There is a road outside of my hometown (and every small town in the United States) where high schoolers go to drive really fast and "get some air" as they crest over a relatively steep hill. I only drove it myself once (hazards of driving a 1989 Chevy Celebrity -- I couldn't get air if I tried, in fact, I couldn't comfortably drive above 65), but I was a passenger, along with about eight other people in a Jeep Cherokee, many, many times. Every person who willingly goes on this trek has earned the right to die in a fiery, gruesome head-on collision, but nobody ever does; every person who does this also knows what it is like to be a Ball State football fan.
"Oh s***. Oh s***. Oh s***. Oh s***. Oh s***. Oh s***. WHEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE. Oh s***. Oh s***. Oh s***."
Yesterday, we discussed Toledo, a team that was both the MACtion prototype in 2011 and the least MAC-like, socialist team in the conference. Today, it's time to talk about what might be the most MAC-like team of all. The Ball State Cardinals won a combined 15 games in 1995-96, then won a combined one in 1998-99. They began the 2008 season 12-0, then lost 19 of their next 23 games. That they went 6-6 in 2011 under first-year coach Pete Lembo suggests that we might be approaching another "WHEEEE" stage in Ball State's oft-hilarious recent history, though they were perhaps a little lucky in doing so. Still, everything we discussed about Toledo yesterday is the exact opposite with Ball State: they have some built some incredible depth of experience in Muncie, Ind., but almost none of it was highly touted leaving high school.
So now Ball State hands the keys to Lembo, an interesting hire. He was extremely successful at Lehigh -- 44-14, two NCAA playoff appearances, and a top five finish in 2001 -- before making the odd move to fellow FCS program Elon; the results weren't as viscerally impressive (35-22), but he pulled off four consecutive winning seasons at a school that had won 14 games in the five seasons before he came, so he's got some game. And now he gets a chance at the FBS level. […]
Ball State fell from 12-0 and No. 12 in the country to hopeless, from home attendance of 19,000 per game to 8,900, in less time than it takes my wife to buy a digital camera. The goal for Pete Lembo in 2012 is not necessarily a certain number of wins and losses; it's simply the restoration of hope. There are some winnable conference home games and plenty of opportunities to create some momentum, but only if they survive a brutal opening month. […] This team fell off a cliff recently, and now begins the climb back toward the top of the MAC.
The Lembo era began with an odd, four-act season.
Act I: Beat Indiana, start 3-1.
Act II: Lose to Oklahoma and Temple by a combined 104-6.
Act III: Win three of four, all by four points or fewer.
Act IV: Narrowly miss out on a bowl bid with a near-upset of Northern Illinois and a home loss to Toledo.
After winning just six games combined in two seasons under Stan Parrish, this was an absolute step forward. But the odd back-and-forth is confusing when it comes to figuring out how much growth to expect in Year Two.
The Ball State offense underwent its own series of ups and downs over the course of 2011, only in three acts instead of four. Over the first four games, the Cardinals averaged an almost perfectly mediocre 27.1 Adj. Points per game, but in the next three contests they averaged just 21.7. However, in their final five games they surged to a 29.5-point average, well above the national average. As we have mentioned before, late momentum can be a sign of good things to come as long as the pieces responsible for the surge return. Well … just about everybody returns for the BSU offense this fall.
Under Lembo and coordinator Rich Skrosky, Elon had one of the more pass happy offenses at the FCS level; they took this approach to Muncie with mixed results. The Cardinals were perfectly efficient through the air -- they were a solid 44th in Passing Success Rate+ -- but with no big-play threats of which to speak, they were unable to generate any easy scores. Of the eight players targeted with at least 10 passes, only two averaged better than 6.5 adjusted yards per target. There are assets accompanying efficiency: quarterback Keith Wenning completed a healthy 64 percent of his passes and was sacked on only 2.4 percent of his pass attempts. But when BSU fell off-schedule and into passing downs, the drive was probably over without any downfield threats.
Whether the elusive big-play guy will be available in 2012 is yet to be determined, but there are plenty of candidates. Juniors Jack Tomlinson and Jamill Smith are what they are at this point (a solid possession receiver and a waterbug, respectively), but three-star sophomore Willie Snead perhaps has a nice step forward in him after catching 28 passes for 327 yards last year, a trio of big youngsters entered the mix this spring (sophomore Shane Belle and redshirt freshmen Trey Gardner and Jacolby Owens, all three of whom are at least 6'2"), and a few interesting freshmen should compete for playing time this summer (three-star, 6'5" freshman Efeoghene Scott-Emuakpor in particular). There is nothing guaranteeing Ball State will be any more explosive, especially considering the quick-strike nature of the offense overall, but Scott-Emuakpor was a huge 'get' for Lembo, and there is a bit more upside here than there was 12 months ago. And when Lembo says he will be introducing more of the playbook this year, one has to figure there might be a bit more risk-taking downfield.
