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.

BSU fans wanting free tickets to bowl game is ludicrous

With their beloved football team set to venture south for the Beef ‘O Brady’s bowl against Central Florida next week in St. Petersburg, Fla., Ball State students had the opportunity to purchase tickets for $20 as of Friday.

It’s a bargain for any college student seeking to spend a couple of days in one of the warmer climates of the country this time of year. And the atmosphere should be electric.

But the cries for free tickets have filled the air, and it’s making me sick to my stomach, honestly.

When news spread of Northern Illinois dishing out free tickets to students who are able to make the trip to Miami for the Discover Orange Bowl against ACC Champion Florida State on New Year’s Day, I could just imagine the immature, childish temper tantrums and grumbles coming from the Ball State fans.

Honestly, Ball State fans should be thankful they have a chance to purchase discounted tickets to the bowl game. I’m certain people will think there’s good reason to question Northern Illinois handing out free tickets to its bowl game, and how Ball State should do the same.

But Northern Illinois is playing in a BCS game. Ball State isn’t. And for good reason.

Unless you’ve been completely delusional this season, then you have no right to make such a drastic and downright foolish complaint about getting free tickets to a bowl game. First of all, students had their chance to get discounted tickets. Tickets don’t come much cheaper than $20, folks.

Here’s the generous deal Ball State athletics presented to its student body:  https://apps.bsu.edu/CommunicationsCenter/Story.aspx?MessageGuid=a220977d-d2cb-4205-9fbd-ef0e44e1386f

Take a look at the final note in italics: “Please Note: In the event that the minimum number of participants (36) has not been met by Friday, December 14, 2012 at 10 a.m., Ball State Athletics reserves the right to cancel the tour. Guests who reserved the bus trip will receive a full refund and will be notified via email.”

What a shame that would be for Ball State Athletics to cancel a bus tour they planned themselves because they failed to lure 36 students hope on board.

If you’re a Ball State football fan, then ask yourself this. Did I really give my best efforts to support my team this season? Did I rally behind my team when they lost to Clemson Sept. 8, Kent State, Sept. 29, or Northern Illinois Oct. 6? Did I make it a priority to show up at Scheumann Stadium for every one of Ball State’s five home games this season?

If you answer “yes” to these questions, then you are one of a small pool of true and loyal Ball State fans. I can imagine Ball State fans scowling at me for writing this post. But, hey, it’s the honest truth.

In 2012, Ball State had a combined 64,649 fans come through Scheumann Stadium, an average of 12,929 fans per game. That ranks 10th in the Mid-American Conference — ahead of first-year member UMASS (10,901/game), Akron (9,275/game) and Eastern Michigan (4,634/game).

That’s ridiculous, and embarrassing. So let me get this straight. Ball State fans don’t show up for home games, but want free tickets to the bowl game? Good heavens.

According an article by BleacherReport, Scheumann Stadium is the second-most least-feared college football stadium in the country. Hmm … I wonder why. Attendance wouldn’t have anything to do with it, right?

It’s sad, really. Ball State coach Pete Lembo turned in the best season (9-3) since the magical undefeated 2008 campaign and gets virtually zero support from the fan base. Yes, I realize Ball State is in the MAC and is considered a Mid-Major program. But that doesn’t mean fans shouldn’t show up, especially when their team is winning.

It’s a shame that Ball State has a chance to make history by winning its first-ever bowl game, and it appears the fans don’t want any part of it.

Oh well. Party on, Ball State.

Backup quarterback lifted Ball State over Ohio on Senior Day

*Editor’s note: This is was a story I wrote earlier in the semester. Thought I’d share it with you. Enjoy.

Prior to Ball State’s 52-27 rout over Ohio Nov. 14, Kelly Page saw the field one time.

He was a member of the hands team for an onside kick in what resulted in a 41-30 victory at Central Michigan, Oct. 20.

Page envisioned getting a few reps near the end of the game against the Bobcats, but never thought he’d be at the center of attention, much less bring Ball State (8-3, 5-2) back twice in a pivotal Mid-American Conference game.

“It went through my head, but nothing like this,” Page said.

After junior starting quarterback Keith Wenning caught a 17-yard pass on a trick play from wide receiver Jamill Smith, Wenning was tackled by a Bobcats’ defender and landed awkwardly on his right ankle. The injury sidelined him for the rest of the game.

