Mutka: Cardinals, Crusaders, Mustangs thrive
February 24, 2013 11:14PM
Updated: March 26, 2013 9:48AM
Hello, you Mid-American Conference football bashers. Time to give the underrated league its props.
Food for thought
Last season, Ball State, Northern Illinois and Kent State represented the league in bowl games.
That’s no surprise to Ball State coach Pete Lembo, a transplanted New Yorker from Staten Island. In his second year, he guided the Cardinals to a 9-4 record, which included victories over Indiana, Army and South Florida.
During a recent stopover for the 59th annual Sportsmanship Banquet to give 29 Northwest Indiana sectional basketball teams a pep talk, Lembo cited conference balance. “The competitive difference between No. 1 and 10 is not all that dramatic.”
What impressed even more was the MAC’s collective performance against BCS teams in non-conference games.
“Beyond ourselves the conference had some big wins,” Lembo points out.
Here’s a sampling
Northern Illinois beat Kansas and Iowa, Ohio U. stunned Penn State, Kent State beat Rutgers, which is heading for the Big Ten, and Western Michigan downed Connecticut. All the wins came in hostile environments.
Ball State is thriving despite modest means. For instance, football giants like Nebraska spend more on recruiting than Ball State does on its entire operating budget. More than $700,000 in 2011, according to a list of Big Ten big spenders for football talent.
“That’s approaching the threshold of the total MAC day-to-day operating budget,” said Lembo. “It’s not a level playing field.”
He was not complaining, merely stating facts. Ball State spends somewhere between $100,000 to $150,000 on recruiting, which falls $75,000 short of the stingiest Big Ten recruiting budget.
Mid-majors can’t afford mistakes, given their limited means. So when Lembo signed 21 players they were a product of his selective approach.
Fourteen future Cardinals were team captains. Ten recruits came from programs which won 10 games. Eleven will graduate with 3.0 GPAs. Tapping the connections he made while coaching at Elon University from 2006-10, seven athletes with North Carolina roots are coming to Muncie.
“We recruited leaders,” he said. “That’s the most important thing.”
If it comes down to choosing between recruits with identical athletic ability, Ball State bases its decision on intangibles and academics.
Expectant Ball State fans can anticipate a wildly exciting season. Its high-octane offense promises points galore with quarterback Keith Wenning, who passed for 3,094 yards and 24 touchdowns.
He’ll be spiraling aerials to wide receivers Willie Smith (89 catches, 1,148 yards), Jamil Smith (69/706), who padded his all-purpose yardage to 1,757 yards with kickoff and punt returns, and Connor Ryan (44/357) as well as tight end Zane Fakes (57/461).
“All our skilled people are back and special teams have been our secret weapon,” Lembo said, “but we lost several offensive linemen,”
That means replacing blockers who ranked 15th nationally in giving up fewest sacks (1.08 per game). Casualties include Dan Manick, a Lake Central grad who started 38 games in four years.
“He played tackle and guard,” Lembo said, gushing with enthusiasm about Manick’s achievements on and off the field. “He’s a bio chemistry major with a 3.0 GPA, who’s pursuing a career in medical sales. He’s already got job interviews set up for the spring, a kid who’s really got his head on straight.”
If the Cardinals can plug some defensive holes, they could replace Northern Illinois as the premier MAC team. That’s a big if, though. Opponents stung them for 32 points and 462 yards per game in 2012.
Manick’s departure leaves the Cardinals without a Northwest Indiana presence in the lineup. Offensive lineman Dave Raffin, 6-3, 305; and walk-on kicker Kyle Schmidt could alter the landscape, but neither Chesterton grad played last year.
On bracket busting
Incoming Eastern Kentucky came into Valparaiso with a school-record 22 victories and leading the Ohio Valley Conference with a defensive scoring average of 63.7 points. The Colonels had also scored at least 80 points in five of their last six games, but fizzled dramatically Saturday. They also lost Corey Walden, who scored 20 points before departing with 9:22 left.
“Just a strained knee, nothing serious,” said relieved EKU coach Jeff Neubauer.
He compared Valparaiso to Belmont (22-6), which leads the OVC and demolished 20-game winner Ohio Saturday.
“Belmont has an RPI of 28,” he said after VU’s 22-point victory. “Valpo’s very similar, great shooters, pass and move the ball well.”
The Crusaders shot a sizzling 68.2 percent to send 3,336 fans home happy.
Will Bogan, one of VU’s four ‘little’ guards, stashed 13 points. More impressive defensively, he muzzled EKU’s Glenn Cosey, who brought a 15.7 average into the ARC, but managed just four points.
“I knew he was their scoring leader and shot a lot of threes,” Bogan said. “So I took it kind of personal, chasing him.”
Cosey went 1-for-10 from the field, missing all six of his 3-point attempts.
Bryce Drew believes Bogan is peaking at the right time.
“In the last three weeks he’s been playing his best basketball in two years at Valpo,” the coach said. “Offensively, he’s moving well without the ball and has been more aggressive driving, getting into the lane. Defensively, this was his best game.”
Valparaiso should be rested for Tuesday’s game with visiting Youngstown State, which snapped its six-game winning streak on Jan. 30. Kendrick Perry’s 28 points and 11 rebounds inspired the Penguins, but injured his knee in practice Wednesday and was negotiating the campus on crutches last Friday.
Subs accounted for 34 points and 16 rebounds in VU’s 82-60 romp. Reserve guards LaVonte Dority and Ben Boggs, who hit double figures, logged more minutes than big guns, Ryan Broekhoff and Kevin Van Wijk.
This essentially meaningless game brought EKU-Valparaiso together for the first time since 1985. Interrupting the conference season during crunch time is never a good idea, but since when has ESPN considered the programs involved when punching out its schedule?
“It was a fun game,” Bogan protested, “playing somebody you haven’t seen before.”
Around Christmas, maybe. Not in the last two weeks of the season. Not when it could artificially affect conference championship races.
On guard, Munster
Congratulations to the Mustangs, who went 22-0. Beware of a sectional letdown, though. Classic examples:
In 1956 undefeated Bishop Noll lost to Hammond in the sectional. It was a real shocker, considering that Noll’s roster was loaded with Mike Graney and Bob Bradtke, who continued at Notre Dame, and Ron Loneski, who was Wilt Chamberlain’s teammate at Kansas.
In 1975-76 Tom Linger’s Lake Central squad also went 20-0, but lost to Highland in the first game of the sectional.
Consider yourself warned.