2014 CFN Preview - Ball State Cardinals
Ball State RB Jahwan Edwards
Ball State RB Jahwan Edwards
Posted Jun 1, 2014

CollegeFootballNews.com Preview 2014 - The Cardinals have been solid, but can they start winning the big games? (Getty Images)

Ball State Cardinals

Preview 2014

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By Pete Fiutak

Head coach: Pete Lembo
4th year: 25-13
14th year overall: 104-49
Returning Starters
Off. 19, Def. 26, ST 3
Lettermen Lost: 13
Ten Best Ball State Players
1. RB Jahwan Edwards, Sr.
2. LB Ben Ingle, Jr.
3. C Jacob Richard, Jr.
4. WR Jordan Williams, Jr.
5. SS Brian Jones, Sr.
6. LB Zack Ryan, Soph.
7. PK Scott Secor, Sr.
8. DE Nick Miles, Sr.
9. CB Eric Patterson, Sr.
10. QB Ozzie Mann, Soph.
2014 Schedule

Aug. 30 Colgate
Sep. 6 at Iowa
Sep. 13 Indiana State
Sep. 20 at Toledo
Oct. 4 at Army
Oct. 11 Western Michigan
Oct. 18 at Central Mich
Oct. 25 Akron
Nov. 5 Northern Illinois
Nov. 12 at UMass
Nov. 22 Eastern Michigan
Nov. 28 at Bowling Green

Ball State, it's time to win when the lights are on.

It's been six seasons since Brady Hoke put together a monster that started off the season 12-0, and then it all fell apart losing a shocker to Buffalo in the 2008 MAC championship and getting obliterated by Tulsa in the GMAC Bowl.

Pete Lembo turned the program around and has quietly put together a really, really nice program, going 25-13 in his three years, but the Cardinals got blown away by UCF in the 2012 Beef O'Brady's, and last year, with everything on the line, they lost to Northern Illinois late in the season, and failed to get by an okay Arkansas State squad in the GoDaddy.com.

But that's par for the course with the program that's 0-7 in bowl games and has yet to win a MAC championship in the title game era. It might be tough for Lembo to change that this year.

The depth has been built up enough to keep the Cardinals from going into the tank after losing 11 starters, but they have to replace some very important, very good all-star parts including QB Keith Wenning, WR Willie Snead, TE Zane Fakes and DE Jonathan Newsome.

Is there enough in place to get past Northern Illinois and become the star of the West? To do that, it's going take a stronger year from a run defense that was never a rock, and it's going to take the running game to try picking up the slack from a passing game that averaged 324 yards per game, but won't have the same firepower without Wenning and Snead.

But Lembo has had to deal with worse, creating a winner right away with his no-huddle, hurry-up attack that pushed the ball down the field and keeps defenses on their toes. A winner everywhere he's been, he went 5-6 in his first year at Elon in 2006 and hasn't had a losing year since, rolling through four more years at the school before cranking out five winning seasons at Lehigh two in his three years at Ball State, going 6-6 in his first year. He'll figure it out.

With a good stable of assistants assembled, some nice pieces in place to work around, and a good recent history of success, is this the year Ball State finally gets over the hump? Probably not, but Lembo will make it interesting.

What to watch for on offense: Can the running game balance out the offense a bit? The passing attack dominated when Keith Wenning was at the helm, rolling for 4,214 yards and 35 touchdowns last year and over 3,300 the year before, but he's gone along with most of the key targets after finishing 12th in the nation through the air. Offensive coordinator Joey Lynch isn't going to ditch the passing game, but with two of the team's best players at running back – Jahwan Edwards and Horactio Banks – and with the line a likely plus, there should be more of an emphasis on cranking up the ground attack a bit more like the 2012 offense that ran for 2,642 yards and threw for 3,302. Last year the O threw for 4,214 yards and ran for 1,985.

What to watch for on defense: The defensive front has secure the interior and needs a pass rusher to replace Jonathan Newsome. The run defense gave up close to 200 yards per game, but it got to the quarterback and got into the backfield. Now the Cardinals have to manufacture more plays with less experience. There's a little bit of size inside, but if 6-4, 304-pound Carlutorbantu Zaramo isn't getting the job done on the nose, all of a sudden the line gets small really fast. Darnell Smith is a short, squatty veteran who can hold up at tackle, but the Cardinals have to come up with a good, productive rotation. Nick Miles is a linebacker-sized end on one side, but he benefitted from having Newsome rolling into the backfield on the other, leading the team with eight sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss.

