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Better Know: Indiana State

indiana state sycamores logoAdmittedly, I have taken the Indiana State Sycamores a bit for granted. There’s just been so many other things going on. Bill Scholl announced he was taking his talents to Milwaukee. We’ve been pounding the pavement on a couple of big forthcoming stories on The Star Press and the AD Search (unrelated). America’s Got Talent is down to the Final 6 (Team Mat Franco) and Big Brother is down to the Final 4 (#TeamBeastModeCowboy). Also, it’s Indiana State. Are they really worth getting our britches in a twist about?

However, I would be remiss and be doing you, dear friend of the Pylon, a disservice by not adequately preparing you for the Fighting Sycamores of ISU. Therefore, it’s time to Better Know: Indiana State!

Team: Indiana State Sycamores
Record: 1-1
Ranking: Unranked
Head Coach: Mike Sanford
Series: 38-23-1, in favor of BSU
Last Meeting: 2003, a 31-7 BSU win

Indiana State coach Mike Sanford
… is 18-55 overall as a head coach and 2-12 in his second season at Indiana State.
… has a career road record of 3-33.
… will be coaching against BSU for the first time in his career on Saturday.

When it comes to Indiana State versus BSU
… the Cardinals have a 20-7-1 in games played in the metropolis of Muncie.
… 6 games were played in the Hoosier Dome. BSU won 4.
… there’s a traveling trophy known as The Victory Bell that the winner gets to keep.
… the Cards have won 6 straight against the Trees, last losing in 1987…. the Trees last beat the Cards in Muncie in 1982.

The Indiana State Sycamores
… opened their season with a 28-7 loss at Indiana.
… had a much more successful Week 2, defeating Tennessee Tech 49-14.
… watched as senior QB Mike Perish went for 383 yards passing and three TDs while running for another in that week 2 win, good enough for the 4th best passing game in ISU history.
… are 38-73-1 all-time against the current membership of the MAC.
… last beat a MAC team in 2001, triumphing over EMU.
… have compiled 242 yards on the ground in total for their first two contests. For comparison’s sake, Quake Edwards alone has racked up 196 for the Cardinals.

 

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Win Over Colgate Something to Smile About

By the fourth quarter CPL and Ozzie were probably talking about the post-game tailgate (credit: BSU Photo Services)

By the fourth quarter CPL and Ozzie were probably talking about the post-game tailgate (credit: BSU Photo Services)

Saturday marked the beginning of the post-Wenning era in Ball State football, and though the flash and pizazz were different, like most games of the last three years, the Cardinals walked out with a W. It was more ground and pound than air it out offensively, and the opponent was far from marquee, but it wasn’t too long ago that a victory over an FCS team was something the Cardinals couldn’t grab (hello, Liberty and New Hampshire) so let’s not get too picky with where we get our Ws, mmmkay?

For the Cardinals, as expected, the offense was more the Jahwan Edwards/Horactio Banks show en route to 514 total yards and 311 on the ground. Darian Green and Teddy Williamson each had 7 carries as well, so it is plain to see that the Cardinals may be as loaded in the backfield as they were in 2008 with Quale Lewis and Corey Sykes. The premier of Ozzie Mann wasn’t jaw dropping but also wasn’t crippling or mistake-laden, and in all honesty, that’s exactly the kind of performance Mann needs to shoot for every week. His line of 20/32 for 203 yards, 2 TDs, and an INT won’t win many games by itself, but it does open up the run game, and doesn’t shoot the Cards in the foot. The receiving corps was the KeVonn Mabon show as the redshirt sophomore grabbed ten catches for 110 yards and a TD. Six Cardinals caught passes Saturday.

Defensively, the Cards were unbelievable and record-setting. Allowing only 227 total yards and 9 first downs, BSU made a statement that the defense may be the bus driver this season. That single digit first down mark? The lowest total in 14 years (CMU in 2000 had 8). Colgate’s 10 points was the lowest scored by any Cardinal opponent in the Pete Lembo era. There are built-in rationales that some will use to write off this performance like how Colgate is FCS, etc. and that may be true. But in my mind, you hold a team to the lowest number of first downs in 14 seasons, and that’s a damn fine way for the Kevin Kelly era to start in Muncie on the defensive side of the ball.

The day wasn’t without a few negative notes, most notably the injury of Jordan Williams who hurt his ankle, was on crutches, and no news has come out about. So there’s that. Additionally, a home opener that only draws 9600 fans is absolutely pitiful and if I was Pete Lembo I would be apoplectic about the lack of local support, student support, and alumni support. Yet again, proving that BSU fans want a champagne program on a beer budget with bathtub wine support. Absolutely pathetic.

So, all told, a pretty enjoyable Saturday for BSU fans. The Cards improve to 4-0 in Lembo-led season openers and that win marked the 17th win in their last 19 regular season games. To get to 18 out of 20, the Cards will need to knock off Iowa on the road next Saturday. The Hawkeyes opened their season this previous weekend by squeaking out a 31-23 win over Northern Iowa. That contest saw the Hawkeyes give up 203 yards receiving to UNI’s running back, so I hope Quake and Banks spend some time with Ozzie this week. Kickoff on Saturday is at 3:30, and you can catch the game on ESPN2. We’ll also be running a Liveblog for it so get yourself ready for that.

