Ball State’s real test begins Saturday

Loud cheers and constant praise for the Ball State football team have filled the airwaves across campus over the last two weeks. Ball State defeated big, bad Indiana on Sept. 15 on a game-winning field goal and then triumphed with a last-minute drive over a feisty South Florida program last weekend.

But, can we please hold off on the bowl predictions and a conference championship, at least for the time being?

Look, Ball State has a long and grueling road ahead. It will no longer square off against BCS teams. Rather, it resumes Mid-American Conference play starting with Saturday afternoon’s contest at Kent State, which will be anything but a walk in the park. Kent State is 2-1 on the young season, trouncing Towson–a quality FCS team that made the playoffs in 2011–in its season opener. Kent hung with Kentucky out of the SEC and thumped MAC East member Buffalo 23-7 on Sept. 19.

Looking ahead, the rest of Ball State’s schedule is challenging to say the least. Ball State’s remaining six MAC opponents have a combined record of 18-8 and a combined conference record of 3-0. Ball State’s defense, which ranks third-to-last in the conference in total yards allowed and next to last in passing yards allowed, still has to face Ohio quarterbacks Tyler Tettleton and Derrius Vick, Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch and Toledo quarterback Terrance Owens. Tettleton is completing well over 66 percent of his passes through three games while Vick has completed over 65 percent of his passes. The two have combined to throw 12 touchdowns and three interceptions on the season. Lynch has a QB rating of 149.6 and averages over 211 passing yards per game and 109.5 rushing yards per contest, while Owens is one of three QBs in the MAC to surpass the 1,000-yard plateau this season.

Yes, a couple of wins over two legitimate BCS programs is a significant accomplishment for coach Pete Lembo and his team. Lembo has certainly changed the culture around here, and you can feel the vibe inside Scheumann Stadium each Saturday. I’m not disagreeing with that. But outside of increasing Ball State’s chances to make it to a bowl game come this winter and boost  its confidence as it resumes conference play, those wins don’t mean much.

Ultimately, Ball State’s season will be evaluated on how well it does in its conference, just like every other team in the country. And as I previously mentioned, wins, especially on the road, will be tough to come by. Success will be even more difficult if Lembo fails to shore up his subpar secondary that we’ve seen over the past four weeks.

Don’t get me wrong, Ball State is a much-improved program because of those two victories over BCS opponents. But so are a handful of other programs in the conference. Ohio went into Penn State and won 24-14 in the first week of the season. Last weekend,  Northern Illinois upset Kansas 30-23, Central Michigan triumphed over Iowa 32-31 and Western Michigan defeated Connecticut 30-24.

In a season where the rest of the MAC continues to prosper, it will be vital for Ball State to snag some wins over those other programs.

The beginning of Ball State’s real test begins Saturday afternoon at Dix Stadium in Kent, Ohio, and the rest of its schedule should make for an exciting and interesting journey.

Halftime: Ball State 10, South Florida 9

Not many, if any, experts had Ball State, of the Mid-American Conference, leading South Florida of the Big East Conference, 10-9 at halftime. But, this is college football and reality, anything can happen on any given Saturday afternoon.

With the score tied 3-3, the Cardinals drove down the field and sophomore running back Jahwan Edwards ran bullied his way into the end zone, giving the Cardinals a 10-3 lead. The touchdown was Edwards’ fifth of the season, and ties him for 10th all-time in career rushing touchdowns.

South Florida, behind senior quarterback B.J. Daniels, mirrored Ball State’s previous drive. On second-and-10 from the Ball State 15-yard line, Daniels dropped back in the pocket, paused and flipped the ball to junior running back Lamar Lindsey for a 15-yard touchdown.

The ensuing extra point attempt was the difference in the opening half, as the Cardinals’ Joel Cox blocked what would have been the game-tying point, further preserving the Cardinals’ one-point lead.

***

Behind a monstrous offensive line that averages over 303 pounds across the board, South Florida took the games opening drive and powered its way down the field. The Bulls ran the ball 15 times in 17 plays on their initial drive and amassed 50 yards en route to a 42-yard field goal off the foot of redshirt senior placekicker Maikon Bonani.

Ball State answered on its opening drive by marching down the field behind junior quarterback Keith Wenning, who was 3-for-4 for 44 yards before fifth-year senior placekicker Steven Schott booted a 39-yard field goal, knotting the game 3-3. Schott is now 18 of his last 19 field goal tried from 39-yards or less in his career.

South Florida presents big challenge for Ball State

Ball State better tighten the chinstraps on its bonnets, and be ready for a physical, nasty and tenacious South Florida team come Saturday afternoon.

