ARIZONA BOWL: San Jose State vs. Ball State
Location: Arizona Stadium - Tucson, AZ
Date/Time: Thursday, December 31st, 11:00 a.m. PST
Radio: 860 AM (KTSB) Fremont/SF, streaming audio on TuneIn
It isn’t the first time two high-caliber teams with no series history have met.
But here, there is enough frame of reference and relative comparisons to reasonably derive an outcome, depending how you want to slice and contrast the differences.
The short analytical line: ESPN, Sporting News, and FanDuel all favor San Jose State (7-0) 63% over the Ball State Cardinals (6-1). Their expectation is about a double-digit win for the Spartans.
The relative strengths within the Group of Five (G5) conference: In San Jose State’s conference, all notable football resources put the Mountain West (MWC) at the top of the G5. Ball State’s MAC conference is generally at the middle or bottom in terms of strength rankings. Neither team was atop any “experts” radars at the beginning of the season.
The Spartans will certainly be the strongest and best opponent for the Cardinals.
In this sense, this is an absolute must-win of all wins for the Spartans for the sake of their conference.
The performance lines: Offensively, Ball State’s 24th ranked offense goes against San Jose State’s 21st ranked defense - a defense that has anchored SJS’ success by holding teams under 18 points average a game.
The Cardinal offense averages 453.7 total yards per game favoring a running attack with big quick backs like Tye Evans (177 team rushing yards per game) – think Nevada back Toa Taua. Their all-world guy Justin Hall is not only a top MAC receiver but a clear jet sweep guy as well. In relative comparison, the Spartans have faced better receivers.
The early expectation is to see more of a pass game from the Cardinals.
The Spartan defense allows 338.1 yards per game and boasts a defensive line led by first-team All-American Cade Hall and MWC first-teamer Viliami Fehoko. The entire line keeps it clean for a formidable linebacking crew and punishing secondary.
The 29th ranked Spartan offense averages 442.9 total yards highlighted by a 20th ranked passing offense led by master journeyman QB Nick Starkel with his star receivers Bailey Gaither, Tre Walker, Derrick Deese Jr., and Isaiah Hamilton. Ball State’s suspect 119th ranked passing defense (93rd ranked defense overall) will be an obvious area to exploit.
If all holds mostly true, along with a Spartan defense that can take advantage of a more sack-susceptible Cardinal team, this should start to put the game well into a double-digit win.
The expectation then is Spartan offensive coordinator Kevin McGiven’s play calling doesn’t have to be too tricky or too cute if they play to their strengths and talents that have been consistent all year.
The big intangibles
Spartan head coach Brent Brennan and Cardinal head coach Mike Neu made the playing and coaching rounds to find themselves back home as local-boys-done-good. Both were first-time head coaches with their highly desired colleges.
In similar time frames, each has injected a brotherhood and winning spirit into two once desperate programs.
Brennan’s undefeated fourth year belies a previous three-year 8-29 record. Neu started in 2016 with a similar bumpy start that took a turn in 2019 after a 5-7 finish – the same record the Spartans had in 2019.
The Cardinals just won their first MAC Championship since 1996 over highly-favored Buffalo shutting down the most efficient running back in the nation; all with a questionable defense. An Arizona Bowl win Thursday would be their first bowl victory in 10 tries.
The Spartans’ football history has many longer drought periods. The MWC Championship was its first since 1990 and their last undefeated season goes back to 1939. The 2015 Cure Bowl was their last bowl game win over another G5 team.
One almost-remarkable Cardinal sin:
Arizona Bowl prediction
Simply, if all three phases of the Spartan game don’t buy into the fact they are the superior team, they will win by double digits. Brennan eludes that not one player has lost that workman ethic. You have to believe him with what he’s been through and what’s he’s done since day one.
The big ‘but’ is the spirit intangible. Looking at what the Cardinals did over Buffalo looked nothing like it was supposed to. Ball State forced a big momentum swing late in the first half with a fumble recovery and touchdown by defensive player of the game MVP Jimmy Daw. It pushed the Cardinal lead to 14. With their power running and 273 yards in the air, Buffalo couldn’t recover playing a catchup game.
The Cardinals are not only the underdog. They are the east coast, west coast epitome of small-town vs. big city - a college town of 70,000 residents vs. the sophisticated Silicon Valleyers. A potentially perfect story for Ball State.
If San Jose State plays its relentless and physical game for the full, entire, complete, whole 60 minutes as they did against every MWC team, they’ll win.
The only thing different is their indifference because they’ve never played Ball State let alone be aware of them besides the last couple weeks. They might have to manufacture some ill-will to be more certain of a win, but any Brennan-led team shouldn’t need to.