Editor's note: A previous version of this article stated Ball State was 0-10 in previous bowl game appearances when it was actually 0-8-1. This error has been corrected.
TUCSON, Ariz. — Tenth time's the charm.
Ball State (7-1, 5-1 MAC) won its first bowl game in program history on New Year’s Eve, defeating No. 19 San Jose State (7-1, 6-0 Mountain West) 34-13 in the Offerpad Arizona Bowl.
The Cardinals had been to nine bowl games before their Dec. 31 matchup against the Spartans and had lost eight and tied one. Ball State’s historic win isn’t the first time it has made history this season. On Dec. 18, the Cardinals won their first Mid-American Conference Championship since 1996.
“This ranks right up there with the MAC Championship,” head coach Mike Neu said. “Once that day was over, our focus completely shifted. The preparation was exactly the same as it was leading into the MAC Championship game. A lot of people talk about bowl games and ask if it is a ‘Super Bowl’ or ‘Pro Bowl’-type game. This is a Super Bowl.”
The game started with a pick-six by senior cornerback Antonio Phillips on the first drive of the game. The Cardinals dominated the first half after that, as their defense forced three straight three-and-outs while their offense scored three consecutive rushing touchdowns.
San Jose State allowed 27 points in the first quarter, which it hasn’t allowed in an entire game all season. Redshirt senior quarterback Drew Plitt led the Cardinals with 217 passing yards to go along with a rushing and passing touchdown.
Ball State was without senior wide receiver Justin Hall, who was out due to a rib injury, and this meant its offense had to get creative. Neu said it hurt to not have Hall but believed in his offense to get the job done.
“He is such an excellent player and a dynamic playmaker,” Neu said. “Our guys have worked hard. Those guys that have been in backup roles — you never try to look at it that way. You try to make sure all of our guys get repetition in practice. They were ready when their numbers were called.”
The Cardinals got an all-around effort in the rushing game, as redshirt sophomore running back Tye Evans and redshirt junior running back Will Jones both found the end zone. Freshman running back Donny Marcus also stepped up with 69 rushing yards.
“The MAC Championship was one of those games we came out of a little banged up,” Neu said. “Both Tye [Evans] and Will [Jones] were limited in practice, so Donny Marcus got a lot of time. We saw his confidence level grow. He did a great job, and we were all anxious to see Donny get some significant snaps.”
Defensively, Ball State had four interceptions in the game, which set an Arizona Bowl record and was the most by the Cardinals since 2015 against Toledo when they had five. Senior safety Bryce Cosby had one of those interceptions and added nine total tackles.
“We believed in each other, and we love each other,” Cosby said. “We genuinely love playing with each other. Through the ebbs and flows of the game, we never get rattled as a defense. Guys really take pride in doing their job.”
While the game was highlighted by the first quarter — when Ball State scored 27 of its 34 points — junior wide receiver Yo’Heinz Tyler scored his eighth touchdown in his last seven games on a 48-yard touchdown pass from Plitt in the third quarter. He ended the game with 103 receiving yards.
Neu said he was proud of how Ball State played despite not having Hall on the field and being the underdogs against a ranked team.
“Each of the receivers had some huge moments,” Neu said. “The defense was tremendous from start to finish, being able to hold that team to 13 points. We heard all about San Jose State and how they were ranked, and we took to that personally.”
Ball State was the underdog against Buffalo in the MAC Championship and against San Jose State in the Arizona Bowl. Plitt echoed that mindset in the postgame celebration with team’s season-long mantra: “Ball State against the world.”