BALL STATE is located in Muncie, IN about 60 miles northeast of Indianapolis. The Cardinals are members of the Mid-American Conference (MAC). They have, for their entire existence, played in the shadow of Indiana, Purdue and Notre Dame while fighting for state-wide credibility. They have had successful seasons in the past that include MAC championships and Bowl appearances, however this season arguably has the potential for being their greatest year and, in my opinion, the most talented team in their history.
If the season were to end today, they've already accomplished something no other Cardinal team has in their history. They are now ranked in the top 25 of every major football poll in the country. As I write, they stand undefeated at 7-0 and, depending on which poll you look at, are ranked anywhere from 23rd to 25th.
Ball State has had several players in their history go on to have successful NFL careers, most notably Brad Maynard and Reggie Hodges, who are currently punting with the Chicago Bears and New York Jets respectively. Bernie Parmelee, Blaine Bishop, Terry Schmidt, Ken Kremer, Reggie McKenzie and Justin Beriault also played in the NFL and have since retired. But the thing about this years Cardinal squad is the number of potential future NFL players on the squad. There could be almost as many future NFL players on this year's team as Ball State has produced in all previous years combined.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention a critical loss for the team. Dante Love, the offensive leader on this team and who was leading the nation in catches, among the leaders in kickoff returns and most certainly would have been on an NFL roster next season, had his playing career cut short with a cervical spine injury during the game against Indiana. Following successful surgery and rehabilitation that continues, I am happy to report the prognosis for a "full and normal life" has been made for Dante. Unfortunately, that life won't include playing football anymore but thankfully, he is doing fine and is scheduled to be released from rehab soon. An injury of this magnitute, to arguably an All-American caliber player, would have negatively turned a season around for many teams but Ball State has used this as motivation and going out to win for Dante. My best wishes to Dante Love and somehow, I have the feeling we've not seen the last of his involvement in football in some capacity.
Let's take a look at this years addition of the Ball State Cardinals.
Ball State Coaching Staff
Head Coach - Brady Hoke
Brady Hoke is one of 18 Division1A head coaches coaching at his alma mater. He was a linebacker at Ball State during his college playing days. He is in his 6th season leading the Cardinals. It took five years but Hoke has turned this football program around from being a laughing stock (you'll recall even alum David Letterman made fun of Ball State when they owned the longest losing streak in the nation) to being nationally ranked for the first time in school history. Now you'll find Letterman bragging each Monday night on his show of the success of the "Ball State Fighting Football Cardinal football team" .
Brady Hoke withstood some pressure from some of the vocal fans who were calling for a change after a couple of seasons but he stayed the course and showed steady improvement over the past 3 years, culminating with their current streak in 2008. No doubt, he is likely to be drawing lots of attention after this season as teams replace head coaches at some of the other schools in the country.
Offensive Coordinator - Stan Parrish
Ball State is extremely fortunate to have Stan Parrish on its staff. Coach Parrish has been a coach at both the collegiate and professional levels. He was head coach at Marshall and Kansas State and, while the offensive coordinator at Michigan, coached future NFL QB's Tom Brady and Brian Griese. While coaching at Tampa Bay in the NFL, he coached QB Brad Johnson. He knows offense, he knows his players and what they are capable of. Stan Parrish should get much of the credit for Ball State's success and an offense averging over 35 points per game thus far.
Defensive Coordinator - Mark Smith
Talk about Ball State football and the chatter usually ends up being about the offense. But maybe the are of biggest improvement is with the defense. Under the leadership of Mark Smith, a near 30 year coaching veteran, the defense has shown remarkable improvement in 2008. He has been with the Cardinals since 2003 and this year's defense is much stronger, faster, more aggressive and experienced and its showing up on the field. The highlight of the season defensively thus far has to be the 31-0 shutout victory at Toledo followed up by a 24-7 win at Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers only got into the end zone within the last minute of the game while the 2nd stringers were on the field.
