The Ball State Cardinals And The Downside To The MAC Life Cycle

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom. And as always, if you don't like numbers, just skip to the words.

We've gone through 11 of 13 teams in our leisurely stroll through the MAC; only Ball State and Northern Illinois remain. And no two teams hammer home the point I've been making over and over in these profiles: that while anybody can win in the MAC, almost nobody can sustain wins in the MAC. In 2007, Northern Illinois went 2-10, dumped Joe Novak and hired Southern Illinois coach Jerry Kill. Meanwhile, in 2008, Ball State started 12-0, established temporary residency in the Top 25, and lost their coach, Brady Hoke, to San Diego State. And both were looking for new coaches again this offseason.

Kill was successful enough (18-6 in the MAC, three bowl games) that he was 'called up' to the Big Ten; Minnesota hired him to replace the drastically unsuccessful Tim Brewster.  Meanwhile, after a 6-18 record in two seasons, Ball State dumped Stan Parrish and hired Elon coach Pete Lembo. NIU found a coach good enough to leave, and he left; a year later, Ball State found an experienced, old hand who wouldn't jump for a better job, and he wasn't good enough to keep the job. Life in the MAC in a nutshell.

So now Ball State hands the keys to Lembo, an interesting hire. He was extremely successful at Lehigh -- 44-14, two NCAA playoff appearances, and a top five finish in 2001 -- before making the odd move to fellow FCS program Elon; the results weren't as viscerally impressive (35-22), but he pulled off four consecutive winning seasons at a school that had won 14 games in the five seasons before he came, so he's got some game. And now he gets a chance at the FBS level.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 4-8 | Adj. Record: 2-10 | Final F/+ Rk**: 114
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
2-Sep SE Missouri State
27-10 W 22.4 - 35.6 L
11-Sep Liberty 23-27 L 14.8 - 41.2 L
18-Sep at Purdue 13-24 L 21.8 - 37.7 L
25-Sep at Iowa 0-45 L 6.7 - 38.0 L
2-Oct at Central Michigan 31-17 W 29.8 - 23.4 W
9-Oct Western Michigan 16-45 L 26.4 - 31.2 L
16-Oct Eastern Michigan 38-41 L 12.8 - 41.7 L
23-Oct at Toledo 24-31 L 21.9 - 30.9 L
30-Oct at Kent State 14-33 L 19.9 - 34.4 L
6-Nov Akron 37-30 W 20.1 - 33.6 L
12-Nov at Buffalo 20-3 W 27.6 - 5.5 W
20-Nov Northern Illinois 21-59 L 25.9 - 32.9 L
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 22.0 94 30.4 88
Adj. Points Per Game 20.8 105 32.2 100

Ball State certainly improved from 2009 to 2010, but not enough for Stan Parrish to keep his job. The offense showed occasional signs of life performing at or near an average level four times in 12 games; considering quite a few freshmen were in the rotation, there are at least small reasons for optimism on this side of the ball. The defense, however, was both somewhat experienced and simply dreadful, other than a random masterpiece against Buffalo. Winston Churchill would find it difficult being optimistic about the BSU defense.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 113 110 111
RUSHING 110 97 114 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 108 111 104 95
Standard Downs 116 109 117 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 88 98 79 48
Redzone 113 104 116
Q1 Rk 109 1st Down Rk 114
Q2 Rk 108 2nd Down Rk 94
Q3 Rk 111 3rd Down Rk 115
Q4 Rk 95

Ah, low expectations. In the last paragraph, I mentioned that Ball State offense played "at or near an average level" four times and announced that the offense had "at least small reasons for optimism." When compared to the defense, that is true. When compared to the rest of the country ... yikes.

Ball State wanted to run in 2010, but they weren't very good at it. In 2009-10, four-year contributor MiQuale Lewis managed a combined minus-33.2 Adj. POE, which is astoundingly bad. He was great for the 2008 team and terrible afterward. Backup Eric Williams (613 yards, 4.8 per carry, -3.4 Adj. POE, 5 TD) was quite a bit better last fall, but no matter; Lewis graduated, and now Williams has left the program for personal reasons. By default, David Brown (348 yards, 5.6 per carry, -1.7 Adj. POE as a redshirt freshman) and Cory Sykes (260 yards, 5.7 per carry, -1.5 Adj. POE) are your leading returning rushers.

Of course, if his time at Elon is any indication, new offensive coordinator Rich Skrosky might not worry too much about the run game. He was at the helm of a pass-happy Elon Phoenix offense. Ball State's offensive footprint will likely change quite a bit in 2011, and with the personnel at hand, that might not be a bad thing. By far the best returning weapon from last year is receiver Jack Tomlinson (484 yards, 16.7 per catch, 54% catch rate, 6 TD), whose 9.0-per-target average was fantastic for a true freshman. At 5-foot-9, 160 pounds, Tomlinson does not strike the most amazingly physical presence, but he made some noise last fall; not many on this roster can say that. No other receiver averaged above even 7.5 yards per target last year. As is often the case with freshmen, Tomlinson started slow then caught fire. Six games into the season, he had two catches for 39 yards; the next three games, he caught nine for 124. The final three games? Eighteen for 321.

