MUNCIE – Halfway through Ball State's season-opening football game against Illinois State on Thursday at Scheumann Stadium, there was little doubt that the Cardinal defense would be written about abundantly today. None of it would have been pleasant for Ball State fans, coaches or players to read.
As it turned out, a lot will still be written about that unit, but probably none of it will be too harsh. The difference is that almost no one will remember the initial 30 minutes of football, only the final half, which culminated with the Cardinals spanking the Redbirds 51-28 in front of 16,327 fans.
“I am very, very proud of our kids,” third-year coach Pete Lembo said. “We beat a really good football team tonight. Those guys were great looking.”
Lembo wasn't just being kind in his assessment of a beaten opponent Illinois State (0-1) was impressive to watch, including throughout the first half when it dominated the Ball State defense in building a 21-9 second-quarter lead.
“Their offensive line,” Lembo continued, “maybe (future Ball State opponent) Virginia's will be better looking than those guys, but we're not going to see many that are that big and physical.”
That made what transpired in the second half all the more impressive.
The Cardinal defense had spent the first half getting embarrassed to the tune of 250 yards of total offense and 21 points. However, in the third quarter Illinois State could muster just 34 yards of offense and nary a sniff of the end zone.
“I really, really liked how everybody kept their composure,” Lembo said. “We were playing a lot of new guys on defense.”
Ball State (1-0) did indeed start four new defensive players (Ben Ingle, Zack Ryan, Christopher Calloway and Martez Hester), and two others (Joel Cox and Brian Jones) who were part-time starters a year ago. And it showed early.
“At times, we were a little aggressive early,” Lembo said. “At times, we didn't always read our keys early. But nobody panicked.”
The same couldn't be said throughout the stadium, as Cardinals fans were feeling a bit red-faced for all of the wrong reasons.
Ball State got a late score in the final seconds of the second quarter to trail just 21-16 at halftime and that was exactly what Lembo felt was needed to give his team some positive momentum.
“There was no panic at halftime,” Lembo said. “There was no peeling the paint off the wall. We just went about our business. We knew that we were capable of playing better in the second half.”
And they did. Particularly up front defensively.
“I really liked all of the tackles for a loss,” Lembo said. “We didn't change a whole lot that we did defensively in the second half. We just executed better and we were able to get a bunch of defensive linemen free get (Illinois State) off schedule a bunch.”
To what degree were the Redbirds “off schedule"? Try this: Ball State had 15 tackles for a loss against that impressive offensive front that Lembo spoke of.
To put that in perspective, Ball State averaged just more than four tackles for a loss per game a year ago. Cardinals senior defensive tackle Nate Ollie registered eight tackles for a loss as a junior, but he had four Thursday.
Ollie was joined by linebacker Ingle (three tackles for a loss, plus an interception), Cox (two tackles for a loss) and Jones (a team-best 10 tackles) as defensive standouts. Not bad for a unit that was being lambasted throughout the stadium – if not the locker room – at halftime.
“It was a good way to start,” Lembo said. “We haven't had many wins by that kind of margin here in our first two years.”