Instant Analysis: MAC Championship Game
In real life, the city of Buffalo doesn't win championships. In a normal world, an undefeated Ball State team that survived the rugged MAC West wouldn't have sweated a whole lot against the 7-5 Bulls, winners of the junior-varsity MAC East. In a sanity-sustaining situation, NFL-caliber quarterback Nate Davis and cash-money running back MiQuale Lewis would have gained the title of the league they owned through 12 regular-season games.
But as the first weekend of December has shown college football fans over the past several years (remember Pittsburgh over West Virginia last season, or UCLA over USC in 2006, just to name a few doozies?), predictability can easily leave the building when a season reaches the finish line. In a remarkable twist of fate, Buffalo benefited from some wild and wacky sequences on a freaky football Friday, while the Cardinals were denied the conference crown they so fully coveted.
In assessing this Buffalo breakthrough, one has to tread cautiously, because the Bulls deserve all the credit in the world. After a shocking home loss to Kent State a week ago, it seemed that the Bulls were going to be easy pickings for Brady Hoke's heroes from Muncie, Ind. With Ball State having knocked off defending MAC champion Central Michigan and 9-3 Western Michigan in its previous two games, the Cards--a two-touchdown favorite--appeared likely to deck Turner Gill's guys and become the new MAC daddy in college football. The fact that Buffalo provided such strong and determined opposition should earn this team a considerable amount of credit, and that point has to be emphasized when putting this contest into its proper perspective.
With that having been said, it simply can't be denied that a faulty replay review, more than any other on-field event, turned the tide in the Motor City.
A few plays after a botched Buffalo handoff led to a Ball State fumble recovery on the Bulls' side of the field, the Cardinals--up 17-14 in the third quarter--marched into the UB red zone with every intention of establishing a two-possession lead. When Lewis, BSU's thoroughly dependable rusher, took the pigskin and darted to the left pylon of the end zone, it appeared--on replay--that a 24-14 Cardinal advantage was about to be posted on the Ford Field scoreboard. Replays seemed to indicate that Lewis didn't go out of bounds until his right foot kicked the pylon, which is part of the goal line. When Lewis did kick the pylon, the ball--in his right hand and not his left--looked to be inside the field of play, and not out of bounds. While many ballcarriers will absent-mindedly carry the ball in their outside hand on a run to the boundary, Lewis--being the smart and savvy player that he is--made sure to swipe the ball over the pylon and get the touchdown. Officiating crews and replay booths often award touchdowns when ballcarriers hold the ball outside the pylon and never break the plane of the goal line in bounds. Lewis, however, showed a high football IQ and did his very best to ensure that he'd earn a touchdown for his team. Shockingly and improbably, the replay booth did not award six points to Ball State.
Sure, the Cardinals--with a second-and-goal from the Buffalo 1--still figured to stick the rock in the end zone. Yes, Ball State still should have gained that 10-point lead and established its superiority in the third stanza. But as the subsequent snaps would show, few things in life can ever be taken for granted, including and especially the ability of a replay booth to make a proper ruling. The fragile nature of human events would soon crush the Cardinals, while rewarding the Bulls for their unfailing perseverance under pressure.
On the play following the denied touchdown, the Bulls stuffed Lewis for a two-yard loss to the 3. On the ensuing third-and-goal play, a false start by Ball State senior center Dan Gerberry moved the ball back to the 8. Then came the thunderbolt that would turn frowns upside down in the city of Buffalo... and on the faces of the loyalists who traveled to Detroit from upstate New York to watch their team play in its first-ever MAC title tilt.
For a good long while, this fateful third-down play looked like an imitation of a daring dive that occurred the week before. Davis, Ball State's sensational swashbuckling quarterback, dove for the end zone just as Oklahoma signal caller Sam Bradford did six days earlier against Oklahoma State. As was the case with the super Sooner, Davis also got hit at the opposing team's 1-yard line, close enough to go for a touchdown on fourth down. Just like Bradford, Davis lost the football (Bradford did fumble against Oklahoma State, if you recall; the ball simply squirted out of bounds, and not toward the field of play).
There was just one telling difference between Davis's daring dive and Bradford's own brand of boldness: Davis's body was facing the hash marks when he fumbled, while Bradford was facing the sideline when he fumbled. This meant that Davis's fumble stayed in play, while Bradford's fumble did not. When given the chance to pick up a gift turnover--manna from the football gods who finally rewarded the city of Buffalo for four lost Super Bowls and the Music City Miracle from Y2K times--the Bulls didn't disappoint. UB's Mike Newton executed a perfect scoop-and-score, taking the loose ball 92 yards for a touchdown. Instead of facing a 10-point deficit, the Bulls shot in front by four.
As significant as that play turned out to be--especially when considering the botched replay review that preceded it--no one in the ballpark could have known that lightning was about to strike twice in essentially the same place.
One series later, after Ball State immediately drove back to the Buffalo red zone in the attempt to reclaim the lead, Gerberry--the center whose false start hurt Ball State's previous red zone trip--uncorked a shotgun snap before Davis was ready to receive it (the second time in the game this had happened). After the ball was kicked away from the pile that formed near the fumble's initial location, the only player near the pigskin was Buffalo's Sherrod Lott, who jogged 74 yards for the easiest touchdown of his collegiate career. On two straight Ball State drives into Buffalo's red zone, the Bulls--not the Cardinals--scored consecutive touchdowns to build a 28-17 lead. The understandably shaken Ball State bunch--realizing the enormity of the ridiculous plays that had cut against them--couldn't find the fight needed to stage a comeback, and the night--like the Mid-American Conference--belonged to Buffalo.
This game's events proved to be as unlikely as the realities that emerged from them. After pouncing on four Ball State fumbles to score two defensive touchdowns from their own red zone, the Bulls wound up winning their league with an 8-5 mark, while the 12-1 Cardinals will leave Detroit without a MAC championship. In a season where the MAC West towered over the East, the feel-good story from the conference's lower division wound up scaling the highest mountain against a team ranked twelfth in the entire nation. Buffalo--a team that lived on the edge throughout 2008--pulled away late for a double-digit victory, while Ball State--in its unlucky thirteenth game--lost the mojo that so consistently carried the Cards through the month of November. The 12-win team has the empty feeling, while a ballclub from Buffalo can tout a title.
For better or worse, college football is nothing if not unpredictable, especially in early December. And while Ball State has good reason to feel robbed by replay tonight, one also has to admit that Buffalo deserved a first-rate football feat, a moment that would warm the hearts of those who live in one of America's coldest climates. Karma brutally served the men of Muncie on a shocking evening in Detroit, but it rewarded the Bulls and Gill, their coach, who just earned a championship as satisfying as the Big 8 Conference titles he claimed as Tom Osborne's star quarterback at Nebraska.
Ball State has the satisfaction of knowing that it won 12 games and produced the greatest season in school history. Buffalo, however, has the crowning satisfaction of knowing that a league championship banner can be proudly displayed forever and ever. For all the economic hardships facing the country, the 2008 MAC Championship Game provided a deliciously different theme: Yes, for one night, it is a Bull market in upstate New York.