Know a ’14 Opponent: Indiana State

In an effort to educate, inform, preview and most importantly, poke fun of those who dare add the Ball State Cardinals to their football schedule, OTP is proud to bring back a tradition here at the Pylon, Know an Opponent, in this case, the Know a ’14 Opponent series. Some things to note… this isn’t heavy lifting with broken down statistics, game film replays, or random things like that. It’s still preseason after all, and that kind of analysis and evaluation is best saved for game week. So buckle up kiddies… time to Know a ’14 Opponent!

indiana state sycamores logoIndiana State Sycamores

In college athletics there are varying degrees of fierce when it comes to mascots. I have had the misfortune of working and attending some of the weakest. There was Ball State, where even though the Cardinal is the fiercest robin-sized bird it doesn’t strike terror into the hearts of opponents. I followed that with Maryland, home of the diamondback turtle known as a terrapin. God love Maryland, they embraced it and even played to it, with a slogan of “Fear the Turtle!”. But thankfully, I have never had to go to class or an athletic contest knowing that my mascot was the platanus occidentalis, or what non-tree people refer to as the Sycamores.

FunFact!: Indiana State students selected the name through a contest. Most believe students voted for it as a joke, thinking there was no way it could win. It did.

FunFact2!: ISU realized that having a Sycamore tree for a mascot was about as lame as could be, so they changed it. To…. the Chiefs! Complete with an offensive native American caricature and everything! Stellar job on that one!

FunFact3!: Indiana State promptly changed back to the Sycamores. They also created an actual mascot in 1995, known as Sycamore Sam and described him as a “furry woodland creature”. He’s also bright blue, in much the same way that weird inbred family from Kentucky has blue skin. I’m not saying Sycamore Sam is an inbred furry woodland creature, I’m just saying he apparently wouldn’t look any different if he was. So there’s that.

Inbred Indiana State

What Have You Done For Me Lately?
2013 was what some “in the biz” (please use the airquotes when saying that) would call a complete and utter failure. 1-11 and 0-8 in the Missouri Valley Conference. They did beat Quincy 70-7, though, so they certainly got the most out of that lone victory. Quincy may want to consider not dressing the women’s softball team next season for football games. As an FCS team, the Sycamores have the chance to play in the first “playoff system”, not that they would know that. They haven’t made the postseason since 1984.

The Man Who Wears the Headset
Mike Sandford Indiana State<– This, is Mike Sanford. Sanford is in his second season coaching the Sycamores and his 37th year as a football coach. His head coaching record is a fairly unimpressive 17-54 (after a five-year run at UNLV in addition to last year at ISU),  but don’t let that number fool you. His pedigree and resume reads like a dream coach. Stops at Utah, Utah State, Louisville, Notre Dame, and USC (where he was also a backup QB and eventual safety on several Rose Bowl teams as an undergrad). Does Mike Sanford have the skill to turn a program around? On paper, yes. But again, sometimes, coordinators that are lighting the world on fire do not a head coach make.

Players and Stats of Note
For the Sycamores, the success of the offense this season falls squarely on senior running back Buck Logan (great name, by the way). Last season saw Logan average over four yards a carry but only 50 yards per game. A new face that could get touches is Cincinnati Bearcat transfer Deionte Buckley. The QB position at ISU also features a Cincy transfer in newcomer Patrick Coyne, but returning starter Mike Perish looks to be the presumptive favorite, given the senior is featured on the Sycamore media guide

Defensively, the Sycamores weren’t awful but they weren’t all that fantastic. Allowing right at 365 yards per game and 36 points per game, that’s not a recipe for success. They return notable players in senior Connor Underwood (All-Conference LB) and Jameer Thurman (DB, runner-up Missouri Valley Freshman of the Year) who have the potential to create issues for a BSU offense that may be either banged up from Iowa or still trying to get their rhythm in a new system.

If Indiana State Football Was a Musician…
This one was surprisingly difficult for me. So I turned to resident OTP musical expert and Muncie bureau chief, Edge. “Hootie & The Blowfish, only with no Hootie.  Like when you ask someone to list Indiana colleges, they usually end with, “oh yeah, Indiana State, I always forget that one.”  The Blowfish get the same response to the question of who were the great 90s bands.”

How Worried Are We?
Given the lack of offensive firepower, the porous defense, and the inexperience at the head coach position, there is no reason for Cardinals fans to be significantly worried about Indiana State. This isn’t Liberty. This isn’t New Hampshire. This isn’t even Illinois State from recent memory. The OTP Threat Level checks in at Code Green, the second Code Green of the non-conference schedule.
ThreatLevelIndianaStateIs it possible that Indiana State pulls an upset? Sure. It’s possible. But as we described in our last piece for Iowa, it’s going to take a Herculean effort from the Sycamores and a significant lack of effort from the Cardinals. There’s the old “Any given Saturday…” logic, but I’d plan for a nice easy Saturday of tailgating, Cardinal touchdowns, and a relaxing afternoon over our in-state brethren.

Enemy Recon
Surprisingly enough, Indiana State has a very active internet community with Sycamore Pride. It’s essentially the BSUFans for ISU supporters, but to see such a vocal and active virtual gathering place for an FCS crowd is impressive. You can check out the website here or follow them on Twitter @SycamorePride.