In stepped Page – the senior backup quarterback – with less than five minutes remaining in what proved to be the biggest game of his life. On his first play from scrimmage, with Ohio clinging to a 17-14 lead, Page darted seven yards into the end zone, putting Ball State ahead 21-17 at halftime.

The play was one of many leading to the Cardinals’ noteworthy performance against one of the best defenses in the conference, and left Ball State coach Pete Lembo in awe.

“I’m just taken back by what an amazing story this is,” Lembo said. “What you just saw was pretty special.”

With Page set to direct the offense in the second half, Lembo said the offensive game plan wasn’t altered at halftime. Rather, Lembo felt like his team needed to run the ball more efficiently in the final two quarters.

“We needed to stay on the field, keep pounding (the running game) and try to maintain time of possession,” Lembo said. “Kelly ran the offense. He ran it well. (I’m) extremely proud of him.”

On Ohio’s opening drive of the second half, junior running back Beau Blankenship took the handoff from junior quarterback Tyler Tetleton and sprinted 58 yards into the end zone, giving the Bobcats a 24-21 advantage.

With his team trailing again, Page wasn’t rattled. Neither were the rest of the Cardinals – it took them just 40 seconds to respond.

Sophomore running back Jahwan Edward dashed 68 yards to the Ohio 3-yard line, setting up a three-yard touchdown pass from Page to junior tight end Zane Fakes, putting Ball State ahead 28-24. The scoring play was the first of two touchdown receptions for Fakes.

Ball State added a field goal from Steven Schott to widen the gap to 31-24 before Ohio converted a 34-yard field goal off the foot of pace kicker Matt Weller to narrow the deficit to 31-27. It was then when the Ball State defense put a stop to the Ohio running game.

After yielding 208 rushing yards through three quarters, Ball State senior linebacker Travis Freeman and the rest of the defense held Ohio to just 59 total yards and three points in the fourth quarter. Freeman said the ability to maintain Ohio’s explosive running game was all about having the right mindset to execute on defense.

“We put our foot in the ground and we (stopped) the run,” Freeman said. “Guys just wanted to get the job done and they did it.”

With the Ohio offense stuck in neutral, Ball State continued to dominate, scoring three fourth-quarter touchdowns, including Page’s second touchdown pass to Fakes – this time for a 13-yard score, giving the Cardinals a 45-27 advantage. Another touchdown later and Ball State secured its fifth consecutive victory.

After the game, Page found his mother, Kim, in the stands and motioned her to come down to the field. The two hugged for a brief moment, bringing the Ball State quarterback to tears.

“My mother is my backbone,” Page said, fighting back the tears. “She’s had my back in everything that I’ve ever done. That moment was something that I’ll never forget.”

Neither will Ball State.

Lembo a candidate for Boston College

Earlier today, news spread surrounding Boston College’s coaching search. Boston College has trimmed its list of candidates down to three with hopes of announcing the heir to Frank Spaziani, who was canned after one of the worst seasons in program history.

According to ESPN.com, the final three candidates are Ball State’s Pete Lembo, Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and New Orleans Saints offensive line coach Aaron Kromer.

Diaco, who in my opinion, has to be the frontrunner for the job, is coming off a steller season with the top-ranked Irish, who will square off with No. 2 Alabama in the BCS National Championship game on Jan. 7 in Miami. Diaco’s defense is the No. 1 in the country in points allowed, averaging 10.3 per game. Notre Dame’s rushing defense is fourth-best in the nation, allowing just over 92 yards per game, while its passing defense is 21st in the country, yielding just over 192 yards per contest. Diaco is surrounded by extraordinary talent headlined by senior linebacker and Heisman Trophy finalist Manti Te’o, who amassed 103 tackles this season and seven interceptions, second-most in the country and tops for a linebacker.

In just two seasons, Lembo has brought Ball State back from the college football abyss, and turned it into a winner. After narrowly missing out on a bowl game with a 6-6 mark in 2011, Lembo headed Ball State to an unpredictable 9-3 record this season and a date with Central Florida of Conference USA in the Beef ‘O Brady bowl in St. Petersburg, Fla. on Dec. 21. Lembo is 14-9 overall and 10-6 in Mid-American Conference contests as coach at Ball State and boasts the No. 1 recruiting class in the conference for next season.

