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MAC Football Previews: Ball State Cardinals

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Can head coach Pete Lembo lead the Ball State Cardinals back to bowl eligibility in 2015?

J. Meric/Getty Images

2014 was a year of change for the Ball State Cardinals. Following the departure of legendary quarterback Keith Wenning, the Cardinals entered the spring with heated four way quarterback battle. The good news is that Ball State figured things out, Jack Milas should be under center. The bad news is Ball State had already run its record to 1-4 by the time that puzzled was solved.

2015 holds no such drama. Mann is now taking snaps for NAIA Georgetown College in Kentucky and Milas is firmly entrenched as BSU's starting signal caller. That alone won't be enough to restore the Cardinals to bowl eligibility following a 5-7 (4-4) effort in 2014 though. The Cardinals must also account for the departure of all-time leading rusher Jahwan Edwards and improve upon a defensive showing that was middling at best. In the ultra competitive MAC West, every unit will need to show improvement if the Cardinals are to return to a bowl game. Ball State head coach Pete Lembo has delivered such results in the past.

Schedule:

Date Team Time (ET)
Sept. 3 (Thur.) vs. VMI 7 pm
Sept. 12 @ Texas A&M 7 pm
Sept. 19 @ Eastern Michigan 3 pm
Sept. 26 @ Northwestern 8 pm
Oct. 3 vs. Toledo 3 pm
Oct. 10 @ Northern Illinois TBA
Oct. 17 vs. Georgia State TBA
Oct. 24 vs. Central Michigan TBA
Oct. 31 vs. UMass TBA
Nov. 5 (Thur.) @ Western Michigan 7:30 pm

BYE
Nov. 17 (Tue.) @ Ohio TBA
Nov. 24 (Tue.) vs. Bowling Green 7:30 pm


Head Coach: Pete Lembo

Pete Lembo enters his fifth season at the helm and he's sticking around, for now. After nearly being swooped away by a Power 5 team two years ago, Lembo looks like he could be on the Cardinal and White's sideline for at least two more seasons.

Even with the 5-7 season last year, this might be Lembo's greatest challenge at Ball State. The Cards continue on with a quarterback who has started just seven games, and without a running back that carries much experience.

But with a growing defense and what looks to be a good situation at wide receiver and tight end, Lembo could make this season work. With his track record, there's no reason to doubt him.

Before coaching at Ball State, Lembo worked at Elon and Lehigh for five years each, leaving each program in a good state when he left. From 2001-2005 he lead Lehigh to 44-14 record, including a 26-7 mark in the Patriot League. At Elon he took a 3-8 team in 2005 to a 7-4 record by 2007. He finished 35-22 overall with the Phoenix.

Most Ball State fans agree; with Pete Lembo leading the Cardinals, all things are possible.

Offense

Listen, Ozzie Mann was far from a terrible quarterback. In fact, by most conventional metrics, Mann outplayed Milas. The former BSU QB threw more touchdowns, fewer interceptions, and was a statistically more efficient passer than Milas. Anybody who watched Ball State football in 2014 however knows that Mann lacked the ability to throw the deep ball and simply couldn't win games. Milas is a different story. While the Cardinals lost his first start 42-38 to Western Michigan, Milas torched the Bronco defensive for 326 yards, a BSU freshman record, and 4 touchdowns.The Cards would tally a 4-3 record.

Jahwan Edwards is gone. That's going to be rough on Ball State. Edwards broke records weekly for the Cardinal and White and now the BSU backfield is wrought with uncertainty. That's not to say there's a lack of talent. Darian Green with his 12 carries in 2014 is the veteran of this group. In April Lembo declared that if pressed to make a decision, Green would be the starter. He followed that up by stating Teddy Williamson and freshman James Gilbert would get plenty of carries.

Good news for everybody listed above, the real stars of the Ball State offense are up front. The Cardinals return all five starting offensive lineman from 2014. The unit allowed just 13 sacks last season, good for seventh nationally. The group is anchored by senior center Jacob Richard, who has been named to the Rimington Award watch list.

Position to watch: Wide receiver

Although youth could cause problems for the Cards, Pete Lembo is looking to an experienced wide-out corps to provide the spark Jack Milas and the offense might need.

Outside of the offense line, which comes back with loads of time together, no other offensive players will have as much pressure on them to lead than KeVonn Mabon and Jordan Williams.

Although it seemed like Ozzie Mann liked throwing to Mabon more than Williams, Milas was able to raise Williams' numbers to respectful levels in his seven 2014 starts.

Last season, Williams caught 56 passes for 753 yards, while Mabon caught 59 passes on 91 targets for 717 yards. But what makes the receiver spot so special is that the depth goes even deeper.

Chris Shillings and Corey Lacanaria both caught over 20 passes last season, and the up-and-coming Jordan Hogue gets a chance to show what he's got before he fully bursts onto the scene next season. Last year, Hogue caught nine passes for 107 yards, and he'll have a chance to build on his success this year.

Thanks to our chart-loving overlords over at the mothership, we know that Mabon and Lacanaria were the most effective targets for Ball State quarterbacks in 2014. When targeted, Mabon caught 64.8 percent of the passes thrown his way. Lacanaria was able to emerge with over 62 percent of the throws Mann and Milas sent towards him.

