Patterson, No. 23 Buffalo eye MAC title against Ball State

The Associated PressBuffalo running back Jaret Patterson (26) is tackled by Akron's Randy Cochran Jr. (1) during the Bulls 56-7 win, Dec. 12  in Amherst.

While on an illustrious run never seen before in Buffalo and rarely equaled by anyone else in college football history, Jaret Patterson received a motivational message from another Bull rusher this week.

James Starks, the Niagara Falls native who broke rushing records in helping Buffalo win its maiden Mid-American Conference championship before becoming an NFL draft pick and winning a Super Bowl with the Green Bay Packers, reminded Patterson of the crowning achievement he has yet to attain.

“I talked to Starks,” Patterson said this week, “And he was saying that to consider myself better than him, I have to win a MAC championship. That’s something he has done, and that’s something I want to achieve.”

No. 23 Buffalo tries for its first MAC title since 2008 when the Bulls face Ball State on Friday night at Ford Field in Detroit. The roles between these two teams were actually reversed the last time Buffalo won the conference. Twelve years ago, it was Ball State that came in with an unbeaten record and a No. 12 ranking.

The Bulls spoiled that undefeated run with a 42-24 win in the title game.

Ball State (5-1) is trying for its first MAC title since 1996, the year before the league championship game began. The biggest obstacle in the Cardinals' path this year is Patterson, whose incredible rushing resume already includes a 301-yard game against Bowling Green and a 409-yard performance against Kent State.

“I know a lot of attention goes to Jaret Patterson and rightfully so. When you have a 400-yard game, a 300-yard game and over 1,000 yards in an abbreviated season, that’s pretty remarkable," said Ball State coach Mike Neu, who played for the Cardinals when they won league titles in 1989 and 1993. "But they’ve got multiple weapons.”

Indeed, Buffalo (5-0) leads the FBS in scoring offense at 51.8 points per game. The Bulls have scored at least 40 points in nine of their last 10 games against MAC opponents.

Buffalo also played in the league title game in 2018, losing to Northern Illinois after a 10-win regular season.

“For the ones that have been there, it’s a sour taste," Buffalo coach Lance Leipold said. "There’s no doubt about it, it’s very disappointing — that game, and the way that season ended.”

MILESTONES

Patterson needs 213 yards rushing to pass Branden Oliver for Buffalo’s career lead, and his next rushing touchdown would equal the single-season school record of 19 he set last season when he played 13 games.

“It’s a lot of things that goes into it. I have a tremendously talented offensive line up front, so you’ve got to kind of stop them first before you get to me," Patterson said. “We’ve seen them put eight in the box. That’s not special.”

Ball State has an offensive standout of its own in Justin Hall, who became the school's career leader in receptions recently. He's up to 252.

CLOSE CALLS

Every Ball State game except one this season has been decided by seven points or fewer. The Cardinals are 4-1 in those games. Buffalo hasn't had a game closer than 19 points.

QUARTERBACKS

With so much focus on Buffalo's running game, quarterback Kyle Vantrease is overshadowed. He's thrown only one interception in 85 attempts this season. Ball State's Drew Plitt is averaging 279 yards passing per game, with 13 touchdowns and five interceptions.

FAMILY MATTER

Patterson's brother James is a linebacker for Buffalo, leading the defense as a team captain and first team All-MAC selection.

“We talk a lot about Jaret Patterson. One thing that we haven’t really talked much about this year is the play of James Patterson and how well he’s played," Leipold said. "Not only has he played well, he’s moved into the middle linebacker spot. He hadn’t played it in this program, other than maybe repping some as a backup.”

GETTING ATTENTION

Buffalo's success makes Leipold a potential candidate for some bigger jobs, but he's trying to keep his team focused on this title game.

“We talk to our players all the time about being where your feet are at, and being focused on those things,” he said. "We were 2-10, other schools told recruits: ‘Why would you go to Buffalo? They’re not going to be there much longer.’ Now we won 10 games, and they say: ‘Why would you go to Buffalo? They’re not going to be there much longer.’ People like to play those speculation games, and we’re going to focus on Ball State.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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