OXFORD, Ohio – Anyone who has followed the Ball State football team in the last half decade has seen their fair share of ups and downs. Disappointment followed elation and departures and transfers were often the news of the day through the BSU dark ages of 2009 and 2010. With the arrival of Pete Lembo before the 2011 season, Cards fans hoped that the choppy waters and turmoil would yield to consistency and success, but few could have imagined this much this soon as the Lembo led Cardinals defeated Miami 31-24 in Oxford Friday for a 9-3 regular season and a 2nd place MAC West finish.
Perhaps more impressive than the win was how it was accomplished. Even now, after having the drive home from Oxford to process what exactly I saw on Friday, it’s still astounding. On a macro level, it’s literally shocking, but we’ll get to that. In the microcosm that was the Black Friday finale for the Cards, the already shuffled roster missing Keith Wenning, Jamill Smith, and Jordan Hansel with a handful of others ranging between doubtful and probable wouldn’t seem to be able to handle anymore injuries. That theory got put to the test as backup QB Kelly Page, RB Jahwan Edwards, TE Zane Fakes, G Chris Sparrow, and C Dan Manick all went out with injuries. True freshman walk on Kyle Kamman had to QB the Cards for the final quarter and a half, and had things got worse, the redshirt would have been pulled off Ozzie Mann. Ideal? Far from it. But Coach Lembo was out of options. Jamill Smith (and his walking boot) was the emergency QB. Plugging in another WR was not a possibility.
“Ozzie [would have been up next]. What else are we going to do? We’re down guys at receiver too. You gotta remember, there’s a ripple effect. We would not have enjoyed that. That would not have been great for Ozzie. But, it is what it is. You only have so many guys,” Lembo said.
Thankfully for Ball State the reserve bonanza of Kelly Page and Kyle Kamman got a healthy dose of effective rushing from Jahwan Edwards and Horactio Banks who combined for 178 yards with Edwards adding 3 TDs. Miami got wise to the Cards shift to the ground attack, often putting ten men in the defensive box, making the sledding tough and the enjoyment minimal. “It’s not a lot of fun. You have to run it. You know you have to run it. They know you have to run it,” said Lembo.
The Cardinals now await their bowl invite, to be doled out on December 2.
For Lembo, the gravity and magnitude of just what has been accomplished in two short years in Muncie wasn’t lost. Asked about his perspective about the accomplishment of this team considering what they were mired in just two seasons ago, Lembo appeared wistful and reflective, saying, “Relative to it being the second year of a rebuilding process and having a still pretty young team starting only seven seniors mostly on the offensive line and then knowing our schedule. All of us have had many conversations going into the year about our schedule… the three BCS opponents, the five home games, finishing up with four of five on the road, playing some of the better teams on the crossover from the [MAC] east. So relative to all of those things, I’m really really proud of these kids. It’s pretty amazing.”
The final record for the Cardinals will surprise those in the national media and even some of the BSU die-hards as most expected somewhere around a .500 finish and would have been pleased with that. For Lembo, this record wasn’t surprising in the least. “I expect a lot out of our players. I expect a lot out of our coaches. I expect a lot out of our support staff. This is pretty special what they’ve been able to do,” he said.
For Cards fans it’s quite the historic season as Ball State has won their third-highest single season win total in program history and are in good position to win their first bowl game in school history. Looking forward, a core nucleus of the team returns and those in recruiting circles are heralding the incoming class as one of the best in program history. Whether Lembo will be around to see it remains to be seen as the coaching carousel is beginning to start up with Pete being mentioned for almost every open job and some that haven’t even decided what they’re going to do with the coach currently there.
For Cardinals fans, it may seem like a good time to hold your breath and hope against hope that next August Pete Lembo is still calling the shots in Muncie. For me, I’m choosing a bit of a different tack. I’m simply sitting back and enjoying this special season, talented team, and capable staff. “Enjoy the Ride” has been my motto for a while now, and I welcome you on board that train. These kinds of seasons don’t happen often (3 times to be exact) and I can’t let this one slip by.