In 2020 — a year full of uncertainty and surprise — Ball State Football did it all Friday night in the Motor City.
The same team that failed to win a Mid-American Conference game in 2017 with many of its 22 current senior players as freshmen.
The same team that improved to 4-8 in 2018 and 5-7 in 2019, but lost three of its final four games by one score or fewer last season.
The same team that adopted "Detroit or Bust" last offseason as its rallying cry, knowing it had the motivation it needed to eventually succeed in a shortened, six-game season amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Playing in an empty Ford Field, Ball State (6-1 MAC) accomplished its ultimate goal Friday night, capping off a season the MAC initially postponed last August. The Cardinals defeated No. 23 Buffalo (5-1 MAC) 38-28 and are Mid-American Conference Champions for the first time since 1996.
"That's music to my ears," head coach Mike Neu said, "to hear that Ball State is 2020 MAC Champions. I'm so proud of the guys that are seniors on this team.... 2017 was really ugly for us as a program — there [were] a lot of lopsided losses — but we just continued to preach positivity and hard work. These men stayed here, and they stayed the course."
Neu is no stranger to winning championships himself, as he won two MAC titles with the Cardinals as quarterback in 1989 and 1993. Twenty-seven years later, he has won his first as head coach.
Prior to Friday's game, Neu preached the importance of not taking these opportunities for granted to his players. Facing an undefeated Buffalo team, Neu said the Cardinals entered Friday's championship game with an underdog mentality. He described it as "Ball State against the world."
"It could be the greatest moment of your life or it could be one of those moments you live with forever, knowing that, 'Dang it, we did not finish that mission,'" Neu said. "'Detroit or Bust' certainly was the mantra, but finishing the mission — once you get here — was the ultimate goal."
Through the first quarter, Buffalo led Ball State 14-7. While redshirt senior quarterback Drew Plitt connected with junior wide receiver Yo'Heinz Tyler on a 10-yard pass to end Ball State's first drive, Buffalo junior running back Jaret Patterson showed the Cardinals why they were considered favorites heading into this game.
However, Ball State's defense reached a turning point early in the second quarter. Keeping Buffalo from running up the score, redshirt junior linebacker Jimmy Daw blocked a 27-yard field goal attempt from Bulls' senior kicker Alex McNulty. It was the first time the Cardinals had blocked a field goal since the 2011 season.
Along with the blocked kick, Daw finished Friday's game with seven tackles and one sack for a loss of 9 yards late in the second quarter — the first against a Buffalo player in more than a year.
"I just tried to work the pass rush moves that I've been taught ever since I've got here," Daw said. "I got a good jump from the start, and I saw the quarterback looking to throw. I wanted to change the game."
Ball State tied the game at 14 apiece midway through the second quarter on a 1-yard rushing touchdown from redshirt senior quarterback Drew Plitt. Just more than a minute later, the Bulls took a 21-14 lead before Plitt connected with senior wide receiver Justin Hall on a 9-yard pass to tie the game again.
With fewer than two minutes remaining in the second quarter, Plitt found redshirt freshman wide receiver Jalen McGaughy for 56 yards.
Then — abruptly ending Buffalo's drive — Daw sacked Bulls' junior quarterback Kyle Vantrease at the Bulls' 34-yard line. Senior outside linebacker Christian Albright recovered the fumble, returning 34 yards on the play and giving Ball State a 35-21 lead.
Freshman kicker Jacob Lewis extended the Cardinals' lead early in the third quarter to 16 points on a field goal. While that marked the last time Ball State put points on the board, its defense held its own. Neu said he didn't panic once the remainder of the game because he trusted his team's defense.
"We expect to play four quarters," Neu said. "That's just who we are."
The Cardinals limited Patterson — the 2020 MAC Offensive Player of the Year — to a season-low 47 rushing yards.
"This team we were facing was leading the country in scoring," Neu said. "They've got a running back [Patterson] that's up for the Heisman [Trophy]....it was talked about over and over and over, but it was preached in our building that you can't beat 11 hats to the football. Our guys took pride in that."
Defensively, redshirt junior linebacker Brandon Martin led the Cardinals Friday with 13 tackles. After missing most of 2019 due to injury, Martin received Co-Defensive Player of the Year honors earlier this week, having recorded double-digit tackles in five of Ball State's six regular season games.
Having described Martin as "the hardest worker on this season's team," Neu took his appreciation of the linebacker a step further Friday. He said he could become the next President.
"When I say that, it's because of what's he's made of," Neu said. "He is an unbelievable leader. He's been through so many growing pains, he's been through some injuries [and] his mental toughness is second to none for anyone that I've ever been around."
Daw echoed off Neu's sentiments on his fellow linebacker.
"I can't even put it into words how unbelievable he's been," Daw said. "He puts in the time on and off the field, just continually working and leading all the young guys in growing on this team. He's a special player to this program, and he's one of the main reasons we've got to this point."
In his final MAC game as a Cardinal, Plitt completed 20 of 32 passes for 263 passing yards and three passing touchdowns. He is now the second member of his family to win a championship over the last two years. His sister, Marie, helped guide Ball State Women's Volleyball to a MAC Championship in 2019.
Plitt labeled all of his fellow senior players as "leaders" in helping the Cardinals reach their No. 1 goal Friday night.
"We set out a goal for this year, and we came through with it," Plitt said. "We made sure that everybody knew what that goal was and to stick by that goal. It's an unbelievable feeling."
Contact Connor Smith with comments at email@example.com or on Twitter @cnsmith_19.