DETROIT — Back in 2016, Ball State quarterback Drew Plitt and his incoming classmates received group message on their phones, before they ever put on a Cardinals uniform, stating that their group would be the class to change the fortunes of football in Muncie. Almost five long years later, and after three straight losing seasons that tested their faith in the rebuilding process, the players from that group who remain can now send a message to anyone in their contacts that reads something like this: We did it!
Plitt threw for three touchdowns while running for another, all in the first half, and the Cardinals defense kept Heisman Trophy candidate Jaret Patterson in check as Ball State surprised No. 23 Buffalo 38-28 to win the 2020 MAC Football Championship Game at Ford Field in Detroit on Friday night. The win gave Ball State its first conference championship since 1996, the season before the league instituted a conference championship game.
“This is a huge accomplishment for our team and for Ball State in general. Twenty-four years since we won this, since the MAC title has been in Muncie, Indiana,” said Plitt, who was named the game’s offensive MVP. “That’s something that, through all the tough times our community has been through this year, they can look towards us and see a positive thing that’s come out of all of it.”
Ball State, 2-10 in 2017, improved to four wins in 2018 and five last season, and came into this season thinking “Detroit or bust.” After a season-opening loss at Miami University, where a late turnover in a tie game dashed any hopes for a win, the Cardinals’ resolve was tested again.
Again, it passed with flying colors, winning five straight after that defeat to reach the title game, and, even with nationally-ranked and undefeated Buffalo across from them, the Cardinals, especially their seniors who saw the lowest of the lows in 2017, came too far to come up short on Friday.
“I made sure our guys knew we were underdogs,” said head coach Mike Neu, a former Ball State quarterback in the early 1990s. “It was truly our mindset that it was Ball State against the world. We wouldn’t have to have it any other way. We’ve been the underdogs before, we’ve been behind before…That’s who our team is. We embrace it. We know we got each other. We earned ourselves a MAC Championship.
Buffalo scored on its first two drives, including a 3-yard run by Patterson to cap off the game’s opening drive, but Ball State was able to answer almost every time the Bulls drove down the field. A blocked field goal in the second quarter by the Cardinals while down 14-7 prevented the Bulls from opening a little breathing room, and the Cardinals proceeded to score a touchdown the final four times they touched the ball in the half — including a 34-yard fumble return by Christian Albright on a sack-strip of Buffalo quarterback Kyle Vantrease — to take a 35-21 lead into the break.
Patterson, who emerged onto the national scene after a 409-yard, eight-touchdown performance on national television against Kent State on Nov. 28, was limited to just 47 yards on 18 carries, with his longest run of the contest just being eight yards. His backup, Kevin Marks Jr., ran for 93 yards on nine carries, and his 67-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter pulled the Bulls within 10 at 38-28, but they would get no closer.
*Editor’s note: Above the byline is the photo gallery from Friday evening’s game, with the photos taken by Detroit-area photographer Aaron J. Thornton. After clicking on the first photo to enlarge the picture, make sure to press the left and right arrow buttons to scroll through the rest of the pictures. There are 37 pictures in total.