In comparison, Williams caught less than half of passes when he was the targeted receiver. Mann and Milas managed to send the ball his way 118 times last year, for which he came up with just 56 catches.

Hague led all receivers who had 10 or more targets, catching nearly 70 percent of the throws in his direction.

Speaking as a whole, Ball State has a lot going its way in terms of receivers. When you take tight end into the equation, the Cards have somewhat solid options in terms of Dylan Curry and the inexperienced Sam Brunner.

Curry had 9 catches last year for over 100 yards, but he was targeted 20 times. Brunner only came up with one catch, although Mann or Milas sent a pass his way six times a year ago. Both tight ends will be looking to turn their blocking abilities into catching abilities for an offense that looks to air it out again in 2015. Overall, things look very solid with the receiving corps for the 2015 season and beyond.

Defense

Six of the front seven return for Ball State in 2015. Key to improving upon a lackluster defensive effort a season ago will be the production of seniors Darnell Smith and Michael Ayers who logged four and two sacks, respectively. As a unit that represents more than a third of the Ball State sack total, and number that must improve if the Cardinals are to compete in the MAC West.

Ball State's two leading tacklers from a season ago also return. Zack Ryan totaled 91 tackles, including 6 for a loss, and forced 2 fumbles in 2014. 2013 second team All-MAC selection Ben Ingle recorded 87 tackles last season, 29 fewer than the year prior. The MAC West will score a ton of points this year. Ryan and Ingle are critical to BSU's success.

Special Teams

We've all heard it before: Special teams is often disregarded, but it can win or lose football games.

Time to take a closer look at Ball State's special teams situation with a writer who believes that the kicker is the most important player on the field.

With the loss of Scott Secor, the situation at kicker is intriguing going into 2015. Secor's loss leaves Ball State without an experienced place kicker, throwing junior punter Kyle Schmidt onto the scene. Last season, Schmidt punted 52 times with an average of 42.1 yards per punt.

Senior KeVonn Mabon and junior Aaron Hepp will likely do work in 2015 at the kick returner and punt returner spots, respectfully.

Overall, the nation's 14th best team in field goal efficiency will likely find it tough to return to their 2014 form.

Five players to watch:

No. 1: WR KeVonn Mabon

With the importance of the wide out corps taking center-stage in 2015, KeVonn Mabon could emerge as the leader of that group, instead of senior Jordan Williams.

Mabon made an impact from the start last year, becoming Ozzie Mann's favorite target early on, and making big time plays to keep the Cards in the game versus Indiana State. Overall, he was highly effective when the ball was thrown his way.

Targeted 91 times a season ago, Mabon came up with a team-leading 59 catches for a career-high 717 yards. Even though his production slowed as Williams became healthy and Milas took over at quarterback, he remained an up-and-coming star.

Mabon redshirted due to injury in 2013 after playing in just three games, and in his freshman season of 2012, the criminal justice major had an immediate impact; catching 23 passes for 335 yards, playing in all 12 games and starting two. In his three appearances in 2013, Mabon caught seven passes for 93 total yards.

This season, he'll want to hit the next level. A 1000-yard season isn't totally off the cards, and his ability to improve on his 2014 numbers could decide if he's a team captain heading into 2016. Expect big things out of KeVonn Mabon in 2015.

No. 2: WR Jordan Williams

Bounce back year perhaps? It's hard to say that after a year that may have lacked flash but was impressive all the same. Ball State struggled to determine who would lead the Cardinals at quarterback last season, but Williams still managed a 56 catch, 753 yard, 6 touchdown effort.  The year before Williams totaled 1050 yards and 10 touchdowns and as he develops a rapport with Milas, as all the capabilities of returning to that form.

It didn't take long last season for those two to click. In the first start for Milas he found Williams 11 times for 179 yards and 2 touchdowns against Western Michigan. After Ball State made a change at quarterback Williams averaged 91 yards a game.

No. 3: LB Zack Ryan

2015 could be a breakout season for Zack Ryan. The 5'11, 224 pound junior led the Cardinals in tackles last season and closed 2014 in impressive fashion. Ryan recorded double digit tackles in his final four games, including a career high 15 November 22nd against Eastern Michigan. Ryan was the leading tackler in each of those four games.

No. 4: LB Ben Ingle

Don't let the statistical drop off in 2014 fool you, Ingle has a nose for the ball. The senior team captain who missed two games last season due to injury closes quickly, hits fiercely, and is truly the leader of the Ball State defense. The BSU leader likes big games, too. While he missed the matchup against Northern Illinois, his top two games of 2014 were against MAC West rivals Toledo and Western Michigan.

No. 5: C Jacob Richard

An experienced offensive line has its' leader back once again. For the three seasons that Jacob Richard has played in Cardinal and White, he has been a standout on and off the field.

On the playing turf, Richard was one of Pete Lembo's captains for 2014, as well as being once again selected to the All-MAC third team. Off the field, he has been All-MAC academic team for three seasons straight.

Richard entered last season on the Rotary Lombardi Award's watch list for the nation's best lineman, and although he doesn't make this season's list, Richard could still surprise a few by the season's end.

Overall, with Richard leading the offensive line, Milas could be set up for a breakthrough season with a learning curve that becomes easier with one of the nation's best centers. And without Banks at halfback, an experienced offensive line will surely help the Cards' offense transition.