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           ***** NCAA Football Preview - Ball State Cardinals *****
 
 By Lucas Gulotta, Associate College Football Editor
 
 Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
 
 2012 SEASON IN REVIEW: Many thought Pete Lembo would have Ball State competing
 for a MAC Championship in a couple of years after he doubled the team's win
 total in 2011, his first with the team, by guiding it to a 4-8 record. The
 Cardinals made some huge strides in 2012 under Lembo, who took them to just
 their third bowl game in the past 16 years.
 
 Ball State played a conference foe in its opener and downed Eastern Michigan,
 37-26, to kickoff its season on a positive note. It could not keep up with an
 ACC opponent the next week though and lost, 52-27, at Clemson. BSU did rebound
 to beat BCS conference teams the next two weeks as it topped Indiana (41-39)
 and South Florida (31-27).
 
 The Cardinals then returned to MAC action to face the eventual West and East
 Division champions. They lost to both Kent State (45-43) and Northern Illinois
 (35-23). However, Lembo's squad bounced back from its loss to the Huskies with
 six consecutive wins to close out the regular season. Ball State's list of
 victims during its runs included Army (30-22), Toledo (34-27) and Ohio
 (52-27).
 
 Lembo's team tied for second in the West Division behind the BCS-bowl bound
 NIU Huskies. The Cardinals played UCF in the St. Petersburg Bowl, but suffered
 a lopsided, 38-17 loss.
 
 Lembo spent 10 seasons as a head coach at the FCS level before testing his
 skills in the MAC. He went 44-14 at Lehigh from 2001-05 and 35-22 at Elon from
 2006-10. In his first year, he was the recipient of the 2001 Eddie Robinson
 Award, which goes to the top coach at the FCS level.
 
 2013 ANALYSIS:
 
 OFFENSE: Ball State had a potent and balanced offensive attack last season as
 it finished fourth in the MAC in both rushing (203.3 yards per game) and
 passing (254 ypg) to place second in total offense (577.9 ypg). The Cardinals
 have all of their starters at the skill positions back, including their
 workhorse of a rusher Jahwan Edwards, who tallied 1,410 yards and 14
 touchdowns on 232 carries. Junior tailback Horactio Banks is also back after
 amassing 586 yards and four TDs on 113 rushes.
 
 Senior quarterback Keith Wenning is one of the most productive players in the
 conference. He ranked fourth in the MAC last season in total offense with
 266.7 yards per game. Wenning threw 24 TDs against 10 interceptions last
 season and avoided throwing a pick in the final three games.
 
 There are plenty of pass catchers on the roster this season. "You can expect
 this group to come every day and compete," said wide receivers coach Keith
 Gaithers. "Jamill  Smith is I think the best football player pound-for-pound
 on this team. Willie Snead is just a complete football player."
 
 Snead (5-11, 193) is a key aspect in the aerial attack. He had a breakout
 sophomore campaign with 89 receptions for 1,148 yards and nine TDs. Snead led
 the MAC in receiving yards and is the leader among returners in receptions per
 game (6.9) as well. Wenning has another weapon in Smith, who was a steady
 contributor last year. Freshman tight end Calvin Blanks (6-4, 234) provides
 Ball State with an effective new red zone target.
 
 The Cardinals' offense may still be a little less productive though because of
 the dramatic reconstruction needed up front. Only senior guard Jordan Hansel
 returns from last season's corps of starting linemen.
 
 DEFENSE: Lembo's team took steps in the right direction defensively after
 being one of the worst in the FBS in his first season at the helm. The
 Cardinals were still ranked in the lower half of the MAC in both total defense
 (462.4 ypg) and scoring defense (32 ppg). All of Ball State's opponents
 managed to score at least 22 points and the defensive unit rarely came up with
 big plays.
 
 The defensive line has plenty of experience coming back. Senior end Jonathan
 Newsome (6-3, 236) was an impact player in 2011 with 8.5 total sacks, which
 was the second most in the MAC. He also finished third in the conference in
 tackles for loss (12), while fellow senior end Nick Miles (6-2, 265) made 54
 total stops with two sacks and 4.5 TFL.
 
 Defensive coordinator Jay Bateman has his work cut out for him as he tries to
 replace all three of his starting linebackers. Ball State is hoping Ben Ingle
 (6-0, 224) can assume more of a leadership role after lettering as a redshirt
 freshman.
 
 The secondary that allowed 255.3 yards through the air per contest brings back
 three of its four starters. The Cardinals should have no problem in nickel
 packages with three proven corners to rotate in Quintin Cooper, Eric Patterson
 and Jeffery Garrett. Junior free safety J.C. Wade made 51 total tackles in
 2011. His tackling ability may come in use to counter the inexperience of the
 linebackers.
 
 SPECIAL TEAMS: Ball State's special teams unit was one of the best in the
 nation last season thanks to its All-MAC kicker Steven Schott and punter Scott
 Kovanda. Both were lost to graduation which leaves Lembo with two unproven
 players stepping into those open spots. Redshirt freshman Kyle Schmidt will be
 the Cardinals' punter of the future, but the place kicking duties will be up
 for grabs through the preseason.
 
 Smith was second in the conference in kickoff return yards (844) and also
 amassed 152 punt return yards on 11 attempts last season. His blinding speed
 and quickness make him the obvious choice to field kicks in 2012 as well,
 which could lead to a professional opportunity as a return specialist.
 
 OUTLOOK: The offense of Ball State may struggle to produce at such a high rate
 without as much pop on the offensive line, but its defense has solid
 leadership and plenty of young players with potential. The Cardinals may be
 able to put together a campaign as impressive as last year if Wenning and
 company limit their turnovers.
 
 They open up their season with two straight at Scheumann Stadium versus
 Illinois State and Army. Ball State then visits North Texas of the Conference
 USA and begins its MAC season the next week at Eastern Michigan. After hosting
 Toledo, it concludes its non-conference slate at Virginia.
 
 The Cardinals do not have an easy road once they get into the heart of their
 MAC season. They have to face Kent State, Western Michigan, Akron, Central
 Michigan, Northern Illinois and Miami-Ohio.
 
 "Overall, it was a great experience, it was good to get there," said Wenning.
 "But we weren't satisfied just getting to a bowl. We wanted to win the bowl.
 We still have some things to prove to ourselves and everybody. I'm thankful
 for the position I am in. To be the quarterback at Ball State in the MAC
 Conference is a great feeling."
 
 Wenning is a solid field general, but he is not the only capable quarterback
 in the league. He needs to have an all-conference caliber campaign to give
 Ball State a chance at the MAC Championship. The Cardinals are certainly a
 group that expects to be in the postseason in 2013.
 
 
 
 08/19 11:44:16 ET

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