MUNCIE – The daylight went down an hour earlier than the day before and the winds constantly whipped through Schumann Stadium at dusk Sunday evening.
The weather was on the border between cool and cold-not exactly a deep freeze but perhaps a bit uncomfortable to those not liking the first signs of winter.
For a football team, these conditions can signal two things: Either the frigid end to a long season or an indicator that the most important football of the season is to come.
At Ball State, it’s the latter-yet again.
“In November, it’s like the championship month,” said Cardinals senior defensive tackle Nathan Ollie. “Everybody knows what it takes. We know what it takes to win.”
That’s apparent in 2013 more than the previous seasons when the Cardinals entered November either with a shot to clinch a bowl berth or already having done so. After 6-6 and 9-4 seasons in the first two years of head coach Pete Lembo’s tenure at Ball State, the Cardinals have raced out to an 8-1 record and find themselves tied atop the Mid-American Conference’s West Division.
Wednesday they begin a three-game stretch of conference games against Central Michigan at home-the first of what figures to be an eventful month in Muncie.
“That’s the goal for any program-get to this point in the year and to have a lot on the line,” said Lembo. “Obviously to get bowl eligible as early as we did was exciting and now we know with each additional win that just enhances our chances of not only going to a game but going to a good game.”
Maybe even a game before their bowl game. With three victories over the Chippewas, at Northern Illinois and then at home against Miami to end the season, the Cardinals would win the MAC West and advance to the conference championship game in Detroit on Friday, December 6th.
“From year one with these coaches I feel like we’ve gotten better, every day, every week, ” said senior quarterback Keith Wenning. “Over three years we’ve taken a huge jump. All the players that are back and all of the guys who have been in the program over the years, we’re playing a level of football where we imagined when we came to college.”
One of the main reasons the team has and is making this a more meaningful November in a while is because of Wenning and the offense. The quarterback has thrown for 2,786 yards and 19 touchdowns while completing 63 percent of his passes in leading the Cardinals to a 39.4 point per game average-18th best in the country.
His main target has been receiver Willie Snead, whose caught 65 passes for 1,057 yards and ten touchdowns and agrees that the Cardinals’ familiarity with Lembo has helped the team improve from its nine-win season from a year ago.
“Guys bought in. First year guys were probably a little iffy,” said Snead. “Now that everybody’s buying in and everybody trusts the system, that allows us to do a little more within the system and make plays.”
Still more will be needed for the Cardinals to accomplish their main goal of winning their first division title since 2008 and their first overall MAC championship since 1996. While Central Michigan and Miami (OH) each have losing records, Northern Illinois are perhaps the best non-BCS conference team in the country and will await the Cardinals in DeKalb November 13th.
Of course, the coaches will caution against looking past the Chippewas this Wednesday and the goals that may be ahead in a couple of weeks, but Lembo doesn’t think it will be a major task.
“The one thing that I think these kids have done a great job with is never putting the cart before the horse, never looking to far ahead,” said Lembo. “So going back to August, it was all about Illinois State and then it was Army and then it was North Texas and none of that is changed.
“You don’t forget how you got this far.”
When the chill in the air means that big things are ahead.