“It’s spooky how similar our paths have been,” said Spartan head coach Brent Brennan on Ball State prior to the game. “It’s crazy. Our matchups are really similar.”
Brennan was exactly right. Both teams ended their seasons 7-1, but the Cardinals were the far better team ending their 2020 and ending the Spartans’ perfect record.
Ball State won their first bowl game ever 34-13.
The COVID-related effect strikes
The Spartans most likely knew they would be handicapped soon before the Offerpad Arizona Bowl game took place and it showed.
Key players and coaches were unavailable - from defenders Tre Jenkins to All-American defensive lineman Cade Hall to star receiver Bailey Gaither to key offensive linemen Kyle Hoppe and Tyler Stevens, including the offensive and defensive brain trusts in coordinators Kevin McGiven and Derrick Odum.
The tone of the game was unlike any other. Perhaps it was the time off and of course, the COVID-effect. It certainly was not the dynamics Spartan fans were used to.
“I don’t regret bringing the team back home (after the MWC Championship),” said Brennan after the obvious question came up. “It was the best thing and the right thing to do for our players with all they’ve been through.”
Doubts & Domination
Dealing with obvious pre-game doubts before the game carried heavily into the game. Subdued players and lack of the normal vibe and energy was clear to the national TV audience.
The first quarter was completely dominated and controlled by Ball State, which was the only output the Cardinals needed for a decisive win.
An opening Nick Starkel 53-yard interception return was taken back by Cardinal cornerback Antonio Phillips for a 7-0 lead. Ball State’s quick tempo offense took it from there pounding in 20 more points all in the first quarter. The Cardinals led 27-0 at half-time.
With the Spartans’ wounded hearts, their defense still got four sacks, pitched a number of three-and-outs, and forced two fumbles recoveries in the red zone. It was to no avail.
After each fumble recovery, their own offense then thwarted their gifts with interceptions; one by QB Nick Nash before half-time and Starkel’s second of three interceptions leading to a Ball State touchdown pass from Cardinal QB Drew Plitt to Yo’heinz Tyler for a 34-0 lead just five minutes into the second half.
“Ball State came out and played hard and they get rewarded for it,” said Starkel. “We felt confident with the guys we had going into this game and I take full responsibility for the interceptions because when I have the ball in my hands, it’s all on me.”
Local Spartan freshman cornerback Charlie Bostic’s 99-yard kick-off return and receiver Jermaine Braddock’s eight-yard touchdown pass from Starkel flashed some life, but that was it.
Substitute OC Gunderson tried to get a run game early on and continued to stick with the run well into the game, especially with a not-as-sharp Starkel and likely due to some timing and route-running differences from a slew of different receivers.
Safety Jay Lenard was the lights-out player of the game for the Spartans with 12 tackles (9 solo). Defensively, the Spartans held their own minus the first quarter, but the offense remained out-of-sync throughout the game.
Til Next Year
It was a blemish loss to a historic year, but a highly successful year nonetheless, especially in the bigger picture of the program. More believers buying in, more local media coming back around, and more wins expected from roughly the same team next year, including Starkel.
“The best story of Spartan football this year has been our brotherhood and our family,” Brennan closed after the loss. “In our process of building that together and for those guys who couldn’t be a part of today, it’s completely devastating and heartbreaking for them and everyone feels that.”
In closing 2020, Brennan continued to emphasize they’re still just getting started.