After an abbreviated season, the MAC Championship Game has finally arrived. And it would not be 2020 if the MAC's championship contenders did not have their fair share of adversity.
The Ball State Cardinals sit at 5-1, having won their last five games after beginning the season with a 38-31 loss at Miami (Ohio) on Nov. 4. Four of Ball State's five wins were relatively close affairs, with the four wins by a total of 19 points. None of the wins were as memorable as the last game of the season for the Cardinals, when Ball State defeated Western Michigan, despite a lateral-filled attempt by the Broncos to win the game as time expired.
The Buffalo Bulls are 5-0 and have not had nearly the challenges that Ball State has faced this MAC season. Buffalo scored at least 42 points in each contest that it was able to play, with the Bulls having a game canceled at Ohio on Dec. 5. Led by All-World running back Jaret Patterson, the program cracked the AP Top 25 for the first time ever and enters the contest ranked No. 23.
MAC Championship Game: Ball State vs. Buffalo
Kickoff: Friday, Dec. 18 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Where: Ford Field (Detroit)
Spread: Buffalo -13.5
When Ball State Has the Ball
The Cardinals are led by quarterback Drew Plitt, who has passed for 1,674 yards and 13 touchdowns. Completing 66.3 percent of his passes, Plitt has a capable receiving corps that features Justin Hall (44 rec., 620 yds., 6 TDs), Yo'Heinz Tyler (32, 413, 3), and Antwan Davis (31, 344, TD). Ball State is averaging 33.7 points a game — down a point from last year but otherwise its highest mark since 2013.
Ball State will be without its ace running back Caleb Huntley, who has declared early for the 2021 NFL Draft. Ball State will need to rely upon Tye Evans (256 rushing yards) and Will Jones (154) in a committee approach versus a Buffalo defense that gives up 160.4 yards per game on the ground.
When Buffalo Has the Ball
Buffalo has been most successful by simply giving the ball to Patterson. The 2020 MAC Offensive Player Of The Year has rushed for 1,025 yards and 18 touchdowns, averaging 8.3 yards per carry. Patterson's statistics are even more impressive when one stops and remembers that Patterson accomplished those feats in only five games — his 205.0 ypg are 42.4 yards more than the next-closest player.
Buffalo's reliance on Patterson has resulted in quarterback Kyle Vantrease averaging just 17.0 passes per game, with his favorite target being Antonio Nunn. Nunn has 20 receptions for 353 yards and 2 touchdowns. He's worth keeping an eye on since the Cardinals are much more susceptible against the pass (284.3 ypg, 119th nationally) than they are against the run (147.8 ypg, 51st nationally).
Jaret Patterson is playing for a team that does not garner a great deal of focus or fanfare, but its dependability has led the Bulls to the precipice of a MAC championship. While Ball State will do its part to stop Patterson, that may be easier said than done, as other MAC teams have tried to do just that this season and all have failed. Look for head coach Lance Leipold to be hoisting the MAC Championship trophy at the conclusion of this year's contest.
Prediction: Buffalo 35, Ball State 24
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