It was 2008. Brady Hoke was head coach, and Nate Davis was starting quarterback.
Heading into Saturday’s game against Western Michigan (4-2 MAC), that year marked the last time Ball State (5-1 MAC) won the Mid-American Conference West Division and advanced to the MAC Championship game. Entering this season with a “Detroit or Bust” mindset, the Cardinals had 60 minutes to determine whether this season would finish as a “bust,” concluding an unconventional, six-game 2020 regular season amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Twelve years later, the Cardinals are headed back to the Motor City.
Playing in a de facto MAC West Championship game, the Cardinals defeated the Broncos 30-27. For the first time since George W. Bush was in the White House, Ball State won the MAC West division and will play in the MAC Championship Dec. 18 against Buffalo in Detroit.
After a season-opening 38-31 loss to Miami (Ohio) Nov. 4, Ball State is now on a five-game win streak heading into Friday’s championship game — the first of its kind since 2013.
“It’s such a great accomplishment and a great way to respond from the opening game,” head coach Mike Neu said. “Having a tough loss on the road, it was a great response from our guys the rest of the way there. We knew how critical it was to truly approach it one game at a time….it took a lot of hard work over the years.”
Despite the win, Saturday’s game was not in Ball State’s favor early on. Ball State trailed 20-13 heading into its locker room after the first 30 minutes, with the Cardinals’ lone points coming off a 7-yard rush from redshirt sophomore running back Tye Evans and a 32-yard pass from redshirt senior quarterback Drew Plitt to senior wide receiver Justin Hall.
While emotions were high for the Cardinals, it was simply deja vu for redshirt senior linebacker Jaylin Thomas at halftime. He said the team regained ground during halftime and knew what it had to accomplish defensively to overcome the Broncos.
Thomas finished Saturday’s game with a season-high 16 tackles. He was one of three Cardinals to finish Saturday with double-digit tackles, along with senior safety Bryce Cosby (14) and redshirt junior linebacker Brandon Martin (11).
“We knew what we had to do coming out at the half,” Thomas said. “We had the ball, we were expecting our offense to score, but we always tell our offense when we go out there, ‘We got your back. We’re going to give it our all, and we’re going to put the ball in your hands.'”
Six minutes into the third quarter, a 1-yard rush from Broncos’ junior running back La’Darius Jefferson gave Western Michigan a two-possession, 27-13 lead, and the Broncos had the game in their hands. However, that was not the case moving forward.
Late in the third quarter, graduate student defensive lineman Chris Agyemang intercepted a pass off Broncos’ redshirt sophomore quarterback Kaleb Eleby, giving Ball State some momentum.
Two and a half minutes into the fourth quarter, Plitt connected with junior wide receiver Yo’Heinz Tyler — the two of whom were struggling to find chemistry in the third — on a 13-yard pass to narrow Western Michigan’s lead to one possession.
Thomas said Agyemang’s interception was a turning point for his team’s defense.
“That was a big play,” Thomas said. “I’m proud of [Agyemang]. Hopefully, we can get another one next Friday.”
One drive later, Plitt found Hall once again. He handed the ball off to the senior wide receiver, who sailed into the end zone on a 55-yard run, tying the game at 27 apiece which was followed by a two-point conversion from Plitt to Tyler.
Hall finished Saturday’s game with 175 receiving yards and 10 receptions. His third reception of the day — a 3-yard pass from Plitt — gave him 245 all time, which is good for No. 1 in Cardinal history. He surpassed 2016 Ball State graduate KeVonn Mabon (244).
“It’s a good feeling,” Hall said. “I don’t know….I’m grateful for the accomplishment, but the job ain’t really finished.”
Neu said Hall’s performance Saturday was a testament to his work ethic and dedication put forth toward Cardinal football since joining the program in 2017.
“That was unbelievable what he did on that [55-yard] touchdown run,” Neu said. “It was good to see him have a front row seat to finish that deal, but he’s a special player — a special, special player — that’s really had an unbelievable career here."
Saturday’s game remained tied 27-27 heading into its final minutes, but momentum sided with the Cardinals late. Despite their fight, though, the Broncos showed they weren’t done yet and wanted the division just as much as the Cardinals.
Chemistry between Plitt, Hall and Tyler and a couple of rushes from Evans put Ball State in scoring territory late, but the Cardinals couldn’t find the end zone.
However, on a windy, brisk December afternoon, it was redshirt freshman kicker Jack Knight who gave Ball State the lead and ultimately the win. He ended the team’s final drive of the afternoon with a 22-yard field goal, after missing a couple of attempts earlier in the game.
Although he had his struggles early on, Neu had nothing but confidence in Knight to give Ball State the edge.
“He’s got ice in his veins," Neu said. "I teased him at the end of the game — I called him ‘Ice Man’ — but he delivered when we needed him.”
With 27 seconds remaining on the clock, the Broncos made every attempt to drive the ball down the field and win the game. Western Michigan passed the ball around as much as it could in the game’s final drive, and while the Broncos scored a touchdown to end the game, officials reversed the call and called penalties on Western Michigan for unsportsmanlike conduct and an illegal forward pass.
Prior to Saturday’s game, the Cardinals had their annual ‘Senior Day’ ceremony, recognizing the team’s 22 senior players and their commitments toward the program. Now, Ball State’s seniors have one last chance to bring home something Ball State has been waiting for since 1996 — a MAC Championship.
Ball State isn’t done yet, but the team took some time after Saturday’s game to savor the moment and have a postgame celebration in its locker room.
“I’m just proud of how the guys responded and fought down the stretch,” Neu said. “The credit goes to the players.”
The Cardinals face the Bulls Dec. 18 in Ford Field — home of the NFL's Detroit Lions — for the 2020 MAC Championship. Kickoff is 7:30 p.m.