Know a ’14 Opponent: Colgate

In an effort to educate, inform, preview and most importantly, poke fun of those who dare add the Ball State Cardinals to their football schedule, OTP is proud to bring back a tradition here at the Pylon, Know an Opponent, in this case, the Know a ’14 Opponent series. Some things to note… this isn’t heavy lifting with broken down statistics, game film replays, or random things like that. It’s still preseason after all, and that kind of analysis and evaluation is best saved for game week. So buckle up kiddies… time to Know a ’14 Opponent!

Colgate-RaidersColgate Raiders

When I was a little boy, there was a bully in class that was a real piece of work. Made fun of me. Knocked my mechanical pencils off the desk. Acted like my grocery bag book covers were not the absolute bomb. Didn’t appreciate my GI Joe Trapper Keeper. This kid was clearly an asshole. His parents were assholes. His grandmammy was probably an asshole, too. He was also significantly bigger than me and may or may not have spent time in prison. I’d like to tell you about the time I stood up to him, punched him in his asshole mouth, and then went on to third grade glory with the third grade hottie, but not all stories have happy endings. No, I didn’t stand up to Bully McDickhead. I just rode out the rest of 3rd grade, he moved, and I can only assume he is wearing a paper hat to work and using a squeegee mop on the regular. The moral of this story is: I knew my place at the time and didn’t feel like standing up for Duke and his battle against Cobra Command was worth an ass beating. I was a logical thinker even then. Colgate would do well to heed similar advice before journeying to Muncie. You’ve been warned, Raiders. There’s still time. Get out while you still can.

What Have You Done For Me Lately?
Colgate is in what you might call, “a transition year”. At the head of the snake, Dick Biddle retired after 18 years and 7 Patriot League titles. Replacing him is his Associate Coach Dan Hunt, whose parents would have named Mike had they even a modicum of a sense of humor. Hunt has assured folks that nothing significant will change, and most expect the Raiders to continue to be a pound it down your throat run-first team. In addition to losing their coach, they lose QB Gavin McCarney, who just happened to be the leading rusher amongst QBs in the Patriot League ever. That’s probably going to be felt. Defensively, Raiders fans hope it’s a transition year as last year wasn’t a good one. The unit gave up over 30 points a game, which should make Ozzie Mann and a Cardinal offense hoping to hit the ground running this year slightly excited. They finished 2013 at 4-8, but they did win the Patriot League in 2012, a Patriot League that used to be home to one Pete Lembo.

The Man Who Wears the Headset
Dan Hunt ColgateYou know what’s crazy about Colgate’s head coach? It’s an endowed position. Alums of the university help fund the football coach’s salary like some faculty jobs. So Dan Hunt is not just “Head Football Coach”. Oh, no. Dan Hunt is the Fred ‘50 and Marilyn Dunlap Head Football Coach. That is so East Coast. It’s Hunt’s first year in the big chair, but not his first year in the program, as he has been there since 1996, directing the offense. One side of the coin would say he would be the coach that should have the greatest chance for success. He knows the program, knows the players, knows where they keep the paperclips in the supply closet. There’s a flip side to that coin, though, and I’d point to the 2009 Ball State team to demonstrate that just because you are an effective Coordinator there isn’t a guarantee that you’re going to be a successful head coach. Just something to think about.

Players and Stats of Note
As mentioned, the Patriot League’s version of Dan Lefevour is gone, so the next man up for the Raiders is presumably Jake Melville. The sophomore comes in with an Ozzie Mann-esque task of providing just enough of a threat that the run game can flourish. These days it’s rare to have a fullback generate significant headlines, but Raider fullback Ed Pavalko was a preseason All-Conference selection and a three-year letter winner. He’ll be the one clearing the holes for any one of the bevy of running backs that Colgate can trot out. The defense last season for Colgate gave up in excess of 30 points per game, but Hunt has emphasized that the defense will be taking a more pressure approach to their scheme this fall. They return Mike Armiento in their secondary, and after hauling in 6 INTs last season, I’m sure he’s hoping for Ozzie Mann passes gone awry.

If Colgate Football Was a Musician
I think it’s cute that Colgate has decided to step up to the plate and play big boy football. But, the fact remains that they are a bit over their skis. Not all football teams are created equal and the bottom line is that a 4-8 team from the Patriot League with a new head coach and QB needs to know their place and stick to what they are good at, none of which is coming to Muncie and putting the Cardinals on upset alert. “Stay in your lane” is good advice for reaching football teams and bands who cover songs and artists they have no business covering. But you tried, and for that, we thank you. Congrats, Colgate, you are Limp Bizkit covering The Who.

How Worried Are We
The return of the OTP Threat Level!

ThreatLevelColgatePerhaps nothing is more indicative of the growing obesity of America than the fact that appetizers are an almost expected thing. “I can’t wait for the meal, so please, bring me some fried food to tide me over before I get the actual entrée, which will most likely be fried as well.” Sure, it’s gluttonous and probably unneeded, but I’ll be damned if I don’t get an order of Dill Chips or 7 Tidals every time I go to the Brewhouse. In similar fashion, Colgate provides a tasty little morsel to work the kinks out and get an idea of what the BSU offense is going to look like in year one with Joey Lynch as OC and without Keith Wenning at QB. Defensively, the new look Kevin Kelly regime begins with an offense that likes to run, the specific sort of attack that at times flummoxed the Jay Bateman administration. Can the Raiders pull an upset? I assume it is possible. It is also possible that I’m going to come home from work today to find Kate Upton waiting on a bearskin rug with a bottle of bourbon and some dill chips. Mmmmmm…. dill chips. So, Colgate opens our Know a ’14 Opponent with a nice cool Code Green. Next up? Iowa. And that threat level is likely to increase.

