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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. 98: Ball State

You go to Staten Island for the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art, not for college football. Though there is college football being played on New York City’s least-populated borough: Wagner University plays a bit, led by longtime coach Walt Hameline, who just won his 200th career game last November. Staten Island was also the birthplace of Notre Dame legend William Shakespeare, who was nicknamed – wait for it – “The Bard of Staten Island.” So it’s not like Staten Island has no college football history; the borough has more than the Bronx, for example, or Queens, though that’s not saying all that much. Joining in on this slight but distinguished lineage is new Ball State coach Pete Lembo, late of Lehigh and Elon, who is about as familiar to the everyday college football fan as Staten Island is to the New York City tourist.

Conference
MAC, West

Location
Muncie, Ind.

Nickname
Cardinals

Returning starters
11 (5 offense, 6 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 101

2010 record
(4-8, 3-5)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 95

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    Indiana (in Indianapolis)
  • Sept. 10
    at U.S.F.
  • Sept. 17
    Buffalo
  • Sept. 24
    Army
  • Oct. 1
    at Oklahoma
  • Oct. 8
    Temple
  • Oct. 15
    at Ohio
  • Oct. 22
    C. Michigan
  • Oct. 29
    at W. Michigan
  • Nov. 5
    at E. Michigan
  • Nov. 15
    at N.I.U.
  • Nov. 25
    Toledo

Last year’s prediction

As for this fall, eleven starters return on offense, though it’s not as if the Cardinals will suddenly turn into offensive juggernauts: quarterback Kelly Page needs to improve before this offense even nears its 2008 output. On the flip side, I look at the bad — Stan Parrish’s history — and I have my doubts. Does he know how to put a winning product on the field? Has his lackluster history, from Kansas State to Ball State, been a result of inferior talent or inferior coaching? If Ball State’s head man had a better resume, I would not have hesitated putting the Cardinals say, 10 spots higher on the Countdown. However, even though I think this team will be far better than in 2009, I’m not sold on Parrish as the leader of the program. But who is?

2010 recap

In a nutshell Hey, at least the Cardinals won four. That marked a two-win improvement over 2009, when a very youthful team struggled throughout, but the 4-8 finish was still a slight disappointment. That’s due to the returning experience Ball State had on offense – all 11 starters returned, to minimal effect. The offense scored about three more points per game, a nice improvement but one that still left the Cardinals ranked 94th nationally in scoring. So much for that experience. Included in the final record were some sloppy wins, like a season-opening victory over Southeast Missouri State that foreshadowed some issues to come, or an overtime win over then-winless Akron that came about despite five turnovers. The sloppiness led to the expected: two years was enough for Stan Parrish, who might have upped his career winning percentage but will be remembered more for overseeing a dramatic fall from grace over his two seasons in charge.

High point Not one of the four wins is going down in the Ball State annals, even if an overtime win over Akron – with an attendance of about 5,300 strong in Muncie – snapped a four-game winning streak. It was actually the first of two straight, preceding Buffalo, with that stretch probably standing as the high point of the season.

Low point You have two choices. One, a 27-23 loss at home to Liberty. Two, a 41-38 loss at home to Eastern Michigan. Both are horrendous.

Tidbit Stan Parrish went 4-8 in his final season, which sounds awful but to Parrish was a career best. It doubled his previous F.B.S.-best for wins in a season, set in 1986 at Kansas State and tied with the Cardinals in 2009, and did absolute wonders for his F.B.S. winning percentage: .089 heading into the 2010, last season vaulted that total all the way up to .140. At 8-49-1, Parrish would have needed to go 14-0 for three straight seasons to get his F.B.S. winning percentage above .500.

Tidbit (punters edition) Ball State: Punter U? I can see it, though Nebraska also comes to mind when it comes to the kicking game. But the Cardinals have developed several terrific punters over the last generation, beginning with Brad Maynard (1993-96), continuing with Reggie Hodges (2000-4) and Chris Miller (2004-8), and now, in junior Scott Kovanda, have another punter looking to carry on the tradition.