Kromer is in the midst of his fifth season with Saints. He’s spent the last three seasons as the offensive line coach, while having served as an assistant coach in the NFL since 2000. Throughout his NFL tenure, Kromer has developed seven Pro Bowl offensive linemen, including three in 2011. The Saints have allowed just 70 sacks over the last three seasons, the third-fewest total in the NFL.

What this means for Ball State … 

Right now, it means very little. Obviously, I’m not going to make any rash judgments or predictions. The reality is Lembo is a candidate for the Boston College job, and he has a right to explore his options. Lembo is an East Coast guy, who graduated from Georgetown in 1992 before earning his M.A. at Albany in ’94. He coached at Elon and Lehigh. So, he’s got connections and is very familiar with that region of the country. I’m not saying Lembo will abandon what he’s already built at Ball State. But it’s certainly a possibility if not this year, then next year. Honestly, I don’t believe Lembo will take the BC job because there’s too many pieces already in place for Ball State  next season. Running backs Jahwan Edwards and Horactio Banks, along with quarterback Keith Wenning, tight end Zane Fakes and receivers Willie Snead and KeVonn Mabon will be returning in 2013. Win the Beef O’Brady’s bowl, mix in a possible MAC Championship and another bowl win, and Lembo could have himself quite the resumé this time next year.

As we wait for BC to announce its new coach, I’m sure most of us will be eying the newspaper headlines, Internet pages and Twitter vigorously in the coming few days.

Extra Points: Going Bowling

For weeks, the rumor mills were swirling, flinging as much feces against the wall in the hopes that Ball State’s resumé  would stick in the minds of the higher powers who send out numerous bowl game invitations to programs across the country.

The wait is officially over. Ball State will square off with Central Florida in the Beef ‘O Brady’s bowl on Dec. 21 in St. Petersburg, Fla. at 7:30 p.m. (EST). This game will cap an incredible season for Ball State sophomore coach Pete Lembo and his staff. With an overall mark of 9-3, and a 6-2 record in the Mid-American Conference, it would be unfathomable to leave Lembo and his program hanging out to dry during bowl season for the second consecutive season.

That said, here’s a quick scouting report on Central Florida… The Knights (9-4, 7-1 Conference USA) lost to Tulsa (10-3, 7-1) 33-27 in the C-USA Championship game on Saturday. The Knights have dropped two of their final three games this season, including a pair of losses to Tulsa. (Tulsa defeated UCF 23-21 on Nov. 17).

  • In terms of national rankings, UCF is 71st in passing yards, averaging 220 per game; 46th in rushing yards, averaging 178.7 per game; 27th in points for, 35.2 per game; and 29th in points against, 22.5 per game.
  • UCF claimed its fourth C-USA East division title this season since joining the league in 2005. This marks UCF’s second appearance in the Beef O’ Brady bowl.  UCF lost to Rutgers 45-24 in 2009. UCF will also be making its fifth appearance in a bowl game in its last eight seasons, all of which have come under the direction of coach George O’Leary, who is in the midst of his ninth season at the helm for the Knights. O’Leary is 111-88 as a head coach and is 3-5 in bowl games for his career.
  • Ball State and UCF have met three times, with the Cardinals owning  the 2-1 edge. Ball State defeated UCF 31-10 on Sept. 21, 1996 at Scheumann Stadium. Two years later, UCF defeated Ball State 37-14 at home. And in 2004, Ball State triumphed 21-17 at Scheumann Stadium, when both programs were members of the MAC
  • UCF boasts the second-best offense in C-USA, amassing 62 touchdowns and nine field goals this season. UCF is third in C-USA in rushing offense with 31 touchdowns and 4.79 yards per attempt.
  • The Knights are the fifth-best red-zone scoring offense in C-USA (47 scores on 56 attempts), and 45th nationally in that department.
  • Defensively, UCF has allowed the fewest points per game in C-USA (22.5), and passing yards allowed per game (217.8). Nationally, UCF is eighth in the nation in fewest penalties per game (4).

UCF isn’t just another game on the schedule for Ball State. UCF presents one final challenge for Lembo and Ball State. It will be a final opportunity for Ball State to rise up once again. It will be another chance for Lembo to bring this program into unprecedented territory. Amidst the hype and publicity, this bowl game is another opening for Ball State to shine–to put the finishing touch on this historical and unpredicted season.

