Ball State @ Northern Illinois Preview: Say Hi to Lembo-ball

Ball State has come out of nowhere this season to be bowl-eligible at 6-3 so far on the season. This performance has been nothing short of remarkable by first-year head coach Pete Lembo. Lembo comes from Elon, where he coached for moderate success (32-22) at a program that had hardly had any success before he came to the program. The success of Lembo this season can be attributed to his tremendous staff that has consistently been with him since at least 2005. It's similar to the situation that Kill was in at Southern Illinois and now at Minnesota. He has had a loyal consistent group of assistants this whole time and they really know how to work together and have success.

The Ball State Cardinals have really played life on the margin this season as 5 of their 6 wins have been by 7 points or less. In their last three wins, they have been out-gained significantly yardage-wise by Ohio, Central Michigan and Eastern Michigan. It's almost like this whole season has been a mirage due to the magical coaching and comebacks by Lembo. What do the Cardinals do best? Well it's certainly not defense, as the Cardinals rank a paltry 118th (96th in f/+) in total yards given up. Their offense, special teams and turnover margin has kept them in games. Let's break down what the Cardinals do best on all three phases of the game.

Offense

BSU's offense ranks 8th in the MAC and 73rd in the nation. F/+ only ranks them as 90th in the nation. Their offense has been balanced, ranking 6th in the conference in rushing and 8th in passing.

QB Keith Wenning is the man that makes it all go for the Cardinals. He actually hasn't been that great this season, only when it counts in crunch time. In fact, he only ranks 10th in the MAC in pass efficiency and only averages 6.3 yds/att. He has a good completion pct (64.4), but only has a 15-9 TD to INT ratio. He throws for 223.3 ypg which is good for 7th in the MAC. Due to the dink-and-dunk nature of the offense, BSU ranks 2nd in the conference and 12th in the nation in sacks given up.

At RB has been Jahwan Edwards, a surprise true freshman who has rushed for 681 yds and 10 tds on the season so far. At WR, Briggs Orsbon has been the an to watch with over 5 recs per game and 4 tds on the season. He and Torieal Gibson on the other side only average less than 50 yds per game.

K Steven Schott has been a big part of scoring points for this offense, averaging 1.4 fgs per game. and he is 14 of 18 on the season, putting the Cardinals over the top when need be. He has been 9 for 9 in BSU's last three victories.

Defense

BSU's defense has given up oh-so-many yards this season, but they've stepped it up when it counted. Linebackers Travis Freeman and Aaron Morris lead the defense, each making around 10 tkls per game. S Sean Baker is also one to watch, as he averages 8.25 tkls/g and has 2 ints on the season. Fellow safety Joshua Howard has 7 tkl/g and 3 ints of his own.

Overall the defense has forced 10 ints and 5 fumbles on the season, keeping them on the winning side of the margin.

Special Teams

P Scott Kovanda is the 3rd best punter in the league, booting it with an avg of 43.20 per kick. The Cards have been good at returning punts as well, ranking 2nd in the league in returns.

On kickoff returns, Jamill Smith is a force be reckoned with ranking 3rd in the conference and 26th in the nation averaging 25.88 yds per return. BSU also ranks 35th in the nation in kickoff defense.

NIU's Strategy

On paper, the Cardinals don't look like too much of a threat to the Huskies. Their defense is almost the same as the NIU defense, giving up just enough yards to give the offensive side of the ball a chance. Problem is, the NIU offense is vastly superior than anything that Ball State has to offer. And while NIU's defense seems to be improving, it doesn't seem to be that case for the opponent on Tuesday.

Just play to your strengths on offense and don't turn the ball over. The defense is a wild card, as usual every week, but showed signs of improvement vs. BGSU.

NIU has only lost twice in the past decade at home to Ball State, and both times were to strong, Brady Hoke-coached teams. However, in 2005, the last time the Huskies made the MAC Championship, the Huskies didn't show up to face the Cardinals and lost 21-27. That was the only and last time I saw the Huskies get booed at halftime.

That won't happen with this group of players, this offense and this coaching staff. The Huskies will take this one and make the MAC Championship in stride.

What are your predictions?

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