Tidbit (attendance edition) Ball State ranked dead last in the F.B.S. in attendance last fall with an average of 8,947 fans per game, though you can’t really blame the fan base for the apathetic turnout. Well, you can, but you can understand why they stayed away in droves. No other F.B.S. program averaged less than 10,185 fans per game, and only the Cardinals and Akron averaged less than 12,730 fans per game. Just as a comparison: Ball State’s average attendance would not have been among the top 30 in the F.C.S., and would have ranked 10th among Division II teams. It would have led Division III in attendance, but not by much. Before you ask: Ball State’s Scheumann Stadium seats roughly 24,500 people.

Former players in the N.F.L.

6 OT Robert Brewster (Dallas), QB Nate Davis (Seattle), C Dan Gerberry (Detroit), P Reggie Hodges (Cleveland), P Brad Maynard (Chicago), OT Andre Ramsey (Baltimore).

Arbitrary top five list

Current F.B.S. coaches whose last name ends with -0
1. Joe Paterno, Penn State.
2. Bobby Petrino, Arkansas.
3. Ken Niumatalolo, Navy.
4. Mark Dantonio, Michigan State.
5. Greg Schiano, Rutgers.

Coaching

Pete Lembo (Georgetown ’92), entering his first season. It is also Lembo’s first season in the F.B.S. after nearly 20 years in the F.C.S. and lower, serving as an assistant at stops like Albany, Dartmouth and Hampden-Sydney before earning his first head coaching job in 2001. Call Lembo an unknown, but don’t call him out for a lack of success: first at Lehigh, from 2001-5, then at Elon, from 2006 through last fall, Lembo made a reputation for himself not simply as a maintainer of prior success but a program builder. One need look no further for evidence than little Elon University, which had been 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 – 44-14, never winning fewer than eight games in a season – 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’ll need every ounce of that talent to win at Ball State.

Tidbit (coaching edition) I can see both sides of the argument. The logical point of view: Lembo is a rookie F.B.S. coach, so he would have been wise to surround himself with some coaches familiar with the game on this level. How he actually compiled his staff: with several Elon assistants, including offensive coordinator Rich Skrosky and defensive coordinator Jay Bateman. Personally, I like the fact that Lembo took his cohorts along for the ride. It increases his comfort level, allows him to keep things along the status quo and will bridge the gap as Lembo makes the next step up the coaching ladder. There’s a trust level already developed that would have taken years to create with a new set of faces.

Players to watch

Lembo’s offense, in a nutshell: no-huddle, fast-paced, pass-first yet flexible. He’s quick to stress that the offense is no spread, even if it may seem that way in terms of the speed with which the Cardinals will get up to the line of scrimmage. It’s simply multiple in its looks and flexible from pass to run and in terms of the many alignments it can present to the defense. So it certainly sounds good on paper, and has a solid track record of success at Lehigh and Elon. Let’s see if Ball State can hit the ground running in 2011.

Speaking of running: Eric Williams translated his immense kick return skills — 25.1 yards per his 29 returns — into success on the ground last fall, leading Ball State in rushing (613 yards) and scores (5) despite missing most of three games during the heart of MAC play. MiQuale Lewis has exhausted his eligibility, which should ensure more touches for Williams as a junior. Also in the mix is senior Cory Sykes (260 yards on 5.7 yards per carry), who actually leads the depth chart as of today, and sophomore David Brown (348, 5.6 yards per carry). Three of last season’s four leading rushers are back, which is great.