Other tidbits:

  • Ball State enters the fall with two potential starters at quarterback. Keith Wenning (1,373 yards, 5.8 per pass, 55% completion rate, 14 TD, 14 INT) took his lumps as a freshman and is probably the odds-on favorite to win the job, but Kelly Page (470 yards, 6.6 per pass, 54% completion rate, 4 TD, 2 INT) wasn't terrible either. Page (148 pre-sack rushing yards) is a little bit more mobile, but he's nothing to write home about in this regard. Between Wenning, Tomlinson, Brown and tight end Aaron Mershman (125 yards, 9.6 per catch, 68% catch rate), quite a few skill position players got action as either a freshman or redshirt freshman. This probably means pretty good things for 2012-13, but unless Tomlinson gets more help from other receivers, and unless Wenning gets help (and fewer passing downs) from the running game, it might not mean a lot in 2011.
  • The line was easily the strength of the 2010 squad, especially in protecting the passer (a skill that will come in handy this fall), and it returns four starters and 62 career starts. Center Kreg Hunter and tackle Dan Manick are the most experienced of the bunch. When you have this many youngsters learning a new scheme, a stable line is a fantastic asset.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 118 119 118
RUSHING 115 119 102 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 118 114 117 120
Standard Downs 118 119 116 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 112 111 110 105
Redzone 92 77 102
Q1 Rk 114 1st Down Rk 120
Q2 Rk 108 2nd Down Rk 98
Q3 Rk 118 3rd Down Rk 119
Q4 Rk 116

Hmm. It is actually difficult to figure out what to say about a defense that was this bad in this many different areas. Their line was the worst in the country against run blocking, worst in the country on first downs, and bottom ten in basically everything but Passing PPP+, Adj. Sack Rate and red zone numbers. Jay Bateman comes with Lembo from Elon, and all I can say to him is ... good luck. The offense will likely get better before the defense does.

For all intents and purposes, Ball State had three defenders who were downright good for their position: one (end Robert Eddins) is gone, two (safety Sean Baker and cornerback Jason Pinkston) return. Baker (70.0 tackles, 7.0 TFL/sacks, 6 INT, 2 FF, 4 PBU) and Pinkston (50.5 tackles, 1.5 TFL/sacks, 4 INT, 2 FF, 7 PBU) anchor what will probably be an improved, and relatively aggressive, secondary.

If the secondary isn't the relative strength of this unit, the linebacking corps probably is, if only because they are rather experienced. Only one of the top five departs, and three starter-quality LBs return: Travis Freeman (74.5 tackles, 6.0 TFL/sacks), Tony Martin (56.0 tackles, 3.5 TFL/sacks, 2 PBU) and Justin Cruz (42.5 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks, 2 PBU). None of the three really racked up the playmaker stats in 2010, but ... well, only two of the top eight tacklers last year were defensive backs. If nothing else, that tells me that they were decent at the act of tackling. (I'm trying really hard to be positive here.)

Other tidbits:

  • The depth on the defensive line is incredibly shaky. Two of the top three ends (Eddins and Justin Woodard) are gone, and two other backups -- Matthew Mosley and Anthony Stryffeler -- left the team last month. That leaves Andrew Puthoff and ... I'm not sure. DE-turned-TE-turned-LB-turned-DE Ryan Hartke? 214-pound senior Lorren Womack? Is it too late to move to a 3-4? A 2-6 maybe?
  • Looking at Elon's 2010 stats to find general strengths and weaknesses, I saw a defense that played aggressively against the run (38 non-sack tackles for loss) and passively (13 sacks, nine forced fumbles, 13 interceptions). They weren't always successfully aggressive against the run (4.6 yards per carry, almost 200 yards per game), but that's the style I glean from that stat sheet.

Ball State's 2010 Season Set to Music

Sorry, but ... it's got to be Archer Prewitt's "No Defense."

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

It's gone sour rather quickly for the Cardinals, hasn't it...

Biggest Single-Season Def. F/+ Regression, MAC Teams (2007-10)
1. 2010 Ohio (-14.5%, from 31st to 102nd)
2. 2007 Central Michigan (-11.5%, from 75th to 116th)
3. 2007 Toledo (-9.3%, from 92nd to 117th)
4. 2008 Miami (Ohio) (-7.4%, from 65th to 102nd)
5. 2010 Ball State (-7.2%, from 76th to 111th)
6. 2010 Central Michigan (-7.2%, from 42nd to 81st)
7. 2007 Ohio (-6.3%, from 64th to 96th)
8. 2009 Eastern Michigan (-5.9%, from 112th to 119th)
9. 2009 Ball State (-5.6%, from 55th to 76th)
10. 2009 Toledo (-5.0%, from 93rd to 112th)

So when Hoke left, their defense fell apart ... then fell apart again the next season.

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 89
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 107
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** -5 / -2.0
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 15 (8, 7)
Yds/Pt Margin***** +0.8

Ball State fell from 12-0 and No. 12 in the country to hopeless, from home attendance of 19,000 per game to 8,900, in less time than it takes my wife to buy a digital camera. The goal for Pete Lembo in 2012 is not necessarily a certain number of wins and losses; it's simply the restoration of hope. There are some winnable conference home games and plenty of opportunities to create some momentum, but only if they survive a brutal opening month. This year's non-conference slate: vs Indiana in Indianapolis, at South Florida, Army, at Oklahoma.

With a healthy number of starters returning and a healthy four-year performance average, it's not impossible to think that the baseline for this Cardinals team is a lot higher than we assume, a lot higher than they've shown in the last two years. But now they have to prove it. This team fell off a cliff recently, and now begins the climb back toward the top of the MAC.

 

 

---

* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter.  For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

*****Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.

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