Enemy Recon
Surprisingly enough, there isn’t a tremendous web presence for FCS Patriot League teams. People say the same thing about MAC schools, and I know how frustrating that can be. Should you want to read up for yourself on some Colgate goodies, you can check out their official sports page here. There’s a messageboard here and you can check out a fan site here.

Cards Go Ugly Early, Knock Off Illinois State

Coach Lembo has plenty of things to harp on going forward for the Cardinals.

Coach Lembo has plenty of things to harp on going forward for the Cardinals.

The advent of social media has meant so much for the world. It’s spurned on revolutions, kept people informed during times of great tragedy or breaking news, and has let you stalk your exes relatively consequence free. Thursday night, social media proved that the Ball State fanbase as evolved from disengaged apathy to entitled success as fans the country over had what could conservatively be called a “complete meltdown” at halftime of Ball State’s season opening victory over Illinois State 51-28.

To be fair, the game looked like anything but the 23-point blowout it would become as the Cards trailed the FCS Redbirds 21-16 at the half, and it could have been so very much worse had Keith Wenning not connected with Jordan Williams for a 16-yard score just before the opening stanza expired. The five point deficit, hardly insurmountable, was met with terms like “outcoached”. Really?

The Cards certainly deserved a fair bit of ire after a defense was pushed around on an opening Redbird drive for a TD, let a fluke luck TD get scored on the next, and then gave up another just for good measure. Special teams were a mixed bag, as Jamill Smith had a monster return, but a missed extra point doesn’t leave fans in a real happy place. The offense seemed tight, the running game non-existent, and all in all, BSU was getting run out of their home stadium by a scrappy bunch of transfers and passovers from major FBS programs.

But then came halftime. Sweet glorious halftime. And the Cards never looked back. At 6 minutes to go in the game, the Cards had run off 42 straight points and I found myself hoping that whatever Brock Spack had told his team at halftime he burns that speech.

There is much to be worried about. There is also much to be hopeful for. The wise football fan will tell you that the most improvement of the season is made between game one and game two. Building on a 20+ point win over a Top 10 FCS program is a great starting point.

Some random thoughts on the win…

  • Coach Bateman took a beating on Twitter tonight. I hope fans remember that the same defense that got sliced up on the first drive is the same defense that shut ISU down for the better part of 2 quarters.
  • The offensive line turned in a solid mediocre performance. The rushing game was non-existent and that certainly needs to change. I’ll chalk this one up to just game one jitters as opposed to a much bigger problem.
  • How about that crowd?! An announced crowd of 16k+ had a tremendous student showing that didn’t just bail at halftime. For an FCS season opener, on a weeknight, I’m stoked about that. If only the greater Muncie community jumped on board. How great would that be?
  • Player of the Game without question was Willie Snead. 9 catches, 2 scores, 164 yards is exactly the kind of game I hoped he would have. But how about Jordan Williams? That kid is going to be the next big thing. Trust me. Nathan Ollie can’t be undersold either for his contributions in the 2nd half.
  • Keith Wenning had the most pedestrian 300+ yard game you’ll ever see. The stats were dominant, the visceral observation wasn’t.
  • Kyle Schmidt averaged almost 47 yards per punt. I know he got some good BSU rolls, but it looks like Punter U continues.

So all in all, it was exactly what BSU needed it to be. A win, injury-free, and plenty of things for the coaching staff to hammer home in the next week. It started ugly but ended beautifully, and that’s really all you can ask. Survive and advance, and the Cards are 1-0. After this weekend roughly half the teams in America won’t be able to say that. Final Word post coming tomorrow, but enjoy the W tonight. I know I will.

Countdown to Illinois State

OTP Countdown200It’s the season opener in Muncie, one of about six days (all football gamedays) per year I long to be back in Muncie. But just because physically I’m not in East Central Indiana doesn’t mean my mind hasn’t been there all day. Finally, it’s time. It’s time for Ball State to take the field for what could be a ridiculously special season. It’s time for Keith Wenning to put his stamp on the program’s record book. It’s time for Pete Lembo to cement his reputation as “The Man” to hire when rebuilding is needed at your major program. It’s time for all that and more. But now, it’s time to Countdown to Illinois State.