Offensive line depth is a concern. There is some experience along the starting five, but one thing that has me worried: I’m of the thought that no group will face a steeper learning curve than the line, which in addition to grasping the new system must get into the type of physical shape needed to play in a no-huddle attack. Keep an eye on that, among the search for a second group. As for the returning experience: junior Dan Manick will be at right tackle, where he spent last season; Austin Holtz will bookend the line after making starts at left tackle, left guard and right tackle in 2010; fifth-year senior Kreg Hunter moves from center to right guard; and Kitt O’Brien is scheduled to move from the strong side to left guard. That leaves center open, and you’d have to think that senior Jerrod Grady, a part-timer last fall, has the edge over the competition.

The top three receivers are back in the fold. One certainty: Briggs Orsbon, Jack Tomlinson and Otis Brown will be more productive statistically in this new offense. Orsbon is perhaps the last holdover from the Brady Hoke days, and like the program at large, he hasn’t quite reached the same level as during that 2008 campaign. But he’s probably licking his chops at playing under Lembo, and might have a year closer to 2008 (68 catches for 813) than 2010 (28 for 295). Tomlinson led the way in grabs (29), yards (484), yards per catch (16.7) and touchdowns (6) in 2010, so he clearly has some talent. Brown, like his starting cohorts, is a smaller guy — most of the receivers are pretty small. Torieal Gibson has played plenty in the past, and Ball State has some young guys, like Willie Snead, right there in the mix for snaps.

The offense is getting the attention, but don’t overlook the work to be done on the defensive side of the ball. Last year’s group ranked near the bottom of the MAC in each key category, and its inability to stop the run or get pressure in the backfield was frustrating, to put it mildly. Bateman, who has been with Lembo nearly every step of the way, is a fiery fellow, so perhaps the defense will play with a bit more fire. Like the offense, the defense will be multiple in its looks, but as Lembo said during the spring, the defense must first learn to do the basics — you know, like tackling — before doing anything fancy.

First order of business, after tackling drill after tackling drill: beefing up the pass rush. It was terrible in 2010, and the loss of Robert Eddins to graduation leaves a major hole at end. Senior Andrew Puthoff becomes the leader at the position, but he really needs to do more. Sophomore Matthews Mosley played a solid amount as a true freshman and will join Puthoff in the starting lineup. Eddins had six of Ball State’s 14 sacks in 2010, so his loss is a big one.

Senior nose tackle Adam Morris, a returning starter, and sophomore Nathan Ollie will start in the middle. Morris, a team captain, will need to really step up his game if Ball State is going to do a better job against the run. If the Cardinals do cut down on last year’s average of about 180 yards per game, it will set the defense up with more third and longs, perhaps, which would then allow the defense to force more punts, give the offense the ball more — you know what I mean. Big picture view: as on the offensive line, the defensive front is a concern. The starting four has not produced, and there’s a lack of depth. Just something to watch.

Travis Freeman is your typical middle linebacker in production, though a bit smaller than your prototypical middle linebacker. Freeman comes in around 6’0, 220, but his numbers (109 tackles, 1 sack, an interception) belie his lack of size. He got a workout last fall, thanks to a sieve-like defensive front, but he’s there to make plays when needed, which should be often. Junior Tony Martin is back on the weak side, with sophomore Aaron Morris a favorite to replace Davyd Jones on the strong side. Justin Cruz is currently slated to play in the middle but can also double outside, which helps.

The Cardinals finished last season tied for 23rd nationally with 17 interceptions, and were the only team in the F.B.S. to make that many picks despite playing only 12 games. So there are some ball-hawkers back in the secondary, both of whom return in 2011. Leading the way is senior safety Sean Baker, who tied for first in the MAC and fifth nationally with six interceptions. Baker added 88 tackles (7 for loss), second on the team, again illustrating why he’s one of the most overlooked safeties in the country. Baker will move to strong safety as a senior — it’ll be a seamless transition — while senior Kyle Hoke, Brady’s nephew, looks to be the favorite to start at free safety. Junior cornerback Jason Pinkston added four interceptions, giving him seven in his young career.

