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.

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