Arizona Bowl: Getting to Know the Ball State Cardinals
San Jose State could have its hands full with the MAC champions. We talk with Hustle Belt’s Sam Thilman to learn about Ball State football.
San Jose State faces another ascendant foe from the MAC.
The Arizona Bowl will wrap up the Mountain West’s trio of bowl games in 2020, though it could hold one or two final surprises if the San Jose State Spartans and Ball State Cardinals play as they have all season long. The MAC champions haven’t jumped into the national spotlight like their title-winning peers in the Mountain West, but they’ve definitely been one of the biggest successes of the college football season after a wealth of near-misses over the past couple years.
Mountain West Wire: Ball State football has definitely had a wild ride in 2020, winning a string of one-score games en route to the MAC title. What was it that the Cardinals could lean upon to help them win so many close contests?
Sam Thilman: I think what it comes down to is senior leadership. On both sides of the ball, the cardinals had quite a few people who were seniors and had experience. Drew Plitt, Antwan Davis, Bryce Cosby, Caleb Huntley, Christian Albright, Curtis Blackwell, etc. You can go and look at the amount of seniors Ball State had, they had plenty.
When you get in those close games, the people with the experience and who have been in those games before are going to be able to step up in those key moments and whether it’s a key third-down completion or a forced fumble sack, Ball State was able to come through with wins because of the experience they had on their football team which got them to where they are now.
MWW: Quarterback Drew Plitt has pretty clearly been one of the best in the Mid-American. How would you describe his overall style of play?
ST: His play reminds you of a gunslinger. He’s a person you watch that is willing to throw it up and down the field and take lots of chances, but he definitely gets the job done. This is a guy who led the Ball State offense to 2900 yards, 24 touchdowns, and seven picks while finishing as the number-one scoring offense in the MAC a year ago.
I will say his taking chances can lead to a lot more mistakes and he’s averaged nearly a pick per game this season. And I’ll add that though he doesn’t use his legs a lot, he does have the ability to scramble when he wants to and is an effective runner, efficiently choosing when to take off and run with it.
MWW: One thing I noticed in looking at the numbers is that the Cardinals offensive line had some troubles keeping Plitt upright at times, which could definitely be a problem against San Jose State. Who will need to have a big game in order to help Plitt make plays?
ST: I think Tye Evans will need to have a big game, honestly. While you may think his receivers need to have a big game and you can make a good case, it starts with the running game. Plitt and running back Caleb Huntley were so effective, especially last season and into this one before Caleb got injured, because this Ball State offense feeds off the run despite looking much like a pass-heavy offense.
What I mean by this is once they get the run going, they then sprinkle in play action and that’s how this offense was so effective. But with Huntley out, Evans has done a solid job of replacing him and while he isn’t up to Huntley’s level, he ‘s by no means a major downgrade. If Ball State is going to be able to move the ball, it starts with Evans and being able to establish the run game.
MWW: The Cardinals look like a team that likes to spread the ball around on offense, but who are the one or two guys that could do the most damage if San Jose State isn’t prepared and why?
ST: Look no further then Yo’Heinz Tyler and Antwan Davis. You may think Justin Hall, but I think everybody who plays Ball State knows about the kind of athlete that Hall is and game plan around him and may forget about the 6-3, 205-pound beast Tyler. He and Davis, a sixth-year senior, are both guys that Plitt likes to target, especially on third downs outside of Hall. Both are reliable and dependable guys you can forget to prepare for and, when you do, they can burn you.
Just look at their numbers: For the season, Tyler has 38 catches for 504 yards and seven touchdowns, while Davis has 36 catches for 413 yards and one score. Again, this is all with only seven games played.
MWW: The Spartans won’t be shy about throwing the football themselves, so I have to imagine the Cardinals secondary will need to bring their A-game. How well have they succeeded on that front throughout the season and who’s the one player that could throw a wrench in what San Jose State likes to do?
ST: If we’re talking about secondary, it’s definitely Bryce Cosby. He’s the leader and soul of that defense, which Mike Neu has mentioned several times throughout the year, and he’s even the originator of the “DOB Mantra” saying they’ve been following this season. You could see the effect Cosby’s absence had on this defense when, after he was kicked out of the game in their first game against Miami of Ohio, the defense just suffered.
You can even see his impact in the numbers. In seven games, he has six pass deflections, one fewer then he had the previous season with five fewer games, as well as 53 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss. Cosby is the one person who could throw a wrench in their plans.
MWW: Finally, how do you see the Arizona Bowl unfolding between Ball State and San Jose State?
ST: I think I see this game similarly to the MAC championship game. You have two high-powered offenses with Ball State being the underdog. To San Jose State’s credit, they’ve earned everything they’ve got and deserve to be in the position they are, but just like in the lead-up to the MAC Championship Game and all season before that, you can’t count out the Cardinals. No one outside of the program believed in this team at the beginning of the season and, game after game, people counted them out. I think that’s the one thing, the underdog mentality, fueling this team and they can use it here against the Spartans.
I see this game as being a back-and-forth shootout since even though Ball State slowed down Buffalo, the Bulls still put up 28 points. Maybe this is just me as a Ball State student talking, but I truly believe in them to win this game. I didn’t have the biggest confidence to beat Buffalo and they proved me wrong. I think defensive coordinator Tyler Stockton can make adjustments, which even if the Cardinals defense struggles early which I expect them to do, and turn the unit around. And even with Nick Starkel at quarterback for the Spartans, he can be slowed down.
I think Ball State wins this game by three, with Drew Plitt leading them down the field to cap off his senior season in style, and I think the Cardinals defense does just enough to give Ball State the win.