Taking a look at how the MAC fared in 2012

With No. 2 Alabama dismantling No. 1 Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship game in Miami Gardens, Fla. Monday night, let’s take a look at how the Mid-American Conference faired in 2012 and in bowl games.

First off, the MAC had one of the best seasons in conference history.

  • Eight teams (Northern Illinois, Ball State, Kent State, Ohio, Toledo, Western Michigan, Central Michigan and Akron) averaged over 26 points per game. In 2011, just six teams (Toledo, Northern Illinois, Western Michigan, Temple, Ohio and Bowling Green) that averaged over 26 points per game. In 2010, four teams (Northern Illinois, Western Michigan, Toledo and Ohio) averaged over 26 points per game.
  • According to cfbstats.com, all 13 teams in the MAC combined to score 569 touchdowns — the most combined touchdowns scored in the last five years years — and 195 field goals. In 2011, the MAC combined for 555 TDs and 180 FGs; in 2010, the MAC combined for 502 TDs and 140 FGs; in 2009, the MAC combined for 495 TDs and 174 FGs; in 2008, the MAC combined for 589 TDs and 175 FGs; and in 2007, the MAC combined for 515 TDs and 186 FGs. The MAC’s 569 total TDs ranks fifth among all conferences in Division I. Only the SEC (685), the PAC-12 (623), the BigXII (581) and CUSA (573) recorded more combined touchdowns than the MAC. That’s pretty impressive considering the recruiting and coaching advantages of the three aforementioned BCS conferences.
  • Speaking of offense in terms of production, it was quite the year for the MAC. In terms of national rankings, five MAC teams ranked in the top 50 in scoring offense: NIU finished 13th in the nation with 38.6 points/game; Ball State finished tied with Georgia Tech for 33rd in the nation with 33.6 points/game; Kent State finished 35th in the nation with 33.6 points per game; Ohio finished tied with Northwestern for 42nd in the nation with 31.7 points per game; and Toledo finished tied with South Carolina, Duke and East Carolina for 44th in the nation with 31.5 points/game. In 2011, only four MAC teams that finished in the top 50 in scoring offense: Toledo (42.3 pts/game, 8th), NIU (38.3 pts/game, 12th), Western Michigan (35.3 pts/game, 18th) and Ohio (30.5 pts/game, 41st). And only two teams finished in the top 50 in scoring offense in 2010: NIU (38 pts/game, 12th) WMU (32.3 pts/game, tied for 27th with Arizona State).
  • In terms of rushing offense, six MAC teams rounded out 2012 in the top 50 — which comes as no surprise. NIU finished 12th in the nation, averaging 238.21 yards/game; Kent State finished 18th in the nation, averaging 225.79 yards/game; Ohio finished 27th, averaging 203.31 yards/game; BSU finished 28th in the nation, averaging 203.23 yards/game; Toledo finished 35th in the nation, averaging 193.23 yards/game; and Buffalo finished 47th in the country, averaging 176.67 yards/game. The MAC boasted only four teams that ranked in the top 50 at the conclusion of the 2011 season in rushing offense: NIU (234.14 yards/game, 12th), Eastern Michigan (218.33 yards/game, 14th), Toledo (213.62 yards/game, 17th) and Ohio (196.36 yards per game, 24th).
  • In terms of passing offense, five MAC teams ranked in the top 50: Akron finished 16th in the country with 312.8 yards/game; Miami (OH) finished 22nd in the nation with 298.7 yards/game; WMU finished 28th in the nation with 289.8 yards/game; BSU finished 47th in the nation with 254 yards/game; and Toledo finished 48th in the country with 252 yards/game. There were six teams that finished in the top 50 in passing offense in 2011. Despite the slight drop off in 2012, that’s still a pretty remarkable statistic nonetheless.
  • Finally, as far as total offense, the MAC saw six teams finish in the top 50: NIU finished 20th in the nation with 469.6 yards/game; BSU finished 27th with 457.2 yards/game — Both NIU and BSU averaged more yards per game than back-to-back National Champion Alabama (445.2 yards/game, 31st) in 2012; Toledo finished 32nd in the country with 445.2 yards/game; Ohio finished 33rd in the nation with 444.8 yards/game; WMU finished 38th with 439.3 yards/game; and Akron finished 45th in the country with 427.2 yards/game.

Quick thought on the Zips. The Zips averaged nearly 430 yards of offense in 2012, yet they finished with a porous 1-11 mark. With that kind of offensive production, it’s amazing how the Zips averaged just over 26 points per game, while yielding over 35 per game.