We saw the Cardinals stomp Mid-American Conference West opponent Eastern Michigan on Aug. 30. We watched a robust Clemson bunch expose the Cardinals’ defense two weeks ago, and we crossed our fingers in the waning seconds before placekicker Steven Schott sent everyone home in Bloomington, IN., with a last-second, 42-yard game-winning field goal.

But the Bulls are no Eastern Michigan or Indiana. They’re a bigger, faster and rugged squad that’s looking to feast on the Cardinals, and spoil Family Weekend.

Since coach Skip Holtz took over in 2010, the Bulls have amassed a non-conference mark of 10-2, featuring a 23-20 triumph at No. 16 Notre Dame in 2011, and a 37-7 thumping vs. Ball State.

Over the last three years, the Bulls’ offense has had their way against non-conference opponents. In five non-conference games in 2010, the Bulls averaged 184.2 yards per game on the ground and 168 yards per game through the air. In 2011, the Bulls were even better in those areas, averaging 206 rushing yards per game and 262.2 passing yards per game in five non-conference games.

Through two non-conference games this season, the Bulls average 147 yards rushing and over 300 yards passing per game.

And despite dropping their Big East Conference opener 23-13 to Rutgers last Thursday night, the Bulls will arrive in Muncie hungry and determined to get back on track.

Their offense is capable of scoring in bunches. Senior quarterback B.J. Daniels threw for 2,604 yards in 2011, the third highest total in the Big East. And through three games this season, Daniels is averaging over eight yards per passing attempt.

It will be up to the Cardinals’ defensive line to put pressure on Daniels when he drops back in the pocket, and contain him when he tucks the ball and takes off.

Senior linebackers Travis Freeman and Tony Martin will need to be aggressive, and shed blockers to find the ball. It will be crucial for Freeman, Martin and junior Kenneth Lee to contain the Bulls’ feisty running game, preventing their monstrous offensive linemen from opening up running lanes for Daniels, senior running backs Demetris Murray and Lindsey Lamar, along with junior Marcus Shaw.

But the most glaring hole in the Cardinals’ defense is the secondary. The Cardinals are 115th in the nation in passing yards allowed per game, at 327. This unit was torched by Clemson quarterback Tahj Boyd, who threw for 229 yards and three touchdowns on Sept. 8. And the results weren’t much better against Indiana last week, when the combination of sophomore Cameron Coffman and true freshman Nate Sudfeld tossed for 423 yards and four touchdowns.

Coach Pete Lembo has remained firm in his belief of rotating multiple players in the secondary. Lembo has used three different combinations at both safety positions, and Saturday could mark the fourth with sophomore Brian Jones likely to get the nod at strong safety.

This unit is by far the weakest on this team, and after the dust settles Saturday night, we’ll know if this group has improved or regressed further.

The Bulls represent perhaps the biggest test of the season for Lembo, and we’ll see if he can get his team to rise to the challenge once more.

Tuesday Morning Backup QB

Good day. I hope you had an enjoyable Holiday weekend. Hopefully you got a chance to catch some of the action last Thursday night at Scheumann Stadium. If not, you missed out. Let’s get into some of the positives from Ball State’s 37-26 win over Eastern Michigan.

  • The motto “Rise Up” is no fluke, and the Cardinals proved it Thursday night…I mentioned this in my column, Poz’s Points over the weekend (http://bit.ly/S5jXEm). After heading into the locker room tied at 13-13, the Cardinals came out in the second half and completely dominated, which was encouraging to see, considering the relatively slow start in the opening 30 minutes.
  • Jahwan Edwards has solidified himself as a premiere running back on this team and in the Mid-American Conference…The true sophomore battered the Eagles’ defense all game long. He ran up and down the field at will, recording a career-high 202 yards and three touchdowns. He put this game on his shoulders. His 75-yard touchdown run on the second play from scrimmage to begin the third quarter altered the game significantly, giving the Cardinals the momentum and deflating what energy the Eagles had left in the tank. And Edwards was named MAC West division Player of the Week for his performance.
  • Steven Schott has a golden leg…Literally, the kid is “Mr. Clutch.” After nailing a game-winning career-long 44-yard field goal to beat Easter Michigan 33-30 last season, Schott booted a 52-yard kick, setting a new career-long against the Eagles last Thursday night.

Moving on…

One thing I didn’t like…

  • Too many penalties…Even though the game was for the most part under control, the Cardinals shot themselves in the foot too many times with foolish penalties. Receiver Willie Snead was flagged twice, once for holding and once for pass interference. That’s unacceptable, especially from a receiver. The holding penalty negated a 17-yard rush by Edwards on the opening drive. On BSU’s second drive, Snead’s pass interference penalty led to a field goal instead of what could have been a touchdown.

That’s all for now. Thanks for reading,

-Poz

-Poz