Moving on … I had a chance to chat with athletic directer Bill Scholl Monday night, and in case some of you were curious (I was) as to whether Ball State received early invitations to other bowl games, Scholl provided an interesting response.

“It really doesn’t work that way,” Scholl said. “For the bowl games that don’t have automatic qualifiers, they kind of go one at a time. It’s more of a selection. Once they pick Ball State, they call us and invite us. We could say no, I guess, but we certainly wouldn’t do that. It’s not like we got invitations from three or four different bowls.”

When asked if he thought Ball State got snubbed from the bigger MAC tie-in bowls, Scholl said he was content on where Ball State ended up.

“The two division winners (Kent State and Northern Illinois) typically go,” he said. “We could certainly make a the argument that we finished third. I’m very comfortable with where we ended up. I think we ended up in a great spot.

Regarding the payout for the Beef ‘O Brady’s bowl, Scholl said “the payout was not really a factor.”

More from Scholl on Ball State heading to a bowl game:

“I think it’s a tremendous sign of how far our program has come,” he said. “I’m so happy for our student-athletes and our coaching staff. The student-athletes who have been here more so than the younger kids have been through a lot. To get it to 6-6 last year and actually be bowl eligible … and although they weren’t selected and then to take this step forward and be 9-3 and now be playing one of the best teams in Conference USA, I’m thrilled for them. I’m proud of how far they’ve brought the program in a very short period of time. I think it’s a great sign for our future.”

That’s all for now …

Thanks for reading.


Extinguishing the Lembo rumors

This time of year for college football is perhaps the most anticipated. Conference championships hang in the balance, BCS bids are on the line and bowl season is near the horizon.

That said, as we approach the end of November, this time of year could also be coined as the most nerve-racking, taxing and grueling time for coaches and athletics directors. Coaches are being shown the exit door faster than high-speed police chases. It’s remarkable, really. But it’s the nature of the sport. It’s the harsh reality of this industry.

Derek Dooley’s neon orange pants didn’t cut it in Tennessee, as he was cut loose. Arkansas’ John L. Smith was axed after a porous 4-8 inaugural season in the Southeastern Conference. New Mexico State’s DeWayne Walker, who has amassed a pitiful 9-29 mark in three seasons at the helm, is certainly feeling the heat from the powers above.

Colorado fired Jon Embree following a putrid 4-21 record after two seasons. North Carolina State changed direction by cutting Tom O’Brien after going 40-25 in six seasons and just 22-26 in the ACC. N.C. State finished a disappointing 7-5 after defeating Louisville in the Belk Bowl last season. Auburn parted ways with Gene Chizik, just two years removed from a national championship. The Tigers rounded out 2012 with a 3-9 mark. On Monday, Purdue relieved Danny Hope of his duties after four seasons, which saw the Boilermakers compile a 22-27 record and a 13-19 mark in the Big Ten. Boston College cut ties with Frank Spaziani following one of the worst seasons in program history, 2-10.

With so many voids to fill, athletic directors across the country will be probing the smaller, less glamorous programs with hopes of securing their next coach.

Among the list of coaching rumors is Ball State’s Pete Lembo. Clearly, these are just rumors and pure speculation and we shouldn’t take this out of context or go into panic mode. This is what happens when coaches get fired and schools are on the hunt for successors. It’s the nature of the business. It happens in every sport, including the professional level.

In all honesty, I find the perception of Lembo landing in Tennessee or Auburn extremely humorous and highly entertaining. It makes for good gossip at the water cooler or the break room at the office. I don’t believe it’s necessary to make too much out of these rumors, because nothing has been reported, much less confirmed at this point.

That said, here’s my take. I don’t think Lembo is going anywhere. Sure, Lembo will recruited by some of the bigger fish in the pond. If you’re Purdue, you’d have to be completely silly not to go knocking on Lembo’s front door. As for Lembo venturing to the SEC? I don’t buy it one bit. Here’s why. Lembo simply isn’t ready for a job this demanding and of this stature. Also, Lembo’s resumé isn’t flashy enough to attract the attention of an SEC program–at least not yet anyway. Lembo has accumulated an overall record of 14-9 at Ball State in his two seasons at the helm. Historically speaking, Lembo has resurrected three programs as a head coach. From 2001-05, Lembo headed Lehigh to a 44-14 mark before bolting for Elon. From 2006-10, Lembo amassed an overall mark of 35-22 at Elon before former Ball State athletics director Tom Collins brought him to Muncie.

