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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 104: Ball State

It shouldn’t be so easy. Look at Ron English and Eastern Michigan, for example. While the Eagles won six games last fall, it was the end result of many years of painful and unsteady progress: English went 2-22 over his first two seasons with the program, and before that, you’d have to go back another 13 years to locate Eastern Michigan’s last six-win finish. Perhaps Ball State, which won the MAC West in 2008, was closer to regaining its past competitiveness. Nevertheless, the ease with which Pete Lembo led the Cardinals to the cusp of bowl eligibility last fall was remarkable for its… ease. True, Ball State beat only one team of any consequence, two if we count Eastern Michigan. And true, all but one of the Cardinals’ six losses came by 10 or more points. But is it supposed to be this easy? And if the first step is the hardest, how good can Ball State be under Lembo in year two, year three, year four?

Conference
MAC, West

Location
Muncie, Ind.

Nickname
Cardinals

Returning starters
12 (8 offense, 4 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 98

2011 record
(6-6, 4-4)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 75

2012 schedule

  • Aug. 30
    Eastern Michigan
  • Sept. 8
    at Clemson
  • Sept. 15
    at Indiana
  • Sept. 22
    South Florida
  • Sept. 29
    at Kent State
  • Oct. 6
    Northern Illinois
  • Oct. 13
    Western Michigan
  • Oct. 20
    at C. Michigan
  • Oct. 27
    at Army
  • Nov. 6
    at Toledo
  • Nov. 14
    Ohio
  • Nov. 23
    at Miami (Ohio)

Last year’s prediction

I think it will take the offense one full season to run Lembo’s offense, or it will take Lembo at least a year or two to find the players who can. The defense, which has taken successive steps back over the last two years, is of equal concern. Most of all, don’t overlook the transition for Lembo and his staff: this is the big leagues, guys, and while the weapons Lembo has to work with have improved, so has the schedule. So even with the returning experience, this looks like a year of transitions for everyone at Ball State, from the coaching staff through the players on the field.

2011 recap

In a nutshell You don’t crack into the Top 25 by beating only bad teams, but in the MAC, taking care of business against the league’s worst is usually enough to reach bowl play. Ball State was squeezed out of the postseason in Lembo’s debut, but to call 2011 anything but an unqualified success would be incorrect. With six wins, Ball State matched its combined total of victories over Stan Parrish’s two full seasons with the program. The Cardinals also won four games during MAC play, a program-high since Brady Hoke led B.S.U. to 12 wins in 2008. While it certainly wasn’t pretty, it’s hard to picture a finer start for Lembo, who’s not new to this whole rebuilding project: he worked similar wonders at Elon and Lehigh prior to being tabbed at Ball State. The next step for the Cardinals is beating good teams, not merely the bottom tier of the MAC.

High point A 23-20 win over Ohio was Ball State’s best victory on the season. The Bobcats were one of two bowl-eligible teams the Cardinals would beat last fall, joining Eastern Michigan. The Lembo era got off on the right foot with a 27-20 victory over Indiana in Indianapolis.

Low point Four of Ball State’s six losses got out of hand. Another, a 45-35 loss to Western Michigan, featured one of the wildest second quarters of football on the 2011 season: tied at 7-7 after the first quarter, the Cardinals and Broncos combined for 49 points over the ensuing 15 minutes. Ball State also had Northern Illinois on the ropes in the fourth quarter, but allowed two late field goals in a 41-38 loss.

Tidbit Even with a 27-point win over Army, Ball State’s margin of victory in its six wins was 7.7 points. If you take out the Cadets, the Cardinals’ margin of victory drops to 3.8 points: 27-20 over Indiana, 28-25 over Buffalo, 23-20 over Ohio, 31-27 over Central Michigan and 33-31 over Eastern Michigan. The team’s margin of defeat, on the other hand, was 26.3 points per game — even when including the three-point loss to Northern Illinois. If you remove the Huskies, the margin of defeat jumps up to 31.0 points per game. Neither the wins nor the losses were necessarily pretty.

Tidbit (scoring differential edition) Ball State was one of two teams in the F.B.S. last fall to win six or more games despite allowing 100 or more points than it scored. The Cardinals scored 304 points and allowed 416. The second was U.C.L.A., which had a scoring differential of minus-122. The Bruins scored 323 points and allowed 439, but remember: U.C.L.A. played in 14 games, thanks to U.S.C. being on probation and an N.C.A.A. waiver that allowed it to participate in bowl play despite being 6-7.

Former players in the N.F.L.

