The 2013-2014 football season had the makings of a good one for the Ball State Cardinals with quarterback Keith Wenning back for one more year with a very talented group of skill players surrounding him. Pete Lembo and his team did not disappoint, riding a record-breaking offense and an improved defense to the third-best record in school history. Road losses to North Texas and Northern Illinois were frustrating and it's extremely disappointing the Cardinals lost in the bowl game to Arkansas State but that's not enough to tarnish one of the greatest seasons in program history.
Ball State opened the season at home against FCS opponent Illinois State on August 29th. The Cardinals got off to a slow start and went into halftime trailing the Redbirds 21-16 after the visitors were able to move the ball up and down the field without much opposition from the Ball State defense. Fortunately, the defense made the necessary adjustments at halftime and shutdown the Redbirds' offense. Meanwhile Keith Wenning and Willie Snead gave Cardinals fans a peek at what was to come as Wenning threw for 340 yards and three touchdowns and Snead made nine receptions for 164 yards and two touchdowns as the Cardinals cruised to a 51-28 victory.
Next, the Cardinals defeated Army for the third season in a row 40-14. Army jumped out to a quick 7-0 lead on their opening drive but Ball State countered with 37 unanswered points and shut down the Black Knights offense to improve to 2-0. The Cardinals then traveled to North Texas for their first road game of the year and suffered a 34-27 defeat. Ball State jumped out to a 20-3 lead and went into halftime leading the Mean Green 27-9. North Texas mounted a successful comeback in the second half as a combination of the Texas heat and a very physical North Texas offensive line wore down the Cardinals defense. Ball State helped North Texas out considerably by turning the ball over five times in the game and by struggling on third downs.
The Cardinals started off conference play against Eastern Michigan and they took out some of their frustration from the North Texas game on the Eagles, rolling to a 51-20 victory. Wenning threw for 317 yards and two TDs in the game. Willie Snead caught nine passes for 175 yards and sophomore wide receiver Jordan Williams caught four passes for 105 yards and two touchdowns; it was the first time Ball State had two receivers have over 100 yards receiving in a game since 2007 and started a breakout season for Williams.
Ball State defeated Toledo in a thrilling Election Day game in 2012 and the two teams played another great game this season. The two teams went back and forth in the first half with Ball State going into halftime with a 17-10 lead. Neither team scored in the third quarter, both teams scored 14 points in the fourth quarter as the lead repeatedly changed hands before Jahwan Edwards scored his third touchdown of the day and the defense was able to get a final stop to preserve the 31-24 victory.
Ball State then traveled to Virginia to close out non-conference play and played what I feel was their best and most complete game against the Cavaliers, Ball State looked like the ACC team and Virginia played like an overmatched mid-major school. Ball State pulled away from the Cavaliers in the fourth quarter to pick up the 48-27 victory, which Coach Lembo called the biggest victory in school history. Keith Wenning passed Nate Davis to become Ball State's all-time leading passer and Jahwan Edwards passed Marcus Merriweather for most rushing touchdowns in a career.
For some reason Kent State has seemed to bring out the worst in Ball State's offense the past two seasons, the Cardinals committed three turnovers in the game. Jamill Smith showed off his toughness, scoring a touchdown after having to be briefly hospitalized earlier in the game. The highlight of the game was a goal line stand which kept Kent State out of the end zone and from putting the game out of reach. A week after playing so well against Virginia the Cardinals escaped with Coach Lembo's 100th career victory by the final score of 27-20. The Cardinals went on to win their next three games easily against Western Michigan, Akron, and Central Michigan to give them a 9-1 record heading into the Northern Illinois game.
Ball State could clinch the MAC West with a victory against the rival Huskies, unfortunately for the third season in a row they came up short against the Huskies. The final score was 48-27, but Ball State was in the game until late in the fourth quarter when the Huskies scored 21 unanswered points. Keith Wenning threw for 324 yards and a touchdown to Willie Snead, Snead had 121 yards receiving, and Jahwan Edwards rushed for 156 yards and touchdown.
However, the offensive star of the game was Huskies quarterback Jordan Lynch who threw 345 yards, rushed for 123 yards, and posted four total touchdowns as the Cardinals unintentionally bolstered his Heisman candidacy. The Cardinals bounced back from loss by crushing Miami 55-14 to close out the season and head into the bowl season with a 10-2 record.
Ball State faced Arkansas State in the GoDaddy Bowl and were seven point favorites heading into the game. However, it was the Cardinals first game with Joey Lynch as the offensive coordinator after Rich Skrosky left the program prior to the bowl game to become the head coach at Elon and the offense never seemed to be totally in sync until late in the game and wasn't it's normal explosive self.
Ball State scored first to take a 7-0 first quarter lead, the teams then traded points in the second quarter and entered halftime tied 10-10. The Red Wolves scored six unanswered points in the third quarter to take a 16-10 lead. Ball State was able to cut the lead to three points after a Scott Secor field goal but the game looked to be over when Arkansas State intercepted Keith Wenning and returned the ball to the Ball State 8-yard line.
Luckily, Arkansas State backup QB Fredi Knighten was picked off by Eric Patterson in the end zone and Jahwan Edwards scored on the ensuing drive to give Ball State a 20-16 lead. Unfortunately the kickoff was short, giving Arkansas State good field position and the Red Wolves quickly marched down the field to score and reclaim the lead.
Ball State quickly drove down the field and attempted a field goal to tie the game and send it into overtime. Unfortunately, Secor's kick was blocked as time expired, giving the Red Wolves a 23-20 victory and leaving Ball State fans hoping next year will be the year the Cardinals win their first bowl game.
QB Keith Wenning, WR Willie Snead, WR Jamill Smith, G Jordan Hansel, TE Zane Fakes, T Matthew Page, WR Connor Ryan
DT Nathan Ollie, DE Jonathan Newsome, CB Jeffery Garrett, LB William Lee, DT Joel Cox
The announcement that Willie Snead is leaving for the NFL eliminates another playmaker from next year's offense and adds to the difficulty of replacing Keith Wenning at quarterback. However, whoever wins the competition at quarterback has two very talented wide receivers to throw to in KeVonn Mabon and Jordan Williams and tight end Sam Brunner should be another quality receiving option.
Jahwan Edwards will return at running back to take pressure off the new quarterback, who is likely to be either redshirt sophomore Ozzie Mann or redshirt freshman Jack Milas, and Horactio Banks will also be back at running back. The Cardinals will need to replace Matthew Page at left tackle and Jordan Hansel at right guard; the coaches can either flip Steven Bell from right tackle to the blindside or insert Drake Miller into the lineup and P.J. Scott is the likely replacement for Hansel. The offseason will give Coach Lynch a chance to get fully comfortable in his new role; the offense should be fine in 2014.
The defense doesn't lose as many players as the offense; however the Cardinals will have to replace three-fourths of the starting defensive line and their best cornerback in Garrett. Kenneth Lee played very well after entering the starting lineup after Chris Calloway was lost to a season-ending injury, Calloway will likely reclaim his job this spring.
Darius Conaway and Tyree Holder are the most likely contenders to replace Garrett and a host of players, none of whom received a lot of playing time in 2013, will vie to become starters on the defensive line. How well the Cardinals manage to replace the production of Jonathan Newsome and Nathan Ollie will go a long way to determining how good the defense, and by extension Ball State, will be next season.