In a season that’s been nothing short of magical, everything was going right for the Bulls.
Heading into the MAC Championship game, UB was ranked No. 23 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll and had the No. 1 scoring offense in the country.
Junior running back Jaret Patterson was breaking records left and right and was in serious Heisman Trophy contention.
All of that momentum came to a screeching halt Friday night at Ford Field.
UB was stunned by Ball State 38-28 in its first loss of the season. The loss marked the second time the Bulls have fallen short in the MAC Championship in three years. UB lost to NIU 30-29 in the 2018 MAC Championship Game.
Patterson, who was the nation’s leading rusher heading into the game, was held to just 47 yards on 18 carries. He left the game in the third quarter with a knee injury. Despite returning to the field, Patterson didn’t have the explosiveness he showcased throughout the season.
After two touchdown drives, the Bulls were in the lead at the end of the first quarter, but the second quarter was a huge turning point that ultimately decided the game’s outcome. With UB up seven, Ball State blocked the Bulls’ field goal attempt. The Cardinals went on to score 28 points in the quarter, including a strip-sack that Ball State senior linebacker Christin Albright returned for a touchdown with 48 seconds remaining in the half. The Cardinals’ second-quarter surge put UB in a 14-point hole at halftime.
“You have a game plan, you have a script, but going off-script is football. Bad things are gonna happen, then you just got to rebound from that,” junior quarterback Kyle Vantrease said, recalling the disastrous second-quarter play. “That happening before halftime was tough for the offense and for me personally.”
The game found the Bulls in uncharted territory. UB hadn’t faced a significant deficit all season up until the MAC Championship, something that caught the Bulls by surprise.
UB struggled to play complementary football and recover from the 14-point deficit. When the offense played well, the defense couldn’t get a stop. When the defense got stops, the offense couldn’t capitalize.
The Bulls defense struggled all night, giving up 168 rushing yards and 273 passing yards. Ball State senior quarterback Drew Plitt threw three touchdown passes, on top of his 273 yards, to three different receivers —junior Yo’Heinz Tyler, freshman Jalen McGaughy and senior Justin Hall.
In relief of Patterson, junior running back Kevin Marks rushed for 94 yards, including a 67-yard touchdown run to bring UB within 10 points at the end of the third quarter. Ironically, the player who kept the Bulls in the game failed to make a routine play on a crucial fourth down in the fourth quarter. UB was down 10 with eight minutes remaining when Kevin Marks dropped a wide-open red-zone pass. The drop gave the ball back to the Cardinals and sealed the deal.
Despite dominating in the run game all season, the Bulls struggled to get much going on the ground. This forced UB to throw more, straying away from its identity.
Vantrease still managed to throw for 365 yards and a touchdown while senior wide receiver Antonio Nunn caught 13 passes for 183 yards. Freshman wide receiver Trevor Wilson also had a big game, catching 6 passes for 116 yards and a touchdown. UB was able to move the ball through the air but was unable to stick to its offensive identity on the ground.
“We always go into the game thinking run-first... our coaches tell us never to think that, if your numbers called you gotta make good plays,” Nunn said. “The passes just started connecting more and we were driving the ball down the field. I could say the passes were the game plan towards the end of the game but it was never the game plan going into the game.”
Ball State out-played the Bulls on both sides of the ball. For the first time all season, UB didn’t have the answers.
With Patterson limited, the Bulls struggled to keep up with the Cardinals. And with a couple of turnovers and a lack of defensive presence, UB played its worst game at the worst possible time.
Despite the losing effort, UB left Ford Field with their heads held high. The Bulls battled until the very end and a 5-1 record gives the team an opportunity to play in a bowl game in the coming weeks.
“I was proud of them because they did the things that we've always asked them to do: play hard, play physical, play for 60 minutes and I thought they did that,” Leipold said. “Unfortunately we did not play our best, we did not take advantage of some opportunities and they were the better team tonight.”
As the loss puts a disappointing end to a historic Bulls season, it gives the players plenty to reflect on. Even after a loss, it’s important the team remembers this experience and uses it as fuel for next season and beyond.
“Those are lessons in life that you’re gonna take with you on the field and off the field, they are valuable lessons,” Vantrease said. “Sometimes you gotta learn them the hard way, but they are something that we're gonna have to take with us as we go on.”
Anthony DeCicco is the senior sports editor for The Spectrum. In his free time, he can be found playing video games, watching ‘90s Knicks games and arguing with people on NBA Twitter at 3 a.m.