One thing the heavy focus on the pass did was open up the running game a bit, which was a good thing considering a freshman and a sophomore accounted for the vast majority of Ball State's running game. Freshman Jahwan Edwards and sophomore Barrington Scott combined for 267 carries (22.3 per game), gained 1,156 yards and scored 12 touchdowns. Edwards was particularly interesting, managing a plus-4.6 Adj. POE (meaning he was nearly a touchdown better than the average back with his given carries). A positive Adj. POE is rare for even highly-touted running backs, so it is a good sign for Edwards moving forward, especially with the introduction of speedy redshirt freshman Horactio Banks into the mix. Edwards, Scott and incoming Tennessee transfer Toney Williams are all power runners; a little speed won't hurt.
One other thing won't hurt: running behind what might be the best offensive line in the MAC. Ball State ranked fifth in the country in Adj. Sack Rate, but we can somewhat tamp that down because of the quick passing game; we cannot tamp down the fact that they also ranked 25th in Adj. Line Yards and return seven of eight linemen who started games in 2011. In all, 114 career starts return, one of the largest numbers in the country. What was a good line last year could be a great one this fall.
In the name of raw stats versus advanced stats, I feel compelled to mention that Ball State did not actually have the second-worst defense in the country, as their No. 119 ranking in Total Yardage allowed would suggest. In the MAC, you are going to face more plays and more possessions, and you are going to be facing rather stellar offenses overall. On a per-play basis, Ball State's defense wasn't quite as terrible as yardage would suggest.
That said, they weren't great by any means. They did still rank only 97th in Def. F/+, after all. They were able to prevent big plays in the run game, but the pass defense was an outright disaster. Any gains they made on standard downs (73rd in Standard Downs S&P+), they relinquished on second- or third-and-long (114th in Passing Downs S&P+). Either they weren't aggressive enough, or they were terrible at being aggressive. They were able to come up big late in the game, which led to some odd per-quarter splits (they ranked 57th in the first quarter, 108th in the second, 107th in the third and 50th in the fourth) and helped them go 5-1 in one-possession games, but quite obviously there is some work to do here. And the Cardinals will have to figure out how to improve without quite a few of last year's better players. Three of their top four linemen are gone, their best playmaking linebacker is ineligible, and the top three safeties have departed.
Let's pretend for a moment that, 12 months from now, we are reflecting on an improved 2012 Ball State defense. How did the improvement take place? (And don't you love role playing exercises?)
1. It started up front. While ends Andrew Puthoff and Ryan Hartke (combined: 17 tackles for loss, five sacks) are gone, there is still hope, mostly because Ohio State transfer Jonathan Newsome is eligible this fall. The 245-pound junior was a backup for Ohio State in 2010 and has yet to establish himself, but the requisite "He played for Ohio State" upside is involved, and hopes are high for incoming freshman Osazuwaman Igbinosun as well. If these two newbies can combine with sophomore Nick Miles to form an interesting pass rush (notice: I just said "interesting," not "great"), then the tackle position could thrive. Nathan Ollie was one of the better playmaking tackles you will find in the MAC, racking up 10 tackles for loss and six sacks. Ollie, Joel Cox and Donovan Jarrett are solid, but they will need help from the ends.
2. The secondary improved … drastically. One can only get so worked up about the loss of three safeties when safety play, to put it kindly, left something to be desired. Three-star sophomore Brian Jones, and perhaps newbies like junior Selwyn Frazier and freshman Chris Pauling offer hope that, at the very least, last year's safety play can be replicated. And basically every cornerback returns, including interesting junior Jeffery Garrett (one interception, six passes broken up, two tackles for loss). This was a read-and-react secondary sacrificing efficiency to limit the big play … only, they struggled to prevent big plays. Experience at the corner position and new blood in the back might not be a bad combination.
Tackles and corners could be relative strengths of this defense, but the "ifs" are numerous. If the ends and safeties are competent, and if someone steps up to replace academically-ineligible linebacker Aaron Morris (81.5 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles), then there could be some improvement. But most likely any overall improvement the team makes will come on the offensive side of the ball.
Take a look at Ball State's schedule for a moment. That is about as grueling as you will see for a MAC team. Not only do they play in what is probably still the tougher MAC division (the West), but they play three of the best East teams as well. They play none of the MAC teams projected 100th or worse, and they don't have a sacrificial FCS opponent. They play their three worst opponents on the road as well. Their home opponents rank 25th, 57th, 61st, 69th and 91st. For this reason, I will say that the success line for BSU in 2012 probably lies in the five-win neighborhood. A little improvement goes a long way in the MAC, but this schedule precludes much of a surge.
The goal for Pete Lembo's second season has to be a term I've used a few times so far in this series: gains maintenance. The Cardinals took a nice step forward in 2011, but their 6-6 record was aided by a strong close-game record that could flip at any point. If they can sustain these gains and even take a nice step forward on offense -- certainly a reasonable goal with an experienced quarterback, great line and deep skill position unit -- we can proclaim them recovered from the 2009-10 disaster.
Unfortunately, they could improve as a team and still regress in the win column with the schedule at hand. They will probably have to improve significantly to reach a bowl, and while that is far from impossible, it is not something I am willing to predict.
While we're here, let's watch some college football videos from SB Nation's new YouTube channel together: