DETROIT – Five years ago, the Ball State football program gave its fan base a glimpse of what could be.
The Cardinals rode a talented quarterback, who had pro aspirations, as well as a really good coach, to an unbeaten regular season, a national ranking and the television appearances that accompany it, and an appearance in the Mid-American Conference Championship Game at Ford Field.
The Cardinal Nation was then blindsided with a crack block of departures by Nate Davis (the aforementioned quarterback) and coach Brady Hoke, and it has never returned to that level since.
Until now. Where the program – in all facets - is actually better than it was five years ago.
Keith Wenning and Pete Lembo will stride into Ford Field this morning for the MAC Media Day festivities, and with them they'll carry the hopes of the Ball State fan base, who are dreaming (many say “expecting”) that those two will make this trip again in five months.
“There is a clock that is ticking,” Cardinal strength and conditioning coach David Feeley explained earlier this summer, “from the very end of last season, until this season, and it's a very unforgiving clock.”
That clock struck midnight with the loss of Davis to the NFL and Hoke to San Diego State, and unfortunately, it'll do the same with Wenning, who is in his final season of eligibility, and more than likely Lembo, whose name is on a legal pad inside the desks of BCS athletic directors across the country. That is why the 2013 season is so critical for this program.
If the Cardinals don't take advantage of having its best quarterback (yes, I typed “best”) and best coach (I did it again) in program history by winning a championship this year, when will they?
The Ball State following has learned that everything can change quickly. So it's imperative that championships are won when the opportunity presents itself.
Title hopes all start with Lembo, who has constructed every fiber of this program with a specific purpose. That is what separates him from Hoke. Lembo's attention to detail off of the field may be more impressive than it is on it.
But regardless of how great Lembo is as a coach, he can't make the winning (or is it “Wenning”) plays. He needs his stellar quarterback to do so.
“Keith is such an interesting guy,” Feeley said. “He is the focal point of this program. He handles himself very well. He's humble and he keeps a low profile. When he leaves (the Fisher Football Complex), he doesn't want anyone to know who he is.”
In that regard, Wenning has failed.
The senior has his name plastered all over the Cardinal record book and he enters his final year as a candidate for the Davey O'Brien National Quarterback Award, as well as the Maxwell Award.
“Keith is a genuinely great person,” Feeley said. “He's a great asset to this program. He'll go down as one of the greats.”
No, he'll go down as the greatest.
As good as the physically blessed Davis was, when it came to work ethic, intelligence, leadership, and maturity, there were questions surrounding him at Ball State and they followed him right into the NFL during his brief career.
When it comes to Wenning, the only question that the Ball State coaches ever pose is 'How did we get this lucky to have this guy?'
“It's really a trust factor with him,” Feeley said. “We can trust him with anything. You can't buy that.”
The Cardinal fans have placed their “trust” in Lembo and Wenning for a championship season. And they won't disappoint.