Position battle(s) to watch

Quarterback Let’s send some respect Keith Wenning’s way: the sophomore knew he needed to make some physical changes to best fit Lembo’s fast-paced offensive system, and he went out during the winter and dropped about 25 pounds, increasing his endurance and running ability. If you’re looking for a reason why Wenning might have a leg up in the quarterback competition as of today, this is it. And it’s great to see, perhaps foreshadowing the type of leadership acumen he could bring to the table as Ball State’s full-time starter. He was the starter for most of last season as a true freshman, unseating junior Kelly Page — a better athlete, or at least a better runner — in September and starting the last 10 games of the year. Wenning wasn’t perfect, battling through turnovers and the freshman up-and-downs, but it’s easy to like his potential. Page was better as a sophomore than he was as a freshman in 2009, albeit in a smaller sample size, and his running ability is an intriguing part of his package. As Lembo himself said late in April, Wenning holds a slight edge over Page; it’s still undecided, but if Wenning does outplay Page again in August, we may be looking at a four-year starter under center.

Game(s) to watch

At least the non-conference schedule presents a chance to make some noise, though it doesn’t leave a significant chance for a win. But it’s wonderful for Ball State’s brand to go to Oklahoma, or play Indiana in the state’s capital, or head to South Florida to face the Bulls — that’s good for recruiting, I would think. In conference play, we’ll see about Lembo’s first-year touch when the Cardinals host Buffalo early. But the year will be decided during a three-game road trip in October and November.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Get caught up in the excitement surrounding a new coach, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves: Ball State is closer to the bottom of the MAC than it is to the top, and Lembo has some work to do before leading the Cardinals to the Brady Hoke-led salad days only a handful of seasons ago. And I’m not saying the magical 2008 season, when the Cardinals finished the regular season 12-0; I’m saying the 7-6 finish of 2007, which came about after years of careful and deliberate program-building by the new Michigan coach. Here’s what I really, really like about Lembo: to me, he’s cut from the same cloth as Hoke. He’s a long-term coach, not a quick-fix guy, and while it may take some time for the pieces to fall into place, you can’t help but appreciate the fact that his system works, F.C.S. or no, and should work in a MAC that lacks a dominant program. I’m relatively confident in that; just not confident that the Cardinals will make an improvement in the win column in 2011. 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.

Dream season Ball State goes 1-3 outside of the MAC, but a 6-2 conference finish sends the Cardinals back to bowl play after a two-year absence.

Nightmare season How long is Lembo’s leash? Longer than Parrish’s, I think we can say, but his debut season is ugly: 1-11, 1-7 in the MAC.

In case you were wondering

Where do Ball State fans congregate? Like most of the smaller programs in the F.B.S., 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.

Word Count

Through 23 teams 60,348.

Up Next

Who is No. 97? Tomorrow’s team ranks third in its conference in total victories but has not had one coach win more than 94 games as part of the program.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Alex Payne says:

    Marshall?
    Bob Pruett won 94 games, the most at Marshall.

  2. Eksynyt says:

    Probly Marshall. Surprised we haven’t seen Wyoming, Wake Forest, Washington State, or Utah State yet.

  3. Misha says:

    I’m pretty sure Idaho manages lower game attendance than Ball State. Idaho plays in the smallest FBS stadium, though they have a history of inflating their attendance numbers. They claim an average attendance of around 15,000, but anyone who’s ever been to a game in that can can tell that the average is more like 8,000.

  4. jjtiller says:

    Misha: http://bit.ly/ieWmub

    Paul: Hey jj, just went in and shortened the link.

  5. Jeff says:

    “Current F.B.S. coaches whose last name ends with -0
    1. Joe Paterno, Penn State.
    2. Bobby Petrino, Arkansas.
    3. Ken Niumatalolo, Navy.
    4. Mark Dantonio, Michigan State.
    5. Greg Schiano, Rutgers.”

    Steve Addazio, Temple

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