The team will be far better if … the Cardinals find a way to push the ball down the field. That might be tough to do without speedster Willie Snead to stretch the field and Keith Wenning to get it to him, but the Lembo offense works better when it's moving the passing game deep. Last year the Cardinals averaged 6.6 yards per attempt or fewer three times. One of the games was against Kent State, when Wenning dinked and dunked a bit in a tough 27-24 win. The other two games were the two losses, with Northern Illinois keeping everything in front of the secondary and allowed Wenning to hit the short passes. Against Arkansas State, BSU averaged just 4.9 yards per throw and couldn't get anything big going. On the year, the Cardinals averaged 8.3 yards per try, but this year it should be more around 6.7, like it was in 2012. However, under Lembo, Ball State has only lost once – Kent State in 2012 - when averaging more than seven yards per attempt.

The schedule: It's going to be a test in MAC play, but the non-conference schedule isn't that bad with Colgate and Indiana State early on. There's also a trip to Iowa – a chance to make some national noise - wrapped around the two layups, and there's a winnable game at Army after a week off to prepare. The conference season kicks off with a whopper with a West showdown at Toledo on September 20th. While the Northern Illinois game is at home, the key division game against Central Michigan is on the road. There's a trade-off in interconference play, getting a break by going to UMass and hosting Akron, but the regular season ends with a possible MAC championship preview going to Bowling Green.

Best offensive player: Senior RB Jahwan Edwards. An all-star who helped hold up the running game side of things at times, he came up with 1,110 yards and 14 scores despite missing two games early on hurt. Already the school's career rushing touchdown leader with 39, he's a decent-sized, tough back who's at his best when he can make one cut and go. While he's not going to run the ball 25 times a game, he can. However, his two biggest workload games of the year came in losses. In a rotation with Horacti Banks to keep the production coming.

Best defensive player: Junior LB Ben Ingle. The defensive front is going to be a work in progress, but the linebacking corps should be a potential strength with good depth and options as a nickel back or a third linebacker depending on the alignment, and with Zack Ryan in the middle and Ingle on the weakside. Ingle is a good-sized pass rusher and big hitter who earned Second Team All-MAC honors with good range and instincts. Consider it a shock if he's not the team's leading tackler.

Key player to a successful season: Sophomore QB Ozzie Mann or Redshirt Freshman QB Jack Milas. It's a battle to try replacing Keith Wenning, and there's no chance the Cardinals will get over 4,000 yards of passing production, but they just need a quarterback option to be decent and not make a slew of big mistakes. Milas is a smallish baller with good, accurate passing skills and a good enough arm to get by. Mann saw a little bit of time last year, but he only completed 2-of-9 passes for 17 yards with a pick. He's not going to take off and run, and he might be quite as accurate as Milas, but he's been around just long enough to know what he's doing. It could be a fight to find the right guy all year.

The season will be a success if … the Cardinals at least get to the MAC title game. They might not be as good as they were last year, and going on the road to deal with Toledo is a tough West game, but they have to shoot for Detroit with just enough in the defensive back seven and with a good line and running game to help ease in the passing attack. The schedule is set up for at least seven wins – as long as there aren't any brain cramps along the way – but it's going to take victories over Toledo and Northern Illinois to get to the MAC title game for the first time since 2008.

Key game: Nov. 20 at Toledo. The last two battles between the two – with Ball State winning both – were terrific. The Northern Illinois game could end up being more important for the Cardinals – they've lost four in a row to the Huskies - but first they have to get by the Rockets on the road in the MAC opener to set the tone for the rest of the conference season. Win this, and the toughest West road game becomes Central Michigan – that's not bad. If they can take care of business against Toledo and NIU, the showdown at Bowling Green late won't matter.

2013 Fun Stats:
- First Half Scoring: Ball State 290 – Opponents 137
- Penalties: Opponents 99 for 841 yards – Ball State 49 for 404 yards
- 4th Down Conversions: Opponents 19-of-31 – Ball State 5-of-14

- 2014 Ball State Preview - What You Need To Know & Top Players