Pete Lembo has built the Ball State Cardinals into a perennial contender for the MAC title in just three short years at the helm. Last season, they just missed securing the West Division crown as they finished the year 10-3 overall and 7-1 in conference play. Their run was fueled by an explosive offense that more often than not made up for their porous defense.
This season, the challenge will be to fix the defense while the team looks to replace prolific passer Keith Wenning under center. The four-year starter really hit his peak in 2013, passing for 4,148 yards and 35 touchdowns with just seven interceptions. While the rest of the offense has some excellent experience returning, can the Cardinals overcome the loss of Wenning to make another run at a MAC title this season?
Replacing a four-year starter that was as efficient as Wenning is no easy task and Ball State lacks a clear heir apparent. Sophomore Ozzie Mann served as the backup a season ago, but completed just two of nine passes on the year with an interception. Junior Kyle Kamman served as the holder on special teams in 2013 but never attempted a pass. Redshirt freshman Jack Milas is the highest-rated of the group based on recruiting grades but lacks any game experience.
Whoever ends up winning the starting job, however, Ball State is going to be able to surround him with weapons. The biggest weapon on the Cardinals’ roster in 2014 will be running back Jahwan Edwards, who returns for his senior season after rushing for 1,110 yards and 14 touchdowns last season. He’ll be joined in the backfield by junior Horactio Banks who displayed some explosive playmaking ability in 2013, averaging 6.3 yards per carry as he racked up 595 yards rushing and seven touchdowns.
At receiver, Ball State will see quite a bit of turnover in 2014 as they lose three of their top four pass catchers from last season, including Willie Snead who declared early for the NFL Draft. But the group is far from barren as they get junior Jordan Williams back to lead the group after he finished second on the team a year ago with 72 receptions for 1,050 yards and 10 touchdowns. The team will also get back big-play receiver KeVonn Mabon after he missed most of the 2013 season with an injury as well as an influx of intriguing freshmen pass-catchers.
On defense, Ball State needs to be much better, particularly against the run, after getting gashed up the middle in 2013. They will have to do it with a lot of new faces on the defensive front, however, as the team loses three of their top for defensive linemen, including defensive end Jonathan Newsome who led the team with 11.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks. Nick Miles will try and step up his production this season to replace Newsome after he recorded 8.5 tackles for loss and five sacks a year ago.
At linebacker, the team loses their blitzer of choice in Kenneth Lee but return just about everyone else from their two-deep in 2014. Look for Zack Ryan to take on a larger role this season from his middle linebacker after he emerged as a disruptive playmaker for the Cardinals during his freshman season in 2013. The 5-foot-10, 212-pound Ryan finished the year third on the team with 67 tackles, including eight tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and a pair of forced fumbles.
Last season, the secondary gave up far too many big plays in the passing game and the Cardinals will hope that experience will help alleviate that in 2014. The team returns three of four starters, though they lose their best cover-man in corner Jefferey Garrett who recorded five interceptions and five pass breakups last season. Look for cornerback Eric Patterson to step up into the No. 1 corner spot after breaking up seven passes last season and recording an interception playing opposite Garrett.
If Ball State makes it into the MAC title game, they will have most certainly earned it as they face a difficult schedule with a number of daunting road games. In non-conference play, they start it off with a road trip to take on the Iowa Hawkeyes before facing the MAC contenders like the Toledo Rockets and Bowling Green Falcons on the road during their conference schedule.
They do get the benefit of facing the defending MAC West Division champion Northern Illinois Huskies at home this season which could determine who makes it through to the MAC Championship this season. Additionally, they draw a somewhat favorable cross-scheduling with the MAC East, drawing the Massachusettes Minutemen in a late conference showdown.
The key for Ball State will be the quarterback play. If they can’t find a decent replacement under center for Wenning, the team will struggle, no matter how talented the skill positions are or how improved the defense gets. With a capable signal caller, look for the Cardinals to challenge once again for the MAC title and finish the year with around 10 wins.