4 DB Sean Baker (Tampa Bay), LB Robert Eddins (Buffalo), C Dan Gerberry (Detroit), P Reggie Hodges (Cleveland).

Arbitrary top five list

Current college coaches whose last name ends with -0
1. Mark Dantonio, Michigan State.
2. Ken Niumatalolo, Navy.
3. Pete Lembo, Ball State.
4. Danny Rocco, Richmond.
5. Steve Addazio, Temple.

Coaching

Pete Lembo (Georgetown ’92), 6-6 after one season at Ball State. Last fall was Lembo’s first season in the F.B.S. after nearly 20 years on college football’s lower levels, where he served as an assistant at stops like Albany, Dartmouth and Hampden-Sydney before earning his first head coaching job, at Lehigh, in 2001. He won 44 games over five years at Lehigh, including 11 games and a Patriot League title in his first season. Call Lembo an unknown, but don’t call him out for a lack of success: First at Lehigh, then at Elon, from 2006 through 2011, Lembo made a reputation for himself not simply as a maintainer of prior success but as a program builder. One need look no further for evidence than little Elon University, which had hit rock-bottom in the handful of years prior to Lembo’s arrival. His impact was immediate: five wins in 2006, a program-high since 2000. Then seven, eight, nine and six wins over the next four seasons, a stretch that rivals any the program had since leaving the N.A.I.A. ranks in 1991. Lembo got it done on offense, with a system he first ran while at Lehigh and has since tweaked in the years since. Each of his last four teams averaged more than 400 yards of offense per game, with his final team averaging 435.2 yards despite finishing the year unranked for the first time since 2006. So that’s Pete Lembo: small-school, little-known, offensively-based, a proven winner. His only drawback is, in a strange way, Lembo’s finest asset: he’s won at small stops, which doesn’t impress the masses but testifies to his coaching ability. He’s off to a resounding start in Muncie.

Players to watch

I was surprised at how quickly Ball State grasped Lembo’s offensive system. Most, including myself, thought it would take one full season for the Cardinals to gain their footing; while Ball State wasn’t an offensive powerhouse by any means, the offense was much farther ahead of the game than I expected it would be. In addition, there were more than enough positive signs to expect further growth on offense over this coming season. Once B.S.U. starts firing on all cylinders, this offense will help the Cardinals keep pace with any system in the MAC.

The offense isn’t quite there, however. For at least one more year, the Cardinals will rank closer to Eastern Michigan than Western Michigan, to use a MAC-themed example. But to say that the offense won’t be improved ignores three key facts: Ball State has a strong starting quarterback, a promising young running back and one of the most experienced offensive lines in the MAC. Even if the good news stops there, that’s a pretty solid foundation.

Let’s begin with the offensive line, which returns four of last season’s five starters but breaks in a new coach, Nick Tabacca, who replaces Penn State-bound John Strollo. This line wasn’t overwhelming in the running game last fall, but it was absolutely superb in pass protection. Tabacca’s task will be to maintain the strong play on passing downs while adding a dose of physicality in the running game. And he’ll need to so without center Kreg Hunter, a 33-game starter during his career.

Losing Hunter might lead Ball State to some shuffling up front. Senior right tackle Dan Manick took snaps in Hunter’s spot during the spring; if official, that move would push senior Cameron Lowry, last year’s backup at left tackle, out to the strong side. But that’s probably all Ball State’s going to do, instead heading into September with the rest at status quo: Austin Holtz at left tackle, Kitt O’Brien at left guard and junior Jordan Hansel, the line’s best, at right guard. It’ll be four seniors and a junior, more than likely. Losing Strollo is concerning, but this line has the potential to be very good.

Let’s move to running back. If he can play up to his potential during MAC play, sophomore running back Jahwan Edwards (team-best 786 yards, 11 touchdowns) is a 1,000-yard threat. He was on pace for that mark after gaining a season-high 123 yards against Ohio on Oct. 15, but Edwards’ production tailed off precipitously down the stretch — partly because B.S.U. had to pass to hang in games. If he’s recovered from last season’s knee injury, junior Barrington Scott (370 yards), will be the backup. Rounding out the top group is senior Dwayne Donigan (191 yards), though he’s a fairly distant third.

Hopefully, another season in this offense will lead to more big plays in the passing game. Ball State lacked this quality in spades last fall; for example, the Cardinals ranked 106th nationally with only 10 passing plays of 25 or more yards. With Briggs Orsbon and Torieal Gibson gone, the mantle is passed to a quartet of underclassmen: sophomore Willie Snead (28 catches for 327 yards) and juniors Jack Tomlinson (43 for 394), Jamill Smith (40 for 422) and Connor Ryan (24 for 241). Of this group, Smith seems the most likely to break out. He made 19 catches over Ball State’s final four games last fall, including a season-high eight grabs in the season finale. This is not a great receiver corps, though the group as a whole is more experienced than it was a season ago.

