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Behind Baker, Cards Crush Bulls

Eric Williams Introduced Himself to Buffalo in Style (James McCoy/Buffalo News)

I remember the 2008 MAC Championship like it was yesterday. I remember the anticipation leading up to the game, readying my home for a watch party for our friends, and feeling confident that the outcome would be like the other 12 games we watched that year, as the coronation continued for the Ball State Cardinals. This year, the work was present for the party per usual, but the confidence and anticipation was replaced by nervousness and trepidation. Turns out that all that worry was for naught, as the Cardinals put together perhaps their most complete game of the season en route to a 20-3 victory on the road against Buffalo.

Finally, this team was able to exorcise the demons of the 2008 MAC Championship, but perhaps more importantly, the Cards actually looked like a team that capable of success, and specifically, embracing that success until the final whistle blew. So many times this season the Cardinals have had good plays and halves wiped away by inconsistent play, poor results, and squandering their good fortune as the game rolled on. Not on Friday.

In truth, this was a game that I’d been waiting for since Central Michigan. Against the Chips, the Cards’ defensive unit looked like a unit that was finally comfortable in the 4-3, pressured the QB, and forced mistakes. Friday was a repeat performance of that showcase and then some, as defensively the Cardinals dominated. Holding Buffalo to 144 total yards offensively, and limiting them to under 100 until midway through the 4th quarter was something that was welcome, exciting, and certainly needed. An effort like that takes pressure off the offense, and they flourished accordingly.

Perhaps most importantly, the defense and its leadership set the tone early and often. Whether it was a gigantic hit, a tipped ball, pressure on the QB, or simply not giving up the big play, the defensive unit as a whole played a remarkable game. The individual successes of Sean Baker was certainly eye-popping and will be mentioned often over the coming week, as forcing a fumble, running it back for a TD, and intercepting two passes to become the all-time BSU leader in INTs deserves some praise. But so many others contributed to this defensive effort. Players like Robert Eddins, Justin Cruz, Derrick Henry, and Travis Freeman all did their part in making sure Buffalo knew what sort of struggle they were in for. The hitting in this contest was epic, and the passion and effort of the BSU defense was noticeable even on television. It was an unmatched level of effort and ultimately the deciding factor in a game that many thought could go either way.

Offensively, the Cardinals were not a juggernaut, but they also didn’t self-destruct or make it easy for the Bulls. And with a defensive effort like the one turned in on Friday, that was good enough. Keith Wenning’s 174 yards isn’t the Davis-esque 300 yard performance that some wanted, but his 18-26 completion stats with no INTs kept the momentum and flow on Ball State’s side. Wenning never forced the issue or made a mistake, and Buffalo had nothing to capitalize on. Eric Williams was the ground force for the Cardinals, ringing up 109 yards on 27 carries, and delivering some head down shots of his own. At the end of the night, Buffalo’s offensive and defensive units alike looked out of gas, out of energy, and ready to be off that field. It’s a look I haven’t seen in a Cardinals’ opponent’s eyes in some time.

So now the Cards sit at 4-7 and 3-4 in the MAC with one showdown looming a week from today against Northern Illinois. NIU will be looking to clinch their berth in the MAC Championship Game, and BSU will be looking to end 2010 on a high note. Beating the presumptive favorite to win the MAC West would be quite the springboard for offseason workouts and spring ball. Perhaps most importantly, it will be the final home game of 2010 and senior night for a group of players that have endured the ultimate highs and ultimate lows over their four years in Muncie. They deserve a W, and with an effort like Friday, it might actually be possible.

So the demons are gone, and though 2008 still stings a bit this is a remarkably different Saturday than back then. The sky seems a bit bluer, the air a bit fresher, and the world just seems a little bit more pleasant a place to be. And per usual after a victory, time to find a ceiling…

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