KENT, Ohio – Ball State offensive coordinator Rich Skrosky gathered his group in a conference room at a hotel south of Cleveland last Friday night and he delivered several points of emphasis for the Cardinals' game the following day at Kent State. However, there was one component of the Golden Flashes play that really captured the attention of the 29-year coach and he wanted to make sure that his young players grasped what Kent State would try to do to them in less than 15 hours.
“Kent State understands what is important to winning and losing,” Ball State offensive coordinator Rick Skrosky explained. “They've created 10 turnovers in three games. We talk every Friday since I've been here about five things: turnovers are number one.”
Shortly after kickoff the following day, Ball State immediately drove down the field and in nine plays had reached the Golden Flashes' one-yard line. On the 10th play, Cardinal quarterback Keith Wenning fumbled the ball and the Golden Flashes recovered. That mistake would prove to be critical later in the 45-43 Cardinal loss.
Welcome to coaching.
The Cardinals spent six days preparing for their game with Kent State and the amount of drills, discussion, details, discussion, debate, more discussion, and finally an incredible amount of diagramming that filled that span was unfathomable to the regular football fan.
Following the Cardinals' defeat, coach Pete Lembo accepted the blame and said that he needed to prepare his team better to perform on Saturdays. That was nice coach-speak, but in reality, he understands what every other coach – in every other sport – comprehends, and that is sometimes you simply don't play well despite spending the better part of 156 hours in preparation.
Ball State allowed me to spend the final 25 hours prior to Saturday's kick-off entrenched with the squad. I traveled with the team, watched their final walk-through, and sat in on the meetings (and there is an unending amount of them). What I came away with were two main thoughts:
1. A Ball State defeat is never going to be the result of lack of preparation.
2. Anyone that feels that they grasp the nuances of the sport because they played in high school or maybe have spent countless hours watching ESPN, in truth, has no comprehension how very complex this sport is.
On the road again
The Cardinals opened the road trip by loading 100 people onto charter buses, as well as loading their stomachs (the first of many opportunities to gorge) for the five-plus hour ride.
The three buses are divided among offense, defense and a combination of reserves and special teams players on the third bus. I was a passenger on the third bus, which I am willing to bet, had a very different environment than either of the first two.
An example of this was following the defeat, the bus hadn't even pulled away from Dix Stadium and there was already players cracking jokes, laughing and arguing about which movie to watch on the way home.
Needless to say that wouldn't have been the case on a bus with the senior coaches, and if Aaron Mershman had his way, it wouldn't continue on this bus either.
“I just texted my roommate that I am about to go off on some people,” Mershman said with a touch of disgust.
Mershman is a former Cardinal tight end that had to stop playing this season due to repeated concussions, but still assists the program by helping out the graduate assistants with a variety of tasks.
“He'll be a great graduate assistant,” Lembo said of Mershman. “He does a fantastic job for us.”
Mershman spent the first leg of the trip discussing religion (he has organized Bible study sessions among the team), philosophy and a bit of politics with graduate assistant Jackson Boyd, a Vermont native who is hell-bent on becoming the next Bill Polian. As Mershman jumped between talk of the disciples and burying his face in Kent State notes, “21 Jump Street” blared overhead on the many high-def TV screens that fill the bus (this isn't your old high school road trip on an uncomfortable bus and maybe a stop at McDonald's if you are lucky).
Not only is comfort and entertainment not lacking for the Cardinal players, neither is food. The players eat a lot – and often.
Prior to leaving the players each were provided with bag of food consisting of about 2,500 calories and a couple of drinks (Heaven on earth for a member of the media).
A productive break
To break-up the trip, Lembo had his team stop at Ohio Northern University, a Division III school in Ada, Ohio for a 90-minute walk-through.
Over his career as a head coach, one of the many things that Lembo has learned is that players get complacent if given a certain practice routine. So he has a couple of different walk-through schedules to follow so that the players never know what drill is coming next.
The workout begins with Cardinal strength coach David Feeley exorting the players through stretching and warm-ups. It is one of the first of Feeley's responsibilities on the day, but not his last. His day ends with him sending 66 individualized text messages to the travel squad with words of encouragement. Feeley's developmental work with the players doesn't cease when it reaches their neck.
The walk-through session concluded with Lembo practicing substitution patterns with the players. He would call out the name of a player “Calloway is down,” and his back-up would run to the other line. The coach did this through the offensive and defensive rotations, special teams and even in specific game situations. There would never be an instance where the Cardinal coaches would not know who is entering the game and why.
On the road, part II
Following the walk-through in shorts and a helmet (no pads), it was back on the bus with more food and drinks and another movie (“Super Troopers,” which had to be written by a pair of pre-pubescent 14-year-olds).