Finally, Keith Wenning. Turnovers are all that’s separating the junior, now entering his second full season in the starting lineup, from the upper crust of MAC quarterbacks. The Cardinals are 1-8 when Wenning tosses two more interceptions; this includes an 0-3 mark during conference play a year ago. But he’s growing, like the offense — and the team — as a whole, and played the best football of his career over the final five games of last season.

In a perfect world, Ball State wouldn’t need Wenning to throw the ball more than 30 times per game. Whether he can be merely one piece of the offense, rather than the whole deal, depends both on the running game and the defense; Wenning wouldn’t need to throw 40 or more passes, as he did in three of Ball State’s final four games in 2011, if the defense could do a better job keeping opponents out of the end zone. But it’s nice to know that Wenning can put the offense on his back if needed: he threw for 2,786 yards in last year’s dink-and-dunk passing game, so the potential is clearly there. Wenning is far from the problem with Ball State’s offense; you’d just like to see him not stand as the only solution. If he gets help, Wenning is an all-conference candidate.

A strong pass rush can offset a weak secondary, but not vice versa. Few teams did a worse job last fall getting to the quarterback than Ball State, which notched 16.0 sacks as a team, tied for 102nd nationally. This despite starting three seniors up front, including two, ends Ryan Hartke and Andrew Puthoff, who would earn honorable mention all-MAC honors. That pair, along with nose tackle Adam Morris, must be replaced. But that’s fine for Ball State, which would have needed to transform its defensive front even had the trio not exhausted their eligibility.

For all their faults as pass rushers, Hartke and Puthoff were strong, stuff-the-run ends. There’s a place for that in the MAC, but given the way the league has tilted towards the spread-based offense over the last two or three years, B.S.U. could use more speed and athleticism off the edge. That’s what Lembo and his staff hope they’re getting from ends Nick Miles, Jonathan Newsome and Anthony Kukwa, who are battling for the two starting end spots. Miles, a sophomore, played in 10 games as a freshman, though he stumbled out of the gate with injuries and never fully recovered his footing. Newsome is a former Ohio State transfer with linebacker size and speed, meaning he could make an impact on passing downs.

The star on the inside is junior tackle Nathan Ollie (42 tackles, 10.0 for loss, 6.0 sacks), a reigning second-team all-MAC pick. Already a proven pass rusher, Ollie could be even more disruptive when teamed with greater speed on the outside; in addition, Ollie’s presence in the middle might open up lanes for Newsome and Miles. After serving as the backup last fall, senior nose tackle Dwayne Jarrett will move into the starting lineup at nose tackle. Another factor to consider up front is Ball State’s improved depth, even if a good portion of this depth comes in true and redshirt freshmen. Defensive coordinator Jay Bateman has said that he’d like to use eight or nine linemen, though that hinges on how quickly the first-year players grasp the system.

B.S.U. will spend a good amount of time with five defensive backs and two linebackers on the field, especially when pitted against spread teams. One linebacker who never left the field, regardless of the alignment, was strong side linebacker Aaron Morris, one of the Cardinals’ two first-team all-MAC picks. Morris, who is not currently with the program due to academic issues, leaves a huge void along the back seven of this defense.

But the Cardinals do return a good one in senior middle linebacker Travis Freeman (team-best 134 tackles), a three-year starter who finally earned a much-deserved all-conference nod last fall. And senior Tony Martin (73 tackles) returns on the weak side, though you’d like to see him notch a few more big plays. On the strong side, B.S.U. has the option of using senior Kenneth Lee, a former transfer from St. Joseph’s College, a Division II school, or sophomore Julian Boyd. Freeman can do everything Ball State asks of him, but the overall talent at linebacker took a huge hit following Morris’ departure.

Position battle(s) to watch

Secondary From Oct. 15 through Nov. 25, the final six games of last season, there was no worse pass defense in college football. The Cardinals allowed 330.8 passing yards per game over this stretch, giving up at least 438 yards twice, at least 338 yards three times and at least 267 yards five times. Yes, part of this poor play can be tied back to the team’s weak pass rush, not to mention the overall weak play of the front seven. Thanks to line’s inability to stop the run, the secondary was forced to move forward to lend a hand — hence the ease with which teams dropped bombs over the top.

Lembo knows that this secondary is his team’s most pressing concern, which explains why he dedicated nearly a third of his 24-player recruiting class to defensive backs. Two defensive backs, both safeties, enrolled early. This makes sense: While Ball State has experienced cornerbacks on hand — if this is a good thing remains to be seen — Lembo must replace both of last season’s starting safeties. One, Sean Baker, ranks among the finest defensive backs in program history. In addition, three of the four Ball State safeties to make at least one start in 2012 have graduated. That makes the one holdover, sophomore free safety Brian Jones (33 tackles), a key figure on this defense.