Without question, this is the Cardinals strongsuit with top notch talent at every position including possibly 4 potential future NFL players, led by Junior standout Quarterback Nate Davis. Davis has already re-written just about every Ball State passing record. Has an NFL caliber arm, the ability to make great decisions quickly and, while not your traditional running QB, he is more mobile than he is given credit. Mel Kiper had him 3rd on his NFL QB watch list. In 2007 Davis threw for 3,367 yeards, had over a 56% completion percentage with 30 touchdown passes and only 6 interceptions. This year, he has improved his completion average to over 68%, enjoys a QB rating of 162.26, and has thrown for 13 TD's and 4 Int's thus far.
Davis has no shortage of talented receivers to choose from. Darius Hill is viewed as one of the top 10 tight ends in the country and is a favorite target. This season, he's also a favorite target of defenses and often finds himself in double coverage. Hill stands at 6-6 and has bulked up this year to 236lbs. I am confident we'll see Darius in an NFL uniform next season.
Briggs Orsbon, a true freshman wide receiver has been making his presence felt and thus far has 28 catches and 3 touchdowns this season. His role became much larger when Dante went down and Briggs has responded by leading the team in receptions.
Running back MiQuale Lewis is near the top in rushing in the nation and will likely go over 1000 yards rushing for the season in his next game. Lewis was on his way to a 1000+ yard season in 2007 when an ACL injury in the first half of the schedule ended his season. This season, he has scored 13 touchdowns thus far and garnered 914 rushing yards. Successfully running the ball is without a doubt the single biggest improvement. Defenses have been so focused on containing Nate Davis, it has opened up the running game and Lewis is making the defenses pay. His build is similar to Michael Turner and his power, quick moves and low to the ground stature make him hard to stop.
Much of the credit for Davis's and Lewis's success has to be given to the Offensive Line. This outstanding group is led by Seniors Dan Gerberry (Center) and Tackle Robert Brewster. Both are sure to get their shot in NFL camps next season. They have done a fastastic job of protecting Nate Davis, allowing only 4 sacks thus far, and consistently open holes for the running game.
Coming into this season, a real question mark was how well the defense would perform. This was a definate weak spot in recent seasons. Often it appeared the Cardinals were incapable of stopping anyone. Much improvement was needed. Much improvement has been made at every facet. This year's defensive squad appears much faster, and attacking the ball as a group instead of a player or two.
The defensive line is anchored by Brandon Crawford. This 6-3 260 lb. 32 year old Junior has made his presence felt all season long. When a big stop is needed, you'll find "Craw-daddy" leading the charge. He did a tour of duty with the Marines before ultimately ending up at Ball State to earn his degree and play a little football. Brandon and his story has been featured this year on ESPN.
The linebacking corp is very strong led by Senior Bryant Haines. Soph LB Davyd Jones leads the team in tackles and LB Kenny Meeks rounds out an extremely strong linebacking crew..
The Secondary is much also much improved and has shown the ability to stop the long pass. Freshman Sean Baker leads the team in interceptions with 4 and also added a fumble recovery for a TD. Earlier this season, Sean earned National Defensive Player of the week honors.
Just when you think you've seen all of the Cardinal's weapons, Punter Chris Miller comes out on the field. Miller is an all-american punter that has been in the top 5 in the nation his entire college career. He is a definate defensive weapon with the consistent ability to down the ball inside the 20. His best year was 2007 when his net average was 45.4 yards per punt. Look for Chris Miller to join former Ball State punters Maynard and Hodges in the NFL next year.
So there you have it. Now you know a little more about the Ball State Cardinals - a mid-major program that is on the rise. It's been a long road to respectibility and, when you're a mid-major, you can never let up once you achieve it or it can be gone in an instant. I am confident they will continue to build on this year's success in the years to come.
Keep up the intensity! Keep the focus! Reap the rewards. I'm not sure where the Cards will end up this season and even if they run the table, the way the BCS is set up (don't get me started - another blog for another day), it is unlikely they will crack a BCS Bowl, but wherever they go, they will represent Ball State University and the Mid-American Conference with pride.