As the 2013 season approaches, BroncoBlitz.com will break down each opponent, in an order of what we feel will be the most anticipated games. We've determined that the 7th most anticipated matchup is the Broncos' home game with Ball State, which could be key if WMU wants to compete in the MAC West.
Ball State Cardinals
2012 in review
9-4 overall (6-2 MAC)
Postseason: Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl vs. Central Florida (L 38-17)
Ball State continued their recent upward trend in 2012, putting together an impressive season that saw them knock off Indiana and South Florida en route to a nine win campaign.
The Cardinals, despite the two BCS wins, were still a tick below the top of the conference. Though they notched an impressive road win at Toledo, they fell to Northern Illinois and Kent State (the top two teams in the MAC) to finish at 6-2 overall in conference play.
Ball State appears to be in good hands with head coach Pete Lembo, who took over a 4-8 team and is 15-10 in two seasons. Lembo was linked with more than one coaching job after his 2012 performance, but will be with the Cardinals for at least one more year.
Expectations are high in Muncie this year, and another performance like last year or better could very well earn Lembo another job higher in the FBS ranks. With a 94-46 overall record as a head coach at Lehigh, Elon and BSU, the 43 year old is a proven winner at every stop.
Key departures: none
Key returnees: QB Keith Wenning (65.4%, 3095 yd, 24 TD/10 INT), WR Willie Snead (1148 yd, 9 TD), TE Zane Fakes (461 yd, 5 TD), WR Rashad Lawrence (321 yd)
Nearly every piece in a successful passing game returns for Ball State. What's interesting about this offense, running back Jahwan Edwards included, is that no skill position player can necessarily stake a claim as the best at their position in the MAC, but all are among the top handful.
Balance is still fairly rare in this conference, and for Ball State, there is no shortage. It starts with the senior signal-caller, Keith Wenning, who earned Second-Team All-Mac honors in 2012.
Wenning looks to step out of the shadow of division rival Northern Illinois' Jordan Lynch this year. That's certainly a tall order, but if nothing else Wenning is likely to break a bunch of school records. He is second to Nate Davis in career passing yards and touchdowns, with both records likely to fall with a healthy season.
Some concern arose when Ball State announced Wenning would undergo minor knee surgery August 3, but it appears that it will not affect the senior's ability to play this year.
There are no shortage of weapons for Wenning to utilize, either. Most MAC fans have heard of junior Willie Snead, who may also hold some BSU records by the end of his career. What makes this attack particularly dangerous, though, is the options.
Senior Jamill Smith provides a great second option and is very slippery in space, making him a versatile weapon on offense and special teams. Zane Fakes is among the best pass-catching tight ends in the league, and senior Connor Ryan and true sophomore KeVonn Mabon both return after posting over 300 yards receiving in 2012.
If there's a concern with the passing game, it's the protection that Wenning will be afforded inside the pocket. We'll touch more on that in the next section.
Key departures: LT Austin Holtz, RT Cameron Lowry, LG Kitt O'Brien, C Dan Manick
Key returnees: RB Jahwan Edwards (1,410 yd, 6.1 ypc, 14 TD), RB Horactio Banks (586 yd, 5.2 ypc, 4 TD)
If anything is going to derail this offense's obvious potential, it's going to be the losses up front. Four of BSU's five 2012 starters are gone, two of which (Austin Holtz and Cameron Lowry) were All-MAC selections. Kitt O'Brien and Dan Manick were also long-time starters; in all, the Cardinals lose 147 career starts off of the line.
There is some level of experience coming back. Matthew Page, a senior, will take over at the ever-important left tackle spot, where Holtz was among the best in the league. Page has three career starts and has played in 24 games. Jacob Richard, with three starts and 11 appearances as a freshman, will step in at center, and Jalen Schlachter is the likely left guard with his 13 appearances as a freshman.
With Jordan Hansel returning as a senior right guard, the main concern becomes right tackle. There isn't a clear-cut leader at that spot, with redshirt freshmen Steven Bell and Drake Miller considered leaders heading into fall camp.