5 Things You Should Know

  1. Illinois State and Ball State have met quite a few times before. BSU topped ISU 45-30 at Scheumann Stadium before it was named Scheumann Stadium in 1993 in the most recent meeting of the two squads. Overall, BSU leads the series 11-5 and has won seven straight.
  2. ISU is not your run of the mill bottom feeding FCS program. They are currently ranked 10th in the FCS Coaches Poll, were a FCS quarterfinalist last season, and they also beat an FBS program on the road. (Though in fairness it was EMU, so that’s a borderline FBS program at best) Either way, it means this isn’t a program struggling to find matching cleats and shoulder pads without missing straps. They know what they’re doing.
  3. This an extremely experienced ISU team. Out of the starting 22, only 4 are sophomores and none are freshmen. The rest are juniors and seniors and many have FBS experience after transferring into ISU. The schools from which those players came range from powers like Oklahoma, Michigan State, and Ohio State. There’s even a former Ball Stater in WR Phil Dudley, who is expected to start tonight.
  4. ISU head coach Brock Spack should be familiar with BSU. Spack, who came to ISU in 2009 is a Purdue alum and former Boilermaker coach. He’s 28-18 at ISU and each year has landed at least four players on the first team Missouri Valley Football All-Conference Team.
  5. In 2012, the Redbirds were road warriors. ISU was 6-1 on the road last season, including the aforementioned victory over Eastern Michigan. Grain of salt though: FCS road crowds have a tendency to be not as rabid as even a mediocre BSU crowd.

4 Players You Should Know

  1. Colton Underwood, DE – The rockstar of the Illinois State defense. Named to the Buck Buchanan Award Watch List, the Senior Bowl Watch List, First-Team All-American by the Sports Network, Phil Steele All-America First Team, and the First-Team Missouri Valley. Underwood is certainly capable of creating an impact, as he rang up career highs last year in single game tackles (15) and single-game sacks (3).
  2. Jordan Neukirch, FB – Named first team Missouri Valley, Third-Team All America by the Sports Network, and Second Team All-America by Phil Steele. Fullbacks gonna fullback, y’all.
  3. Chris Highland, LS – Named third team All-American by the Sports Network. Is there a real impact here? Probably not. But he is on an All-American team and since BSU is Specialist U, I have love for the long snappers.
  4. Jared Barnett, QB – A transfer from Iowa State, Barnet started nine games for Iowa State, leading them to upset victories over #19 Texas Tech, #2 Oklahoma State, and Kansas. He’s replacing the Missouri Valley Conference’s career passing leader in graduated Matt Brown, but does have the chops to continue the passing success.

3 Ways We Win

  1. Score, score, score some more – That seems sort of cliche in terms of outscoring your opponent, but ISU is capable of putting points on the board. Combine that with a relatively unknown quantity in the defensive secondary and I have a sneaking suspicion that ISU is going to put up points.
  2. Establish the run game early to open the passing game late – Or vice versa, but the more dominant the run game is early, the less of a chance the ISU defense pins their ears back and comes hard after Keith Wenning. Colton Underwood is a threat, and keeping him neutralized is of top priority.
  3. Control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball – Against an FCS team, even one with notable players on the offensive and defensive fronts of your opponent, BSU simply has to control the line of scrimmage. If that doesn’t happen, then the rushing game doesn’t get rolling, the passing game has to deal with pressure, and the Cardinal defense can’t force favorable down and distance situations. It’s imperative that this game look like an FBS team vs FCS team.

2 Cardinal Questions

  1. Can this Ball State team dominate the game with a killer instinct from minute one? This BSU team unlike years past has sizable expectations, buzz, and attention. In many respects, there’s more pre-season buzz about this team than the 2008 version. How that translates to the field is that opponents will always see this Cardinal squad coming and look at each game as an opportunity to take down one of the headline grabbers in the MAC West. Good teams survive pressure. Great teams thrive in it.
  2. What can we expect from an offensive line that is one of the only offensive questions? It isn’t that the BSU offensive line isn’t a skilled unit or an inexperienced unit, it’s that it’s just an unproven unit. Each player has experience, just not a lot of starting experience. How they react to this new role and how they play within it will be the deciding factor on the successfulness of the BSU offense this season. With holes for Jahwan Edwards and protection for Wenning, all of a sudden the defense no longer becomes a question mark as the offense is capable of just outscoring anyone when needed. But to get to that point requires an offensive line that exerts its will on command.

1 Bold Prediction

It’s games like this that in some respects worry me. It has all the makings of a trap game for the Cardinals, but if I’ve learned anything from the Pete Lembo regime it’s that the little things matter. Little things like living in the present, taking one game at a time, and understanding just how easy it is to take a loss if you are unprepared. The old quote from salty sports curmudgeon Bobby Knight seems like the underscore of the Lembo approach: “Everyone has a will to win, few have the will to prepare to win”. That’s really the Lembo Plan in its most basic form, that preparation to win. From special teams to warm ups, I find it hard to believe that CPL hasn’t already run over every possible permutation of gameplay in his mind and passed on the most valuable lessons to his team. Because of that, my worry for the Cards coming out flat and overlooking a potentially dangerous team just because of their classification is mitigated considerably. I think the outcome is contingent on the crowd and the atmosphere of Scheumann Stadium crazily enough. If the Cards come out of the Fisher Complex for kickoff with a loud and proud student body, that sort of energy transfers to the team and a beat down ensues. If it’s a mediocre turnout, the game starts slow, but talent ends up trumping the Redbirds. With a good crowd… BSU 42-17. A mediocre crowd… 35-21. BSU starts off 1-0 and has a week-plus to prepare for the tricky triple option of Army.

Ball State Won’t Be Making a Return Trip to Illinois State

BSU football won't get to experience the magic of Illinois State.