Moving On …

The MAC featured seven players who rushed for 1,000 yards or more in 2012. All seven rank in the top 50. NIU junior quarterback Jordan Lynch amassed 1,815 yards and 19 TDs, fourth in the country; Ohio junior running back Beau Blankenship tallied 1,604 yards and 15 TDs on the season, ninth in the nation; Toledo junior running back David Fluellen totaled 1,498 yards and 13 TDs, 12th in the nation; CMU junior running back Zurlon Tipton notched 1,492 yards and 19 TDs, 13th  in the country; Kent State running backs junior Dri Archer scampered for 1,429 yards and 16 TDs, 18th in the nation and Traylon Durham rushed for 1,316 yards and 14 TDs, 26th in the country; and BSU sophomore running back Jahwan Edwards ran for 1,410 yards and 14 TDs, 20th in the country.

That’s extremely impressive for the MAC and next year should only get better for this conference.

Moving On …

After witnessing a remarkable regular season for the MAC, bowl season proved to be a tough road for the vast majority of teams that saw post-season action. Toledo hung with No. 22 Utah State of the Western Athletic Conference for three quarters, trailing 13-6 before the Aggies exploded for 28 fourth-quarter points, and cruised to a 41-15 rout over the Rockets in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. We all know what went down in St. Pete in the Beef ‘O Brady’s Bowl. Ball State was smothered by Central Florida of Conference USA, 38-17. CMU clung to a 24-21 victory over Western Kentucky of the Sun Belt Conference in the Little Caesars Bowl. No. 24 San Jose State of the WAC outlasted Bowling Green 29-20 in the Military Bowl. Ohio took care of Louisiana-Monroe of the Sun Belt 45-14 in the Independence Bowl. No. 15 NIU hung with No. 12 Florida State of the Atlantic Coastal Conference for three quarters, before the Seminoles offense took over, routing the Huskies 31-10 in the Discover Orange Bowl. Finally, No. 25 Kent State laid an egg to Arkansas State of the Sun Belt 17-10 in the GoDaddy.com Bowl.

If you kept count at home, the MAC finished the bowl season with a 2-5 mark — a disappointing finish to such a fantastic and noteworthy 2012 season. I understand the disappointment. The majority of the MAC teams that saw post-season play were outmatched by their opponents. There were three bowl games that saw MAC opponents triumph by 21 or more points.

I wouldn’t look too much into how the MAC finished. It’s college football. It’s the nature of the sport. Losses are part of the game. It’s important to look ahead to the future, because it’s certainly bright for the MAC — the conference that proved it can compete with anyone in the country.

Ball State’s loss to UCF in Beef O’Brady’s Bowl; the good and bad

Good day to you. Hope you enjoyed the holidays with family and friends. This is rather late, because of a prolonged back surgery I had earlier this week. So, bear with me.

After witnessing the worst performance by Ball State since the Stan Parrish era, there’s much (both good and bad) to discuss and analyze about this young football team, what went down inside Tropicana Field Dec. 21 and what the future holds.

First, the bad… 

Ball State was embarrassed in all three phases against Central Florida at the most inopportune time. There was so much hype for this contest — the biggest challenge of the season — for coach Pete Lembo and his program.

Prior to the shellacking dished out by Central Florida, I’ve never worried about the pressures surrounding this Ball State team. The Cardinals played numerous games this season that were surrounded by much hype and publicity. And they prevailed in the majority of those contests. After getting thrashed at Clemson Sept. 8, Ball State entered a hostile environment at Indiana the following week and prevailed in the waning seconds. After dropping two straight to Kent State and Northern Illinois, Ball State rallied in overtime on Homecoming against Western Michigan, triumphing 30-24. On Election Night, Ball State arrived in Toledo and defeated the top 25-ranked Rockets in thrilling fashion to complete a perfect 3-0 road swing late in the season.

But in the most important contest of the season, Ball State stumbled and tumbled into the dark abyss that we witnessed during the two dreadful years with Parish at the helm.

For those of you who are die-hard Ball State fans, you can rip me all you want. I’m only saying it how it is. Nothing more, nothing less. And Ball State got whooped, embarrassed on national television. With about a month to prepare for this game, Ball State squandered an opportunity to make history by winning its first-ever bowl game.

From the opening kickoff, you could sense Ball State wasn’t prepared for this game. And it certainly showed.

I’m sure people will say that their beloved Cardinals were more than prepared, and just had an off-day, or were beaten by a superior opponent. I laugh at those who are so gullible to believe that nonsense. That’s rubbish. After watching this team light up foes both in the Mid-American Conference and non-conference all season long, you’re telling me that this team was defeated by a greater team? I don’t buy that one bit. Central Florida had a good season, don’t get me wrong. But they certainly weren’t unbeatable.

The Ball State offense that averaged 35 points per game — the one we’ve all been accustomed to — was nowhere to be seen. The same offense that averaged over 28 first downs per game was held to just 23. The same running game that averaged over 214 yards per game was kept hidden in the dark, amassing a porous 71 yards on 24 attempts, or 3 yards per carry.