The Cardinals arrived at the hotel south of Cleveland and with that, relaxation time is finished.
Even prior to leaving, each player is handed an itinerary that details this road trip to the minute and upon reaching the hotel, these players will spend the next four hours being instructed, fed again of course, and motivated.
Winning is in the details
Following dinner, the squad broke up into meetings with the special teams session being conducted first under the direction of special teams coach Justin Lustig.
The Erie, Penn. native read excerpts from a book on Joe Paterno (though Lustig admitted being a Notre Dame fan, not a Nittany Lion fan) on the importance of “winning the kicking game.”
Lustig spent the better part of an hour going over for the umpteenth time that week each players' responsibilities and even tasks for the coaching staff in watching each player on kickoffs and punts.
Not only was “winning the kicking game” emphasized by the coach , whose special teams are the best in the Mid-American Conference statistically, but also the importance of not allowing Kent State speedster Dri Archer to get loose for big gains on kickoff returns.
He did, but more on that in a minute.
To Lustig's dismay, not only did Cardinal kicker Steven Schott miss a field goal, but he also missed an extra point (he had made 54 consecutive entering Saturday's game).
It was that kind of a trip.
Lustig showed video clip after video clip of not just where the Kent State players would be on each punt, punt return, kickoff and kickoff return, but more specifically what Archer's tendencies would be. He stressed the importance of not “folding,” which doesn't mean what the common vernacular leads one to believe, which could allow Archer a lane to the outside.
Midway through the second quarter on Saturday, Lustig had to have been sick to his stomach as he watched Archer bolt through the Cardinals and streak unscathed 99 yards for a touchdown.
“My biggest disappointment today was special teams,” Lembo said after the game. “That has been our ace in the hole.”
Lustig knows full well that no one pays much notice to special teams until a day like Saturday occurs.
Class is in session
Following the special teams meeting, the offensive and defensive groups meet separately for an hour. In the offensive session, Skrosky detailed exactly what would need to happen for the Cardinals to succeed, how it would happen, and in some instances, when it would happen.
Aside from his emphasis on ball security (the Cardinals fumbled the ball three times) going out the window, he did show the players exactly how the Ball State passing attack could exploit Kent State underneath its secondary (Wenning threw for 445 yards and five touchdowns). However, the Cardinal run game (less than three yards per attempt) never got on track as Skrosky had hoped.
For the players, football may indeed be their most mentally demanding class that they endure in the four to five years in Muncie. Each player has reams of information supplied by their position coaches and they are continuously tested on that information and how to implement it on the field.
The players carried their notebooks on the bus, at meals, in meetings, just about the entire road trip their packet of Kent State reports weren't out of reach.
Finally, a good movie
The Ball State coaches did allow the players to let their hair down (particularly in the case of tight end Zane Fakes) to close Friday night, as Lembo delivered some final words.
“This season is just flying by,” Lembo said. “I don't feel like we've played our best yet. We've got another opportunity to do that. To put it all on the line. So it's going to come down to this:
Who can be more physical?
Who can be more focused?
Who can execute better?
Who wants to get to Detroit (for the MAC championship game) more?
Let's make sure that it's us.”
And with that a Ball State version of “The Fast and the Furious” video montage of Cardinal highlights (put together by video coordinator Jared Law) exploded onto a screen to give the Cardinal players several minutes of motivation before heading to bed (late night snack provided before bed of course). And without question it was the best movie I saw all weekend.
Never stop recruiting
While the Ball State players and coaches were immersed in meetings, Cardinal assistant coach Joey Lynch couldn't waste an opportunity to continue building for the future.
He went and watched a Cardinal verbal commitment play at a nearby high school on Friday night and continued to get the Ball State message and presence out in northeast Ohio, an area that in the past has been very fruitful for this program.
More meetings (and food)
Game day opened with a 7:30 a.m. meeting of the coaching staff, where they went over playing rotations and general goals and philosophies for what their expectations were.
Lembo even wanted details from Cardinal assistant athletic director for football operations Corey Bass on how long of a walk it was from the locker room to the field (details, details).
Following breakfast, the coaches met with their position players one last time, in the case of receivers coach Keith Gaither, it was part instruction, part motivation.
“We've been doing a great job of lining up fast,” Gaither said. “There are going to be some times when they are looking at the sidelines and they ain't going to be ready. So don't be surprised if you can get a hot ball to you. And if they are playing cover two in 12 (personnel), shame on them.”
Feel the tension
The bus ride to the stadium was tense and quiet. The only sounds were the hum of the bus and faint music emanating out of the headphones on each of the players. This was a group that had spent a week in preparation, both physically and mentally, and now it was time to produce.