BSU football won’t get to experience the magic of Illinois State.

When the Illinois State contract was signed a few years ago, the fanbase gave a collective head scratch when it was announced that BSU would be making a trip to Illinois State in 2014. I was on the “This is crazy” bandwagon when I thought about the Cards letting an FCS team play host. That simply doesn’t happen. Call it FBS elitism, call it entitlement, call it whatever you want. As of this afternoon, you can call it a non-issue.

In an effort to even the 2014 home football schedule at six home and six away contests, Ball State has announced it will not compete in the second year of the contracted game at Illinois State.

The Cardinals and Redbirds have come to an agreement on a buyout of the game and Ball State will pursue a home opponent for 2014.

Ball State is scheduled to play at Iowa and at Army in 2014 with a home game vs. Colgate. With the six Mid-American Conference games – four at home and four on the road – the Cardinals are seeking a non-conference home game in 2014.

Hallelujah. I’m all for testing a team on the road as contests against Michigan, Nebraska, and Purdue in prior years set the experience needed to succeed in 2008. But taking on an FCS team at their place does nothing. Zero. Zilch. It is a true no-win situation for BSU as a win is met with a resounding, “They’re FCS. You’re supposed to beat them” and a loss is a sky falling disaster of epic proportions. I’m sure financially the Cardinals will lose money as they have to pay an opponent to come to Muncie on top of paying Illinois State to not, but maybe the Cards get lucky and schedule a home and home with a lower tier BCS conference school or other non-AQ conference school. Personally I’d love for it to be Kentucky, but SEC teams only schedule MAC teams for pay day bludgeonings, not home and homes. A guy can dream though.

Illinois State a Barometer for the Rest of 2013

With any luck, we'll see this about 10:30 on Thursday.

With any luck, we’ll see this about 10:30 on Thursday.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking “Here comes another rah-rah type of column from OTP”. Or, if you’re a national sportswriter with a gigantic axe to grind with OTP, you’ll accuse us of “shilling for the administration”. I’d say it’s none of the latter and only some of the former. Excited? Sure. Positive? Yep. Blind faith throwing reality out the window? Nope. Been there, done that in 2009.

On Thursday evening, BSU opens their 2013 campaign against Illinois State in a matchup made for ornithologists as the Redbirds travel to Muncie to take on the Cardinals. It is far from a premier game, white out be damned. The Redbirds (despite being in the top 10 of FCS in some polls) don’t exactly strike fear in the hearts of opponents. They’re FCS. We’re FBS. This isn’t insanity. THIS. IS. MUNCIE. (Then we kick someone down a hole if we’re really going for effect)

Detractors of the Cardinals will point to some struggles against recent FBS powers like Liberty and New Hampshire as an indicator that the Cardinals are vulnerable. They’ll say it’s a similar sort of team as 2009 with an unproven offensive line, significant questions on defense, and a top-tier FCS program catching the Cards at the exact right time. Those people are morons. And they probably root for Indiana, which would explain their inability to recognize good football since it’s such a foreign concept for them. For those needing a definitive statement, the differences between 2009 and 2013 for Ball State are the same as the differences between a beat up leather sofa and Kate Upton. Quote me on that, boys and girls.

FBS vs. FCS games don’t get the Vegas treatment with lines or odds, but if you held a gun to my head and made me put a point spread down, I’d say BSU would be favored by 10.5 or so. That’s the line that would make me at least take a beat before taking the Cardinals. So while I do expect a win, it’s the margin that I will look at in terms of guiding my expectations for the remainder of the season.

If Pete Lembo and company come out and lay the wood to Illinois State in a good old-fashioned season-opener throttling, then I will stand even firmer in my prediction that 10 wins in the regular season should be the baseline. If BSU struggles but pulls away late, then I’d say 10 wins or so may be the ceiling rather than the floor. If it’s a last second heroic type win for BSU, then I’m going to invest in Maalox stock because the fanbase is going to have a bumpy ride in 2013. A loss for BSU in the season opener would literally make for one of the hardest weeks on the site and I’m sure a fanbase that overreaction and hyperbole would be the order of the day. Let’s all hope that last one doesn’t happen. I’m not sure I could take it.

Some things I’ll be watching for in this season opener:

  • Protection from the Oline: I know it’s not politically correct to say that FCS and FBS are all that different, but if BSU can’t keep Keith Wenning’s jersey clean against an FCS team (even a good one) then I begin to sweat a bit as the season draws on. Same goes for opening running lanes for Jahwan Edwards. If you can’t get it done against FBS competition, I get nervous. I understand there are FBS transfers on ISU’s roster but this is a team BSU needs to have their way with solely through brute force and exerting their will. Jordan Hansel’s injury and questionable status means there are no returning starters for BSU in the offensive trenches. It’s time to step up, young men.
  • Pressure from the Dline and coverage from the secondary: In a similar sort of vein, if the defensive line fails to capitalize on one of the smaller o-lines they’ll see this season and the secondary can’t throw lockdown coverage on the Redbird passing attack, then it makes me dread the Toledo and Northern Illinois contests further down the schedule.
  • Precision and awareness: In some season openers, teams look anything but crisp, sharp, and ready. Pete Lembo has preached since his arrival the attention to detail that has won the Cards more games than they should have. I fully expect this to be easy to see, but it bears mentioning. A team that struggles with playcalls, getting in correct formations, executing routes, etc. in game one is a team that usually will struggle with that sort of detail work all season.
  • That killer instinct: The best teams don’t ever take their foot off the throttle. That’s what I hope we see on Thursday night. Ideally, the BSU attack is relentless, the defense all-encompassing, and the special teams precise. If there’s a sizable lead, keep on going for the jugular. That sort of instinct is what 2008 had. It’s what 2009 didn’t (among many other things). I want to see players, coaches, fans, and staff with that dog in ’em.