Perhaps the offense left its game in Muncie, Ind.

How can an offense that boasts one of the more dominant rushing attacks in the country be so timid? Running backs Jahwan Edwards and Horactio Banks combined for 99 yards on 19 carries and zero touchdowns. When Central Florida jumped out to 13-0 lead with under four minutes to go in the first quarter, Ball State was running the ball effectively. On the first drive of the game, Edwards had a 3-yard run; on the second drive, Edwards had runs of 4 and 8 yards. In the second quarter, Banks had a pair of 4-yard runs and a 2-yard run. This set up the ultimate fate of Ball State in this game. Down 21-7 and the game still within reach, Ball State had the ball at its own 14-yard line. The Cardinals were moving the ball against the Knights defense. Edwards’ 27-yard scamper on 3rd-and-5 from the Central Florida 40-yard line set up a 1st-and-10 from the UCF 13. Thanks to a pass interference penalty on UCF, Ball State had a 1st-and-goal from the UCF 10. Instead of pounding the ball like it had done successfully earlier in the drive, offensive coordinator Rich Skrosky called four consecutive pass plays. The result: three attempts, zero completions and a sack for a loss of 11 yards. Oh, and placekicker Steven Schott botched a chip shot from 35 yards.

This drive summed up the game for Ball State, and was ultimately the deciding factor.

It was clear that junior quarterback Keith Wenning wasn’t fully healthy just five weeks after having surgery on his ankle. Wenning wasn’t his usual self from the get-go. Everyone in the stadium knew it, but Lembo and Skrosky remained oblivious, failing to lean on their dominant running game. It still puzzles me why Wenning managed to fire off 35 pass attempts on a bum ankle.

It’s justifiable to say that Ball State was forced to become one dimensional early and often, playing from behind the entire game. This was due to the horrendous defense. This unit was quite hideous to say the least. Ball State made Central Florida quarterback Blake Bortles look like an All-American. Instead of staying honest and maintaining their gap integrity, the Ball State defensive line was pushed around like a dummy sled, allowing Bortles and and running backs Latavius Murray and Storm Johnson to run wild. Bortles, Murray and Johnson combined for 201 yards on 36 carries and two touchdowns.

I guess I really shouldn’t be surprised. Ball State boasted the 108th-ranked rushing defense in the nation. Yes, 108th out of 124 teams. That’s offensive and downright abysmal.

The pass defense wasn’t much better. I’ve been questioning defensive coordinator Jay Bateman’s scheme all season. And he was exploited against UCF Friday night. It’s hard to fathom having your defensive backs line up 15-plus yards off receivers each and every play. Bortles recognized the soft coverage and exploited the Ball State defense, passing for 272 yards and three touchdowns. Unbelievable.

How about the Ball State tackling? … Ughh .. Sigh…

Ball State is now 0-7-1 all-time in bowl games. In 1965 in the Grantland Rice Bowl, Ball State and Tennessee State tied 14-14; two years later in the same bowl, Ball State fell 27-13 to Eastern Kentucky; in the 1989 California Raisin Bowl, Fresno State pounded Ball State 27-6; in the 1993 Las Vegas Bowl, Utah State held on 42-33 for the win; in the 1996 Las Vegas Bowl, Nevada squeaked by with an 18-15 win; in the 2007 International Bowl, Rutgers won 52-30; in the 2008 GMAC Bowl, Tulsa cruised to a 45-13 victory; and Central Florida coasted to a 38-17 victory in the Beef O’ Brady’s Bowl Dec. 21.

The good… 

Yes, the loss to Central Florida is both disheartening and frustrating in every aspect. Ball State deserved a better fate than what it got. Some of you will question whether I believe this. That’s fine. But this team deserved a better finish to such a remarkable season.

In just his second year at the helm, Lembo has accomplished a rare feat. In 2011, there were 24 programs that began the season under new direction. Of those 24 coaches hired in 2011, 17 are/were with their current team. In terms of the overall record from their first two years, Lembo ranks 9th out of 17, with a record of 15-10. In terms of the overall records from their first year on the job, Lembo boasted the 7th-best record out of 24 coaches during their first full season (2012) with their new team.

We mustn’t forget the history Ball State made this season. It won nine games, defeated a pair of BCS opponents (Indiana, South Florida) and knocked off a top 25 team (Toledo).

Perhaps the most important aspect to take away from the loss to UCF is that Ball State will be returning a lot of playmakers in 2013, including Wenning, Edwards, Banks, tight end Zane Fakes, receivers Willie Snead and KeVonn Mabon, defensive tackle Nathan Ollie and defensive end Jonathan Newsome.

While the loss to UCF last Friday is still fresh in your mind, take a second and consider where this team came from. Lembo inherited a program that was coming off an abysmal two years under the direction of Parrish, who amassed a dismal record of 6-18.