If, and it's a big if, the Cardinals can piece together a cohesive unit up front, this running game should be very productive. Jahwan Edwards and Horactio Banks are the best tandem outside of Kent State in the conference, and with a much better passing attack than the Flashes, this has the potential to be the best offense in the conference (though NIU may have something to say about that).
For a unit that gave up 5.2 yards per carry and 207 per game last year on the ground, there is quite a bit of optimism in Muncie.
A stout front line is the reason, with Nathan Ollie looking to establish himself as a premier defensive tackle after an impressive 51 tackle (eight for loss) effort as a junior was accomplished somewhat in the shadow of Jonathan Newsome. And understandably so, as Newsome may be the best returning defensive end in the conference. An Ohio State transfer, he recorded 52 tackles and 8.5 sacks last year.
Newsome is not a run stuffer at 236 pounds, though. That's where nose tackle Joel Cox (288 pounds) comes in as well as 265 pound Nick Miles at the end opposite Newsome. Miles returns after posting 54 tackles, and Cox, while never a full-time starter, has shown ability with 17 tackles in limited action last year and four career blocked kicks.
The line will have to step up their game even more this year as the linebacking corps behind them will be all-new. All told, BSU loses 276 tackles from last year's three starters, including 129 from Travis Freeman alone.
To help bridge the gap, the Cardinals brought in two junior college transfers (Stephan Martin and Julian Boyd). Sophomore Ben Ingle is all but penciled in at the MLB spot. It goes without saying that there will be a learning curve at linebacker.
As many questions as there are in the front seven, there are perhaps more in the back end for one of 2012's weakest secondaries nationally.
That's not an exaggeration. BSU gave up 7.8 yards per pass attempt last year, already a bad number, and didn't create interceptions to help make up for it. The seven picks that the Cardinals managed (two of which came off of WMU's Tyler Van Tubbergen) ranked 100th nationally.
If there's good news here, it's that last year's inexperienced group is now a year wiser, and that the pass rush should be a boon. Starting corners Jeffrey Garrett and Eric Patterson return as upperclassmen, and J.C. Wade returns as one of their better cover safeties.
The bottom line here is that BSU needs to find playmakers on the back end. Very few MAC secondaries are able to shut down the better passing attacks in this league-- and there are plenty-- so it's big plays by the defensive backs that can turn the tide. Ball State will likely have to almost double their interception total to have a good shot at winning the West.
It was an embarrassment of riches at the specialist positions for BSU with kicker Steven Schott, probably the best in the MAC, and punter Scott Kovanda among the best in the nation. Both are gone, and replaced with a big unknown.
Scott Secor steps in at kicker, and a couple of freshmen will battle at punter, but little will be known until the season kicks off.
The rest of the special teams for BSU should be a positive. Jamil Smith handles both kick and punt return duties, and ranks near the top for both. The Cardinals also boast above-average coverage teams in both areas.
This will be Lembo's best overall team, but it's hard to see them surpassing last season's nine-win regular season. Non-conference is manageable; BSU should go 3-1 and has a decent shot at beating Virginia on October 5 to possibly run the out-of-conference table.
And yes, they went into the Glass Bowl last year and beat Toledo, but overall it's just hard to see this team doing it again with the holes they have on defense. They'll be in every game. It's just that they look a notch below Toledo and Northern Illinois.
The game at Western Michigan on October 19th could be a tricky one, too. While WMU isn't expected to contend for the West, and BSU will be coming off of a run of big games, it's easy to forget that last year Ball State needed overtime to get past a 4-8 WMU team in Muncie.
Again, this is Lembo's best team, and another solid season is probably enough to get him bigger offers, but it's not time to pencil BSU in on top of the West division.
It's way too early to even begin to predict specific results for games, but BroncoBlitz.com will, almost as ridiculously, predict certain events in each game this fall.
With both teams uncertain at their placekicker position, this game will come down to a field goal either way, making the inexperienced specialists a huge key.