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2011 MAC Football Preview: Ball State Cardinals

Now that summer is winding down, football season winds up. While NFLers were negotiating, college programs have been practicing and filing down their depth charts in preparation for Labor Day weekend when the season begins. The weather outside is heating up and that must mean it's time for us to begin previewing the MAC, one team at a time...

Here's a text message I received from my brother one game into his NCAA 12 online dynasty with Ball State:

"If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times. Keith Wenning (derogatory statement that also doubles as sexual phrase). Kelly Page must really suck."

It's a touch unfair and inaccurate, but there are a number of Ball State fans who truly felt this way during a rough 2010 campaign, one which came to a frightening and painless end at the hands of Chandler Harnish his Northern Illinois comrades, 59-21.

Last Season: Ball State finished 4-8, an outcome which cost second-year head coach Stan Parrish his job and left the entire coaching staff on the unemployment line and former recruiting coordinators taking shots at the new regime on Twitter (profile is private, so you can't read them unfortunately).

It was an up and down beginning for Ball State in 2010. After a solid win over Southeast Missouri State, the Cardinals were stunned by FCS Liberty (a harrowing retreat to the pre-2008 days when Ball State lost to North Dakota State and its ilk), and then nearly beat Purdue at Ross-Ade before receiving a thumping at Iowa.

You may remember that Purdue's game-winning touchdown came on a terrible pass from Rob Henry that was tipped by a DB and went right into the hands of Carlos Smith for a 76-yard touchdown pass. That stretched a 14-6 lead to 21-6. That play pretty much sums up the season.

The Cardinals did win three conference games against Central, Buffalo and Akron. Even in a down year, take great enjoyment in beating the Chippewas, Cardinal fans.

Returning players:

  • Sean Baker. Beast. One of the best defensive players in the MAC. He's already Ball State's career interceptions leader, and based on the first three seasons, there's no reason for him not to build on that. At one point in his junior season, Baker was rated as the fifth-best strong safety prospect by, but appears to have fallen out of the top 25. Doesn't take away his importance to the team, though.
  • Wenning. Although this blog post starts with a shot at Wenning, facts are he was a true freshman last year that showed plenty of potential. The previous coaching staff had high hopes for Wenning, and I've got to believe this one does, too. Wenning completed 128 of 235 pass attempts with an even 14 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. The bigger question: what in the world happened to Page? Page was a one-time Oregon commit, who got the offer pulled. So Ball State gets a steal in Page, right? Wrong. Page never seemed to fully take control of the offense. He's quick and has a cannon arm, but for some unknown reason never harnessed that to become a successful QB. So now it's Wenning's show. You'd think the Oregon coach who recruited and offered Page the scholarship would probably have been forced to move on after such an incorrect evaluation, right? Oh, it was Chip Kelly, you say? Having said all this, Page isn't out of the picture. Lembo has said that Wenning has a slight lead over Page.
  • Travis Freeman/Jason Pinkston. Putting them together because they are both Glenville (Ohio) guys, and both studs. Freeman led the team in tackles by a wide margin with 108 and Pinkston had four interceptions.
  • Briggs Orsbon. After a stellar freshman campaign with Nate Davis at QB, he hasn't been quite able to match the production from 2008. Last year, he wasn't even the team's top producer, only catching 28 passes for 295 yards even though he's certainly the team's most talented wideout. As a true freshman, Jack Tomlinson led BSU with 29 receptions for 484 yards and six touchdowns.

New Faces: The most important new face to the program is head coach Pete Lembo. One thing he has done, that Stan Parrish didn't necessarily do, is raise optimism within the program. He's sold the program on toughness and has stressed beyond measures the importance of the weight room. Why he did that is unknown. We're only a few years removed from the Brady Hoke era, and it isn't like an entire college football program skips the weight room for two seasons. But whatever Lembo has to sell the team on, good for him. Fans weren't quick to warm up to him due to a lack of name recognition, but he's been pleasantly forthcoming to fans and media and sends out periodic emails to those interested in receiving the newsletter.  He addresses nearly all topics (including the departure of Eric Williams) and doesn't appear to have much to hide. 

Games to circle:

  • Sept. 3, Indiana at Lucas Oil Stadium. Ball Staters have been geared up for this one for quite some time. Last time the two teams squared off, Indiana fans ran their mouths, talked smack and then some beforehand, thinking a MAC team could never beat "mighty" IU. Four quarters and a 42-14 beatdown later, the Hoosiers were the first team to get a glimpse of how great the 2008 team would become.
  • Oct. 1, at Oklahoma. Oh boy. If Ball State were to somehow pull this off, it would rank as one of the biggest upsets of all time. You may recall a certain game in 2006 where the Cardinals nearly upset No. 2 Michigan, which still ranks as one of the most surreal experiences of my life. But when you have seven chances inside the 2-yard-line and can't score the game-tying touchdown, you know you're the underdog.
  • Oct. 8, Temple. Homecoming. I don't really expect Ball State to be in the mix for the MAC title, so I think BSU fans will look forward to this one.

Did you know?

  • Brad Maynard won the Mid-American Conference Player of the Year Award in 1996 as a punter.
  • Ball State's Punter U. moniker has been well-earned. Maynard and Reggie Hodges currently play in the National Football League while Chris Miller, who never reached the Big Show, was a two-time Preseason Playboy All-American.
  • ESPN's ratings love Ball State football. The 2008 regular season matchup between Central Michigan and Ball State is the most-watched Tuesday/Wednesday college football game ever on ESPN 2 (and also the game where Ball State finally slayed the Dan LeFevour beast); and the MAC title game in 2008 against Buffalo (a contest that all Ball State fans have erased from their memory with good reason) is the most-watched MAC game ever on ESPN's family of networks. One of these games was awesome; the other got Turner Gill a job at Kansas. Not. Bitter. At. All.

Prediction: Last season, the Cardinals went 4-8. Even though there is experience returning to Muncie, I'm not sure exactly how much better they are this year than they were last fall, especially in a transition season. The transfer/departure of top rusher Williams doesn't help. And although a sizable chunk of the offensive line returns, will it make a difference in Pete Lembo's first season? Instead of playing the overly optimistic card (yours truly led the Kelly Page bandwagon his redshirt freshman season in 2009), let's be cautious and predict the Cardinals go 4-8 again in 2011, with wins over Buffalo and the three directional Michigan schools.