Andrew Weber-US PRESSWIRE
A month ago, this was supposed to be a nationally-televised showcase for an undefeated Bobcats squad. Instead, the Ball State Cardinals have won four in a row and Pete Lembo is the low-key hot commodity.
And that is why building the narrative before the event happens is a dangerous and futile exercise. The season began with Ohio as the story, but they are now one of a conglomeration of Mid-American Conference football teams impressing a gradually larger subset of humans with every passing week. It's safe to say the Bobcats have even disappointed in several recent MAC games, yet they sit at a record of 8-2, which is terrific, but it's not 10-0, something that could've been the story. Square peg, round expectations.
And what was Ball State supposed to be? Last year the expectation was somewhere on the south side of 6-6, given the scorched earth on defense left by two years of Stan Parrish at coach. Pete Lembo took the story and made it his. This year, perhaps a regression back to four or five wins made sense, because which games were they going to win? And yet here they are, nestling up to a 7-3 record, just one win less than Ohio, claiming victory over Indiana, South Florida and most recently No. 25 Toledo on Election Night. They're still not trouncing opponents (their largest margin of victory: 11), just in stunning, heart-palpitating form, which makes for excellent entertainment.
Then you look at Pete Lembo ... heck, just say the name Pete Lembo and this sense of ennui permeates your soul. What excites you about that? But your eyes can lie to you. They have before. Even when I look back to what I wrote about the Lembo hire December 2010 ... I wasn't wowed. No, the coach doesn't have a "wow" factor. It's an important thing, I guess, for many other teams to excite fans with someone you know. But all he's done since arriving in humble Muncie, Indiana, is: (a) talk about winning, (b) implement a method to win, (c) see the winning method through, and (d) win. It's almost — dare I say — Sabanesque in its tenacity and simplicity.
He's not a particularly fiery coach, so that could explain being hidden behind some of the other personalities in the league: the venerable Frank Solich, the media darling Darrell Hazell, the unabashedly ambitious Dave Doeren, the baby-faced Matt Campbell, and a dadgum Bowden. If you have time after wading through all that, you might have time to write a blurb on Lembo. Solich got his own profile in Sports Illustrated this year. And they're a win apart.
Which brings us to the melancholy reality of this game: Ball State has no viable hope to play in the MAC Championship. Sitting at two losses in the conference, they'd require a Toledo win at NIU, then additional losses by Toledo vs. Akron and NIU vs. EMU, and then pray that the tiebreaking tumblers lock into place. That's not happening, but they can win a bowl game and maybe finish at 9-3 on the season, with a win over Miami. If that's going to happen, it's happening with offense, and plenty of it: all-purpose maestro Jamill Smith, big catch factory Willie Snead, the powerful ground-mover in the backfield Jahwan "Quake" Edwards, mild-mannered quarterback Keith Wenning, and that unforgiving offensive line which has allowed just eight sacks all season, 12th best in FBS.
It's fair to say Ohio is reeling, having lost two of their last three, and hopefully their punt blocking issues are resolved. Anything less than four disasters will be an improvement. It just seems like all the momentum is in the Cardinals' favor, and against the Bobcats.
But let's pretend. Suppose Ohio is 10-0 at this point. If they enter this game perfect, they'd be somewhere ranked in the top 20, perhaps top 15. More national attention would be given to it. You'd read about the magic sustaining this program, wondering if it would finally end. "Magic" — or depth?
Either way, one unit getting healthier is running back, and Ryan Boykin is seeing more action to give Beau Blankenship a breather every once in a while. You'd say that the obvious key to the game would be for them to do what they did to EMU: just keep running that ball down their throats, even on third and long, and victory is theirs.
(Hey, just kidding about Boykin. He's out for the season and Daz'mond Patterson will take his place as backup to Beau.)
Step back into the reality of the 8-2 Bobcats. We can still say the same thing: just run the ball, and obviously punt it correctly when needed.