Sophomore Ball State running back James Gilbert scores his first touchdown of the day against Central Michigan. He finished with 141 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns in the 24-21 loss. Colin Grylls // DN
Ball State preparing for 'must-win' game at Buffalo this weekend
For Ball State head coach Mike Neu, they're all must-win games.
But this one — this feels different.
After back-to-back losses to start Mid-American Conference play, Ball State (3-3, 0-2 MAC) is looking to get back on track at Buffalo (1-4, 0-1 MAC) this weekend. It's a game with big-time implications for the Cardinals, who are looking to stay in the MAC race and in the conversation for bowl eligibility at the end of the season.
Ball State at Buffalo
Time: 3:30 p.m.
Date: Saturday, Oct. 15
Place: University of Buffalo Stadium
"There's always more emphasis on the next one," Neu said. "Shoot, we're past the halfway point of the season now and we're 0-2 in the MAC. So it's a must-win."
For the Cardinals to earn their first conference victory, they'll have to build on their 8-1 all-time record against the Bulls. Buffalo's lone win in the series came in the 2008 MAC championship game, ending Ball State's undefeated season.
Buffalo's lone win this season was a 23-20 overtime decision over Army, in which it didn't lead until the final go-ahead field goal. The Bulls' only other lead of the season came in their 22-16 loss to FCS Albany in Week 1, when they were up 16-14 for about 12 minutes.
Despite Buffalo's struggles this year, Neu has no doubt it will be a tough matchup on the road.
"Coach [Lance] Leipold has had a ton of success over his career," Neu said. "Just because they have a little adversity right now, he'll have them ready to play. ... But it's about us playing our best, and eliminating our mistakes that have cost us in previous games. That's the goal, at the end of the week, you expect to be at your best on Saturday and have the results you want. Which for us, it's a win. Period."
It's been the little things haunting Ball State the last two weeks, both of which were one-possession losses. Sophomore quarterback Riley Neal threw two interceptions down the stretch last week in a 24-21 loss to Central Michigan.
The Cardinals are sticking with Neal under center, looking for more consistency in the pass game. They'll continue to feed running back James Gilbert against a Buffalo defense that's third-to-last in the nation giving up 271.2 rush yards per game.
"They do a whole bunch of twists with their front line, and have their Mike and Will linebackers twist too," Gilbert said. "I think they're gonna be expecting us to run, so we've gotta take it to them and open up the passing game."
Gilbert has been Ball State's most explosive offensive player over the last two weeks, carrying the ball 49 times for 260 yards and five touchdowns in those games alone. The sophomore leads the MAC in all three categories this year.
"I've just been patient, just letting my blocks set up and then hitting it," he said. "In high school, they tell you to run as fast as you can. But in college, everybody is fast so you have to be patient and go from there."
Running the ball is also one of Buffalo's stronger suits. The Bulls average just 293.6 total yards per game, but have three runners — including quarterback Tyree Jackson — with at least 175 rushing yards this year.
Jackson, a 6-foot-7-inch redshirt freshman weighing in at 245 pounds, has thrown for 725 yards and four touchdowns in his first season as the starter. His size and mobility could make him a tough cover for Ball State, whose success on defense relies on getting after the passer.
"I think some guys get to him, but he's so big that it's hard to get him down," said senior linebacker Sean Wiggins. "But we're gonna do the same thing we do every week. The sacks will come, as long as we keep doing what we're doing."
Ball State and Buffalo haven't played each other since 2011, and the Cardinals have never lost a road game against the Bulls.
Conference game or not, Neu says all games carry the same significance. But for the Cardinals to get where they want to go, this is a game they've got to have.
"I look at every game we play as a must-win, because you've only got 12 opportunities," Neu said. "So heck yeah, it's a must-win. I've told our guys, it's a one-game season for us, and that's gotta be our approach."