Based on the last post I put up, you’d think I wouldn’t have spent Saturday’s games on pins and needles as the Cardinals got down early, stormed back late, and held on in the final moments to win another MAC contest against the Central Michigan Chippewas. That, unfortunately, was easier said than done. The game itself was certainly a tale of two halves for the Cards, as the first half was infinitely infuriating save for several special teams highlights. Defensively, the Cardinals were gashed through the air despite having both safeties in Josh Howard and Sean Baker in the lineup which was not only frustrating, it was extremely surprising. The Chips’ Ryan threw for a career-high 436 yards and the Chips also had a 100-yard rusher in Zurlon Tipton, a season-high for him as well. The Cardinal defense has been extremely consistent against similarly talented teams this season, so I will optimistically chalk those numbers up to catching streaky CMU on one of their hot days. The fact that BSU was able to overcome that sort of offensive explosion is something I’m not used to, but it was good to see.
Offensively, the Cardinals struggled early to find their stride, and it became obvious that the Lembo system is predicated on the success of the rush or at least the threat of success, something that the Cardinals were not able to do on Saturday. Both Barrington Scott and Jahwan Edwards turned in unimpressive stat lines but the CMU defense did play considerably better than I expected. The passing game for the Cards in the first half wasn’t much better, as Keith Wenning and the receiving corps just seemed a bit out of sync. That’s an easy write off for me, given the youth throughout the offensive depth chart since the only thing consistent from most younger players is their inconsistency. The second half was a bit of a different story, and Wenning finished with 325 yards and 3 TDs. Most impressive for me was Jack Tomlinson’s 6 grabs for 109 yards, season-highs in both. It presents even more matchup problems for opposing defenses as the choice of who to focus on coverage on becomes more murky. Briggs Orsbon has been the primary target this season with 35 receptions, but there are five other players with 20+ receptions. Failure to cover any of the receivers for the Cardinals could be disastrous for a defense, as this BSU passing game isn’t a one-trick pony.
The star unit on this particular day and the one arguably most responsible for the win though was the special teams. In the kick return game, Jamill Smith averaged over 38 yards per return, and that’s a considerably shorter field than the Cards have been used to. Setting up an offense with that sort of starting position creates opportunities for the Cards they wouldn’t have otherwise. Scott Kovanda again helped BSU live up to the Punter U moniker averaging just north of 46 yards per. That sort of field flippage when the offense sputters means there’s a bit of a safety net should a performance like Saturday happen on the offensive side of the ball. Placekickers got in on the action as well, as Steven Schott was perfect on his one field goal and all four of his extra points, and Scott Secor was able to convert a fake punt with a 28-yard scamper, proving not only that Pete Lembo isn’t afraid of a gutsy call, but that the continued statements about special teams in the offseason and fall camp were legitimate. It goes to show that when other areas of the team are struggling, special teams precision can at minimum keep the game from getting out of hand, which it easily could have done.
There are things to be concerned about for sure. CMU is in that second-tier of MAC programs at best, and our inability to exert dominance from the opening kickoff is a bit troubling. Teams like Eastern Michigan or Western Michigan aren’t’ quite as inconsistent as CMU and the opportunities gifted to the Cards to get back in it won’t be as easy to grab. Defensively, if this was a blip in the radar, so be it, but you can bet that Toledo and WMU are licking their chops to get a crack at their own career-high day passing. But the most frustrating thing had nothing to do with the team, the halftime deficit, or the defensive struggles. The most disconcerting thing had to do with the stands surrounding the field and the lack of derrieres occupying those stands. To rail against the crowd, fan support, or attendance at this point would be beating a dead horse, and frankly, I’m just about done wasting my breath or energy trying to explain, fix, or adjust the support of this program. I’m not one to admit defeat easily, but I’m at a total loss as to how to improve the amount of people that show up to support this team. Another home game, a beautiful fall day, and another announced crowd of under 10,000. Shameful.
What makes that most frustrating is this team is in a pretty enviable position and this season is about to get remarkably interesting. At 5-3 and 3-1 in the MAC, the Cards find themselves one win away from a guaranteed .500 record or better in both the conference and overall. Perhaps more impressive is they are in a three-way tie for second for the MAC West with Northern Illinois and Eastern Michigan, all just one game back from currently undefeated in the MAC Toledo. How fitting that those three teams are the final three teams on the schedule this season. This week, though, the Cards can lay their claim that they are a force to be reckoned with as they travel to Western Michigan to take on the Broncos.
There isn’t a more deceiving record in the MAC than WMU’s, as their four losses are actually quite respectable as is their win at BCS conference Connecticut. With a win over WMU, BSU sets up a three game defacto round robin for the MAC West and that trip to Detroit for the MAC Championship. Is it really possible that after two putrid seasons, remarkable amounts of fan bitching and moaning, and tremendous losses through graduation, the draft, and general attrition that this BSU Cardinal football team controls their own destiny for the MAC Championship with four games left? That to me is unexpected, unbelievable, and a remarkable accomplishment for Lembo and co. in their first year at the helm. More on WMU tomorrow, for now I’m just going to enjoy this feeling.