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DETROIT – Those associated with the Ball State football family – and it is indeed a family – have grown accustomed over the past few seasons to dealing with skepticism.
Not many of the Cardinals faithful believed in this bunch 20 months ago when the university hired a coach out of the FCS to make the jump to the FBS level. And really, who in their right mind envisioned that the Pete Lembo era would get under way with a 27-20 win over Indiana last season?
Most hoped that new Hoosiers coach and former Oklahoma offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson would simply be kind and not humiliate Lembo and his new program. But Lembo and his players understood exactly what they were capable of.
“If you start with good people, with good values, and you are on the same page,” Lembo said, “you have fun going to work every day, and that trickles down to the players. Almost from the start there was this chemistry and unity building. You couldn't have asked for a better start.”
After the Indiana victory, which fueled a stunning 6-6 season (which made the Cardinals eligible for a bowl game), Ball State seemingly would have had little problem convincing people that it is a legitimate Mid-American Conference program again. However, these Cardinals apparently are going to have to fight for respect from just about everyone as they open training camp Wednesday at Scheumann Stadium.
At the recent MAC Media Day at Ford Field in Detroit, where the league championship game will be played in December, the Cardinals were picked to finish a distant fourth out of six MAC West Division squads (trailing Toledo, Northern Illinois and Western Michigan).
In addition to the media not buying into the Cardinals, attendance at Scheumann Stadium last season was only 10,032 fans. That was better than the 8,947 in 2010 but still leaves considerable room for improvement.
“If I could say anything to the student body it would be just to believe,” said Cardinals senior captain Travis Freeman. “It's a sense of belief when you are talking about building a 12th man from your fan base. It's believing in the hard work and dedication that we have put in for this university. And you are a part of this university.”
Much of that reason for disbelief, if you read the preseason blogs and magazines, is centered on the porous defense, which graduated six starters from last season. The Cardinals ranked last or near last in the conference in most statistical categories – and probably even some categories that haven't been created yet. But Lembo is confident that this year will be different for that side of the ball.
“It's more about what we haven't done than what we have done,” Lembo said of why his team will be markedly better for half of each game. “What I mean by that is that this will be the first time that any of these players have had the same defensive coordinator for two years in a row.”
Freeman concurred that a sense of familiarity will make a world of difference. During spring football, Lembo noticed that Freeman was actually instructing other players as to their responsibilities rather than trying to figure everything out all of the time.
“The fact that we get to play in this defense again, will make everything a lot simpler,” Freeman said. “Guys understand the schemes better. It's always a positive when everybody is on the same page and they know exactly what is going on.”
The players developed more confidence over the course of last season, and their effort in the weight room has given them a “swagger” according to Lembo. During spring drills, Cardinals quarterback Keith Wenning began to notice a difference in the defense that he had to face daily in practice, and regardless of the so-called experts' disbelief, Wenning sees that group as much as anyone and now believes in the Ball State defense.
“Our defense, going on what happened in spring practices, has been pushing our offense,” Wenning said. “They've gotten so much better. This year they are going to be more physical and fast. They are going to be knocking some heads around.”
Cynics may consider themselves warned.