So for all of you who believe Lembo will take on a more prestigious coaching position at a big-time program, think again. As far as I’m concerned, Lembo is staying put right here in Muncie for the time being.

Ball State vs. No. 23 Toledo: Quick Hits

Good evening from  the Glass Bowl in Toledo, Ohio for this pivotal Mid-American Conference matchup between Ball State and Toledo. Ball State is looking to notch its seventh win on the season, almost assuring it an invite to a bowl game, while Toledo is looking to continue its dominance in conference play after having gone 19-2 in its last 21 conference games.

Few thoughts on this matchup …

  • Toledo is in the top echelon of the MAC. After falling 24-17 in a heartbreaking overtime loss to begin 2012,  the Rockets have won eight straight, improving to (9-1, 6-0) and trail Northern Illinois by a half game in the MAC West. This team hasn’t bluffed so far this season, and I don’t expect it to lay down and drop an egg against visiting Ball State. This team is too good, too talented, too driven. Running back David Fluellen rushed for a career-high 228 yards against Buffalo, topping the century mark for the fifth time this season. The junior is averaging over 178 yards through the last five games. Digging even further, Fluellen is sixth in the country with 1,181 yards and sixth in yards per game (131.2). Toledo has a sound running game to say the least.
  • Toledo also boasts one of the top defensive units in the conference. The Rockets have jammed opposing receivers at the line of scrimmage and plugged up the passing lanes for opposing quarterbacks. The results have been enormous. The Rockets have tallied 12 interceptions this season, second most in the conference and four behind conference-leading Kent State, with 16. Linebacker Dan Molls leads the nation with 116 tackles, an average of 12.9 per game.
  • Ball State must get off to a quick start. If not, we could be in for a long night. Keith Wenning needs to move the offense efficiently down the field in the opening drives to set the tone for the game. Ball State must score touchdowns. Too many times have we seen this team falter inside the red zone when threatening. Execution is essential.
  • How will Ball State respond to playing under the national spotlight? Personally, I don’t think it affects Ball State one bit. Coach Pete Lembo simply wont allow it. Ball State will need to play like it has for the majority of the season–consistent and balanced football.

The season has come down to a three-round fight for Ball State, with it needing to win just round. Round one begins tonight.

Ball State must respond against Northern Illinois

Good afternoon to you … I hope your weekend is off to a good start. Another Saturday full of college football is on tap, so without further interruption, let’s get started on some Ball State thoughts as it awaits a very important matchup against Northern Illinois.

After suffering an ugly, heartbreaking 45-43 loss to Mid-American Conference East division foe Kent State at Dix Stadium last weekend, Ball State needs to respond this afternoon against a feisty and much-improved Northern Illinois squad. This game shouldn’t disappoint, either. Both Ball State and Northern Illinois are in the top echelon of the MAC in offensive production. The likelihood of a shootout is probable with these two explosive offenses.

Through five games, Ball State averages 35.8 points per game and NIU averages 35.6 per contest. Ball State is second in the conference in total yards per game, with an astounding average of 477.2. Ball State trails only Akron (492.4 yards per contest) in that category.

Make no mistake, NIU will be no easy task for Ball State. NIU is first in the conference in rushing yards (1,160) and 17th in the nation with an average of 232 yards per game. As news broke earlier in the week of coach Pete Lembo deciding to go with a nickel defensive scheme against NIU, it’ll certainly be interesting to see how defensive coordinator Jay Bateman will operate with cornerback Armond Dehaney and strong safety J.C. Wade among the three inactives for Ball State. Last week against Kent State, we saw Ball State get burned on virtually every blitz it ran. And in order for Ball State to contain NIU’s running attack, it may need to stack some extra bodies in the box. But, with the absence of Dehaney and Wade, Bateman could opt to use double coverage and disguise his schemes.

Another concern I have is the health of guard Kit O’Brien, who has been dealing with a lingering ankle sprain and is listed as questionable for today’s game. O’Brien is a key part of the Ball State offense, most notably the run game. He’s one reason why Ball State is among the top programs in the country in rushing offense.

Stealing a victory over NIU is crucial for Ball State. It would instill a great deal of confidence in this group and put it back on track in the Western division.

As always, thanks for reading …


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.