The above four things go the way I expect them to and BSU will blow that fictional line right out of the water.

Maybe I am crazy. Maybe I am blinded by fanlust for the Cards. Maybe I’m ignoring things that I’d point to in another team and say, “This is a problem for these guys and why I question their chance of significant success.” But try as I might, that’s not happening with this team. Positives beget positives. Questions have easy answers. Levels of success we only whisper about are starting to pick up in volume, intensity, and potential. This Cardinals team is going to be something special. And it all starts Thursday night with Illinois State.

The Unlucky 13 of the Mid-American Conference

The MAC had balanced divisions for the same amount of time the cast of Jersey Shore has been sober the last decade. So about 2 months.

With Temple upgrading, or what they think is an upgrade to the sinking ship of the Big East Conference earlier this year, the MAC is in pickle. As other conferences are expanding and partnering the MAC is stuck at 13 teams for football as Massachusetts is on “Exile Island.” No teams are near the Minutemen and few are excited to have them on board.

Like the blue/green combo but I think the MAC is feeling more blue because they can’t score any green in conference expansion.

Kicking out UMass may sound like an easy solution but it is not possible. There are MAC schools that I feel are holding the conference back and when I mean schools I mean Eastern Michigan. Dumping these schools to the curb is not an option. College conferences are not like fantasy football leagues where the guys who fail to update their roster have to play somewhere else next fall. The MAC made their bed and has to lie in it.

This leads to controversy of letting UMass in the MAC in the first place. With Temple out there are no east coast teams near the Minutemen that could work as a rival let alone excite fans.

The MAC took a gamble hoping to make some money off of New England TV revenue instead of sticking to its Great Lakes roots. At least UMass is a better fit than say Central Florida. It is not like the Golden Knights were ever in this conference or anything. That would be insane if they were.

While every conference is in the rat race to grab teams and make money the MAC may be better off on steering clear. Even Conference USA is trying to gobble up teams like Pac-Man right now.

Face it folks the MAC is not going to rake in big TV revenues. Conference expansion can do little to help.  The only way teams want to join the MAC is as a stepping stone to a bigger conference like Temple did. This is one of the few times where status quo may be the answer.

I seriously doubt UMass will be in the MAC for long. Like Temple the MAC is hotel room for them.

The MAC has some options.

  1. Keep playing with 13 teams. Upset the NCAA with unbalance divisions and watch UMass join the Big East in 5 years to go back to 12. Then never add a team ever again.
  2. Add another FCS team near UMass to keep them happy. Have balance divisions with a restored rivalry between Bowling Green and Toledo. Add another team five years later when UMass jumps to the Big East.
  3.  Keep UMass on an island while adding another team closer to core of the MAC. Maybe one that would stick around and be willing to join in all sports. Then demand UMass joins in all sports to balance basketball.

As a Ball State fan I prefer the third option as a potential rival could come out of it. Sadly, the odds of option three happening are smaller than Ron Paul winning the Republican primary.

A key is to steer clear of Ohio and Michigan schools as we have too many of those in the MAC. I bet the MAC will add a team in a year, but the odds if it being a team we want is doubtful given the MAC’s track record. Watch it be something silly like Villanova just to replace Temple in the same city. The MAC should have learned its lesson the first time around… right?

Here are some teams I would like to see join the MAC regardless of how little chance it has of happening and in no logical order.

Indiana State – Indiana State would give Ball State a natural rival and fans would like to see them play. An added bonus to bringing the Sycamores in would be providing Cardinals fans a new motivation to buy firewood and print off excessive sheets of computer paper. Problem is Indiana State does not have a good history with football but is improving.

Illinois State – The Redbirds would also be rival in the way of mascots and nicknames. I honestly thought Tom Collins scheduled a game at Illinois State because he expected them to be in the conference soon. That is your Ball State conspiracy theory for the week.

Western Kentucky – The MAC would be able to expand their recruiting base with a Kentucky team. Western may be out of reach as it is in the Sun Belt but…

Murray State– A FCS school with a great basketball team to boot. The MAC West would finally have a basketball team that can push the East division around. Problem is Murray is really far from other MAC schools and may not like the higher cost of FBS football. This is the school I want the most to join the MAC but I do not see how it can happen.

Eastern Kentucky – Somewhat close to Miami and Ohio so could develop some rivalries. Being next door to Lexington and Big Blue Nation hurts them. Hard to get media attention and fans when you are right next to the biggest black hole in college sports.

Southern Illinois – Would be a nice rival with Northern Illinois and would be competitive right away. The Salukis may even turn into a rival for the Cardinals.

Marshall – Just to make sure you’re awake. Would be nice to have them back in the conference though.

