MUNCIE -- Did you see this coming, Ball State whipping on the Big Ten and the Big East in consecutive weeks, right after getting hammered at powerhouse Clemson?
Travis Freeman did. He's the Cardinals senior linebacker, an All-Mid-American Conference performer who basically has started every game since his freshman season. He's seen the 2-10 bad times from 2009 and recognizes this 3-1 start is way, way cooler.
“With the culture change, it's great,” he says. “It's a whole different atmosphere. You talk about the excitement from the fans, the students, the media. It's a big deal. I've seen this program at its lowest. And it hurt me.”
Freeman isn't hurting now. So how does he explain these cliffhanger victories, with Saturday's 31-27 win over highly regarded South Florida at Scheumann Stadium topping the list?
“There comes a time in a program's history where you have to make a stand,” he says. “That's what I preached to the guys.
“We're tired of being average. We worked too hard to be average or just compete. It's time to start taking advantage of some opportunities. This was a big opportunity -- a Big East team coming to our stadium. It was one of arguably the biggest teams to come to the Scheu. We work all year for these opportunities. You bleed. You sweat. Your body is sore 90 percent of the year and it pays off for games like this. The guys took that into consideration, took that to heart and left it out on the field.”
Leaving it the most was receiver Willie Snead, a sophomore from Florida whose career-best game consisted of 11 catches for 135 yards and a jaw-dropping, one-handed, 19-yard, game-winning touchdown catch in the last minute. He dedicated his performance to his mother, who called him crying on Saturday morning that she couldn't leave Florida to make the game. So she and the rest the family watched from a sports bar in Palm Beach.
“I wanted to play for my family,” Snead says. “I wanted to play to my best ability and make them proud. I feel like I did that.”
Then there was cornerback Eric Patterson, also a sophomore from Florida (do you see a recruiting pattern here?), who saved a leaking secondary with a victory clinching interception on the game's final play.
Freeman watched it all like a father.
“I'm so proud of Willie and Eric,” he says. “Willie was my roommate when he came in (to enroll at Ball State) early. I told him he'd have to grow up fast. It's all paying off. Him coming to school early, seizing the opportunity to come in the spring and get a jump on everybody. He's reaping the benefits now.
“Eric had to grow up a lot this off-season. I pushed him. And I pushed him. It paid off.”
Directing the pay off is Lembo, who in two years has restored the luster achieved by former coach Brady Hoke, who is now at Michigan.
“Over 12 years (as a head coach) I've become more even keeled during a game and before a game,” Lembo says. “I've seen almost everything. There are few surprises. Where it gets emotional is later at night. I won't be able to sleep. I'll replay everything in my mind. I'll think about the players and the assistant coaches. Where we've come from and where we are.”
The Stan Parrish coaching debacle -- a two-year record of 6-18 along with enough bad chemistry to last a decade -- left the program in disarray. Lembo built it back up with an emphasis on the physical and the mental.
Strength coach Dave Feeley took care of the physical with a strength training program that reaped instant benefits. The Cardinals out-muscled Indiana last year at Lucas Oil Stadium, then had similar success a few weeks ago in Bloomington.
Then, of course, they more than held their own against South Florida.
Lembo and his staff handle the mental side. Sure, that means strategy, game plans and various offensive and defensive alignments. But more than that, it means an approach and philosophy that works whether you coach at Elon or Lehigh or Ball State or beyond.
“We've become a more detailed team,” Freeman says. “Yes, the physical part, with Coach Feeley getting us bigger, stronger and faster. That's one aspect. But Coach Lembo preaches detail. That's what we were lacking in the past. When Coach Stan Parrish was here, we lost a lot of games in the fourth quarter. Because of the lack of detail, we didn't know how to win in the fourth quarter. It's as simple as that. We didn't know how to finish games. Coach Lembo puts an emphasis on finishing.”
Ball State finishes well enough under Lembo to be 6-1 in games decided by four points or less. It's not by accident.
“It goes back to practice,” Lembo says. “We practice situations. We're very demanding in practice. It pays off. Every minute counts.”
Now you have to look at Ball State as a MAC contender along with unbeaten Ohio (with a victory at Penn State), Central Michigan (a win over Iowa), Northern Illinois and Toledo. With Ball State opening conference play Saturday at Kent State (2-1), Lembo doesn't want any excuses that the brutal non-conference schedule leaves the Cardinals too battered for MAC success.
“Let's play our game, play our best and see what happens.”
If you know how to look, you can see what's coming.