Group of 5 conference champions square off out in the desert to finish out surprising, successful campaigns
Man alive, how cool is it to see these two college football programs playing in a postseason game?
In his first three seasons as Ball State head coach Mike Neu never won more than four games while San Jose State's Brent Brennan went 3-22 in his first two seasons at the helm of the Spartans. Then 2019 changed everything. Both teams finished 5-7, narrowly missing a winning season, but also having a few confidence-building wins. Then came this glorious year of 2020 and their championship seasons in the MAC and Mountain West, respectively.
The good news is that both teams should be fairly motivated to make a good showing in this game. The Cardinals have never won a bowl game in nine tries and a win here would allow for a 7-1 mark, the best season for the program since 1978 when they went 10-1. The Spartans, two years removed from a 1-11 season, have the chance to finish their first unbeaten season since 1939. That's big-time stuff, people.
Offerpad Arizona Bowl: Ball State (6-1) vs. No. 22 San Jose State (7-0)
Kickoff: Thursday, Dec. 31 at 2 p.m. ET
Where: Arizona Stadium (Tucson, Ariz.)
Spread: San Jose State -9.5
When Ball State Has the Ball
Head coach Mike Neu knows this will be a tall order against that San Jose defense. "The film shows this is the best defense we've played," Neu said. "This is a complete defense."
The Cardinals will have to lean on their difference-makers, particularly quarterback Drew Plitt, who is hitting on 65 percent of his throws, and the receiving trio of Justin Hall, Yo'Heinz Tyler and Antwan Davis, who have combined for 123 catches for 1,582 yards and 12 touchdowns. Hall also has toted the rock on a lot of reverses and end-arounds, averaging 7.7 yards per rushing attempt. But the bad news is that Caleb Huntley, one of the best running backs in the country, has opted out and won't be available. He is a stud who put together a string of seven straight 100-yard games and the Cards' running game will feel his loss. If Ball State gets a little one-dimensional, it could be a harbinger of bad things man.
The Cardinals' offensive line will face its toughest challenge this season, facing off with that ornery Spartan D-line of Viliami Fehoko, Noah Wright and Cade Hall. Against Boise State in the Mountain West title game, those three behemoths with good feet combined for five tackles for a loss and three sacks. They are very active and even when they aren't making tackles they are influencing plays and throwing a wrench in the works of opposing offenses. By the way, Ball State is 11th in the MAC and 119th nationally with 25 sacks allowed in their seven games. And we all know the MAC is not known for having colossal defenses.
Four of Ball State's six wins have come by one score or less. And one of the keys to those close wins has been the fact that the Cardinals are ranked 10th in the country in turnover margin, gaining 14 and committing only seven themselves. If the Cardinals are going to have any hope at all, they must get a few fortuitous bounces from the butterfingers of the Spartans. But that has rarely happened because interestingly, SJSU has yet to lose a fumble this season.
When San Jose State Has the Ball
As impressive as the 34-20 win over Boise State was in the Mountain West Conference Football Championship Game, the Spartans had to be kicking themselves just a little bit. In the second quarter, SJSU held onto the ball for 27 plays and produced 207 yards but scored zero touchdowns. Ack! Then, in the third quarter they held onto the ball for 10:12 of the frame and accounted for zero points. Double ack! The Spartans are converting 42 percent of their third downs (56th nationally), so that will be a huge key here as they hope to extend drives and not settle for Matt Mercurio field goals (though he is 9-of-10 on the season).
The Spartans are averaging 31 points per game and have seen Nick Starkel excel at the quarterback position aided by his fleet, big-play wideouts Tre Walker and Bailey Gaither. In the running game, Tyler Nevens only had 486 rushing yards in seven games but he is averaging a hardy 8.1 yards per carry. But the emerging star to keep an eye on is tight end Derrick Deese Jr., who has a team-leading seven touchdown catches and is coming off a seven-catch, 76-yard performance vs. Boise State. While Walker and Gaither can stretch the field with their speed, watch Deese on the underneath routes where he presents such a matchup problem.
The Spartans have been one of the best second-half teams in the country, relenting just 55 of their 125 allowed points on the season after the break, while scoring 117 points at the same time. Give head coach Brent Brennan and his staff kudos for making outstanding halftime adjustments as they have yet to be outscored in the final two quarters all year.
As I usually warn my readers before writing any kind of bowl game preview, so much depends on which team is happy to be there and motivated to play against which team does not care and is not motivated. But both teams should play with some purpose here. So this should be a good matchup.
The Spartans have played a slightly tougher schedule, have won each of their games by double digits and have covered the spread in each game. The Spartans gave up more than 21 points just once in their seven games. The Cardinals gave up more than 21 points in six of their seven games. It's the defense that will make the difference here and Ball State is ranked 56th in scoring defense (27.6 ppg), while SJSU is 13th (17.7). Go with the Blue & Gold.
Prediction: San Jose State 31, Ball State 17
Podcast: CFB Playoff: Did the Committee Get it Right? And Early Playoff Breakdown and Picks
— Written by Eric Sorenson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He is a college football, college baseball and college hockey addict... and writer. Follow him on Twitter @Stitch_Head.