New Hampshire – Ball State fans know from experience New Hampshire can beat MAC schools. Plus New Hampshire would help out Massachusetts as a natural rival.

Southeast Missouri State – Why not add another directional team to the conference so the MAC West could be renamed the “Compass” division.

Central Florida – Just kidding.

Is the MAC Gaining Ground on the Big Ten?

Writer’s note: This is the third installment of the statistical breakdown series. Here are links to the first Keith Wenning vs. Nate Davis and second, BSU Defense Tackles Misleading Stats, installments.

Fans of MAC teams have known for a while that the Big Ten has been backpedaling and Big Ten fans are finally coming around to admitting it. But many Big Ten fans still see their conference as vastly superior to the MAC.

Time to see how the conferences truly stack up.

If the MAC played Monopoly with the Big Ten. Your move Penn State. Post $50 bail or roll for doubles.

Head to Head Games

The Big Ten crushed the MAC going 11-1 in head to head games. Ball State’s win over Indiana was the only exception. The MAC can claim several moral victories.

Western Michigan lost to Illinois on the road by three and Purdue in a bowl game by five. Temple lost to Penn State 14-10 at home. Toledo failed to score a last minute touchdown from the red zone in their 27-22 loss at Ohio State. Miami University dropped a 29-23 decision at Minnesota. That means five of the 11 Big Ten wins, almost half, were decided by a six points or less.

There were lopsided affairs too. Akron, Eastern Michigan, and Central Michigan all played at least one Big Ten school each in 2011 and the results were worse than the acting talent in a “Twilight” movie.

The most disappointing loss came from the MAC Champion Northern Illinois.  Northern was pounded 49-7 at Big Ten Champion Wisconsin. The gap between the best team in the Big Ten and the best in the MAC is still as large as it ever has been. The Huskies were not going to win that game but they needed to make it more respectable than that.

The MAC did find success against BCS schools outside the Big Ten. Temple knocked out Maryland 38-7 on the road. Western Michigan went into Connecticut and won 38-31. Toledo was robbed at Syracuse with a blown call on an extra point and went on to lose 33-30 in overtime (cut to Toledo fans shaking their heads).

Bowl Games

The MAC went 4-1 in bowl games this season which is a testament to how deep the conference was in 2011. The Big Ten went 4-6. To be fair, this stat is not a good measuring stick as the Big Ten played SEC schools while the MAC faced Mountain West and Sun Belt teams.  Even though this stat favors the MAC we have to throw it out when comparing the MAC to the Big Ten.

Vs. FCS Schools

The MAC went 12-0 against FCS schools while Minnesota was upset at home for a 9-1 record for the Big Ten. The MAC appears to fumble a game or two to a FCS school every year and your Ball State Cardinals were one of the repeat offenders in previous seasons.

Even 1-11 Akron won their only game against FCS Virginia Military Institute. Say that again. Even Akron won a game against a FCS school. Anything is possible.

Still, this measurement is flawed too as not every FCS school is created equally. This stat only proves that the MAC did their homework in scheduling the right cupcake.

Sagarin Ratings

Now we are talking. The Sagarin ratings are ultimate rating system for college football nerds everywhere. Namely me.

Unlike most polls, the Sagarin ratings compare every FBS and FCS team into one giant list. The Sagarin ratings are somewhat similar to RPI in college basketball.

Here are the rankings for all the Big Ten and MAC schools. The MAC schools are bolded.

First, discard Indiana and Akron. Those two schools are outliers as they were so bad they were virtually disowned by their conferences in 2011.

The theory behind the Sagarin ratings is the closer two schools are in terms of points the closer the game would be if they played on the field. For example, Western Michigan is five points away from Illinois and only three points away from Purdue. The Broncos did lose to those teams but came very close to winning. Western is 19 points away from Michigan and was trashed accordingly 34-10.

From the data we can infer the five MAC bowl teams could do damage in the Big Ten if they played their conference schedule in 2011. Toledo, Temple, and Northern Illinois would have a realistic shot at beating eight of the 12 Big Ten schools (please change the name of the conference). Penn State is only three points away from Toledo and four away from Temple and Northern Illinois. Thus, the top three MAC schools can compete with two-thirds of the BCS conference.

In theory, Ohio and Western Michigan are capable of defeating Illinois on down and maybe Ohio State and Iowa.

That makes five MAC schools the Big Ten does not want to tangle with. Especially when they are paying the MAC schools a truck load of cash to come to their house.

The Big Ten still has an advantage with their four top teams being bulletproof against a MAC school.

The Big Ten had a down year with Ohio State and Penn State ending up on CNN more than ESPN for scandals. Nebraska was making the transition to the conference and will settle in soon. Ohio State with Urban Meyer will be back at the top of the conference in no time. Penn State is a volatile situation and therefore tough to predict.

For the MAC, 2011 was a break out year. If the top teams in the MAC can stay in the top 50 in the Sagarin ratings then more upsets against BCS conference foes will come in 2012. That said the back half of the conference has to improve in order for the national perception to progress.

If the rear of the conference can make some strides in the next few years then maybe a 6-6 MAC team, your Ball State Cardinals, can earn a bowl invite (cue angry Ball State fans writing e-mails to the Akron athletic director).

Big Ten schools beware in 2012. Buying an easy win against a MAC school is getting harder and harder.