It’s not surprising to see Jones top the depth chart. What has been a surprise, however, is how quickly true freshman Chris Pauling — one of the two springtime arrivals at safety — has grasped Ball State’s system. While sophomore Chris Calloway held the early edge at strong safety, Pauling played well enough to likely earn a major role as a rookie. The bigger issue for B.S.U. is cornerback, where even the return of last year’s two-deep shouldn’t make Lembo sleep better at night. Unless the Cardinals see major improvement from players like Armand Dehaney, Jeffrey Garrett, Andre Dawson and Jason Pinkston, this secondary will remain the worst in the F.B.S.

Game(s) to watch

The two biggest game of the season, Eastern Michigan and Kent State, sandwich three games against B.C.S. conference competition. Even if the Cardinals net another win over Indiana, losses to both E.M.U. and the Golden Flashes will end their hopes for a MAC West title, for all intents and purposes. That three of Ball State’s four MAC home games come against Toledo, Northern Illinois and Ohio also doesn’t help matters.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Pete Lembo can coach. He can coach. And because of that fact — because Ball State had such a nice year last fall — you tend to forget that it’s not going to be this easy. Ball State is not going to go from nothing to six wins to the top of the MAC West in two years. It rarely works like that in any conference, and especially not with a team still finding its footing in Lembo’s system. This team simply isn’t ready to take that next step. Not yet, at least. For now, the offense lacks enough firepower to hang with the MAC’s elite. In addition, the defense, so porous last fall, has not proved itself in any capacity — in the pass rush, stopping the run or defending the pass. So how did Ball State win six games last fall? Some smoke, a few mirrors and outstanding coaching. Here’s the main point, and I know it’s a strange thought to consider: Ball State will be better, but I don’t think that the Cardinals will be able to navigate this schedule, with some lingering personnel concerns, and match last season’s win total. In my opinion, it’s more likely that B.S.U. inhabits a unique situation where the team improves in every manner except in the standings. Would a step back mean that Ball State won’t eventually get there under Lembo? Absolutely not. But it does mean that there might be some more room on the bandwagon, if you want to get on board.

Dream season Ball State’s well of smoke and mirrors never runs dry. The Cardinals beat Indiana and Army in non-conference play and go 6-2 in the MAC, earning the top spot in the West division.

Nightmare season The year opens with seven straight losses before B.S.U. gets in the win column. The Cardinals win twice down the stretch, but a 2-10 season would be fairly disappointing.

In case you were wondering

Where do Ball State fans congregate? Like most smaller programs, Ball State has a fan-run site that lands a good amount of traffic — BSUFans.com — and a recruiting-based site that’s quiet as a church mouse — BallStateInsider.com. Stick to the former, as all recruiting news will end up there anyway. You should also check out Over the Pylon, which gives a blog’s take on Ball State sports.

Ball State’s all-name nominee DT Carlutorbantu Zaramo.

Word Count

Through 21 teams 69,425.

Up Next

Who is No. 103? When tomorrow’s program posted its lasting winning season, its current offensive line coach was beginning his first season at a school tomorrow’s team has beat only once in its last nine tries.

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Comments

  1. David says:

    Duke is next.

  2. Burnt Orange says:

    A couple of statistical indications that Lembo can coach – in year one, his team with a first year starter at qb, was 20th in the nation in fewest turnovers per game. Also, his team was 7th in fewest penalty yards per game. Noticed UH was 7th in fewest turnovers per game which reminds one of how extraordinary Case Keenum was – 48 TDs and 5 picks. Signed as a free agent with Texans.

  3. Tyler says:

    Barrington Scott

    Paul: Fixed, thanks.

  4. southwvboy says:

    If BSU is thisblow on the countdown but expected to be competitive, this looks to be very entertaining MAC season. As it normally is.

  5. Josh H. says:

    ^Very true. I was surprised to see Ball State this low expecting them to break into the lower 90′s high 80′s. The MAC could certainly be interesting once agaon this year. I thonk the offense is catching onto the system quick enough that they will be able to tale a few teams by surprise like they did last fall. He is completely right though that the defense is what is really going to make or break this team. Without souleater Baker, I put even more question marks in our secondary. I am hopeful since the defense played quite well during the spring game but then, how much can you really tell from them? As long as we can remain competitive, then I will be happy. If we do have that nightmare season, I only hope we defeat Indiana and central Michigan. Our unofficial rival…at least to me lol. I certainly believe we can win possibly 8 games but I don’t see us winning less than three. Just gotta move our way back up your ranks Alex and prove you wrong :)

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