by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor

Head coach Pete Lembo might be a victim of his own early (and short-lived) success. After starting last season 3-1, reality set in when Ball State was thrashed by a combined 104-6 score against Oklahoma and Temple and limped in down the stretch losing 3 of its last 4 MAC games in 2011. The Cardinals were 6-6 last season and technically bowl-eligible, but don’t look for a repeat performance in 2012, not with a difficult schedule and not with the Ball State defense possibly being the worst in the conference.

The Cardinal defense took two steps backward last season, giving up 510 ypg to rank 119th in total defense. Consider that unit gave up an average of just 384 ypg the previous three seasons, making 2011 a dropoff of 126 ypg. The 35 ppg Ball State yielded was the most at the school since 2005. That unit returns just five starters from a year ago, and there are a lot of “ifs, ands and buts” in the players filling in the gaps in 2012. Defensive coordinator Jay Bateman is counting on a pair of transfers to shore up a defensive line that allowed 5.1 ypc. Former Ohio State DE Jon Newsome and ex-Notre Dame nose tackle Brandon Newman certainly had some credentials coming out of high school, as most big time recruits do. However, now it’s 3-4 years later and these guys couldn’t make it on the big stages at Columbus and South Bend. It’s no lock they can ignite a defensive turnaround even stepping down in class. The loss of first-team all-MAC linebacker Aaron Morris due to academics is a blow as well. Morris was second on the team with 115 tackles last season. The Cardinals have a pair of all-league players, as jr. DE Nathan Ollie (team-high six sacks) and sr. LB Travis Freeman (right; team-leading 134 tackles) were both on the second team all-MAC team, but beyond that the talent thins dramatically. The defense will be a bit better, if only because it would be difficult to get worse. However, a dramatic turnaround just isn’t in the cards, and giving up 450 ypg and 31 ppg would amount to a 10-12% improvement, which looks like a max for Bateman’s crew.

Offensively, with nine vets returning to action, it’s expected the attack will maintain or improve its production, but a return to the glory days of 2008 is out of the question. Four seasons ago the Cards scored 35 ppg and went 12-2 thanks to the strong arm of Nate Davis. Davis is long gone and Keith Wenning (left) has been running the show for the last two years. While it’s possible Wenning will break out and improve on his 2011 production (2786 YP, 19 TD passes), he’ll have to do it without his two favorite receivers, who combined for 111 catches. Returning Jr. WR Jamil Smith (2nd-team all-MAC as a return man) caught 40 balls and jr. backup Jack Tomlinson nabbed 43, but those two are 5-8 and 5-9 respectively. The new projected starters at the other two wideout spots are jr. Connor Ryan and soph Willie Snead, who combined for 51 catches for 561 yards last season. Wenning won the QB derby last season over Kelly Page and enters this year as the solid starter, throwing for 12 scores and 299 ypg in the last six games a season ago.

The running game was just a shade below average last season (4.2 ypc, ranked 76th with138 ypg), and the top three ball carriers return, led by soph Jahwan Edwards, a 230-lb. tank who gained 786 yards and scored 10 times. Tennessee transfer Toney Williams will get a shot to steal carries from holdovers Barrington Scott and Dwayne Donigan, who combined for 587 yards a season ago. The best chance for improvement in the ground game is the fact that 2nd-team all-MAC guard Jordan Hansel leads a group of four returning starters on the offensive line. The fifth member of that group is 5th-year senior tackle Cameron Lowry, who has started 20 games in his career and is an excellent pass protector. Lowry has suffered knee injuries that have limited him to 24 appearances in the last three seasons. The OL has four senior starters and allowed just 11 sacks last season...only 10 teams allowed fewer.

Summary: Five of Ball State’s six wins last season came by seven points or fewer, while just one loss came by that close a margin. In September Ball State has two key MAC games, opening on Thursday night, August 30 against Eastern Michigan and then visiting Kent September 29. Lembo has already made it clear those games are the priority. With non-conference games at Clemson, Indiana and at home against South Florida also scheduled for September and a tough MAC West slate, look for a losing record in Muncie this fall.


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