in seven games this season for the MAC Defensive Player of the Year.
“Our defense does not get enough credit,” Neu said. “They rose to the challenge. All that was talked about was that the team we were facing led the country in scoring and led the country in rushing. They’ve got a running back that’s up for the Heisman and ran for 1,000 yards in five games but you can’t beat 11 hats to the football.”
No team has been able to stop Buffalo’s Patterson this season as he averaged over 200 yards rushing per game. Ball State however, found the answer.
“I would take our defense over anyone’s,” Neu said. “Whenever we need a big play we get it from our defense. I am so proud of these guys and their performance.”
In the end, Ball State would not be denied in its quest to meet its final goal of winning the MAC Championship.
Just three seasons ago, it seemed the Ball State program was at its worst point in recent memory, but Neu stayed composed and knew he had what it took to lead his team to the top of the MAC once again.
“I am so proud of the seniors on this team, all 22 of them,” Neu said. “To think back to 2017, I hate to think of that year, but it was really ugly for us. We had a lot of lopsided losses, but we continued to preach positivity and hard work and these young men stayed the course. They committed to doing things the right way and it shows hard work pays off. There are no shortcuts to success and if you believe it, then you can accomplish anything you want.”
Ball State now looks for another milestone — to become the first Cardinals’ team to win a bowl game. The date, opponent and location is expected to be announced this weekend.