FORT WAYNE – It happened pretty much the instant the bus rolled out of Ypsilanti, Mich., last Saturday, a 51-20 thrashing of Eastern Michigan safely in the carry-on.
Ball State coach Pete Lembo tucked into his cheesesteak sub. The Toledo Rockets soon joined him.
Meals on wheels, meet the wheels turning in the head.
Immediately your mind races ahead to the next task at hand, Lembo said. Because you know you’ve got a huge, huge challenge coming up with Toledo.
And while that evidently didn’t spoil his appetite, it did give him pause. As it would any Mid-American Conference coach whose next opponent is one of the MAC’s hardiest perennials.
There’s a good reason why Toledo is a perennial favorite to win the West Division, Lembo said. It starts with tremendous institutional commitment. They’ve had very good continuity on their coaching staff, so they’ve been able to promote from within and they’re able to recruit a real high-end type athlete thanks to great facilities and a lot of tradition and obviously a great state to recruit from.
They’re positioned to be a contender every year, and that’s exactly what they are.
And if the Rockets come to Scheumann Stadium today only 2-2, appearances deceive. Their first two games were on the road against SEC schools. Florida beat them 24-6 and Missouri won 38-23 – sound losses but hardly thrashings.
Which is why Lembo was already thinking about them over dinner last Saturday night, and why he regards the Cardinals’ 34-27 victory over the No. 23 Rockets in Toledo last fall as one of the signature victories of a 9-4 season.
We take great pride in trying to build a program that’s relevant, to build a program that has an opportunity to play in big games and meaningful games, in rivalry games, Lembo said.
In order to do that, you have to win games. So last year’s win was significant even now because it creates more excitement around a game like this.
Last week’s rout in their conference opener didn’t hurt, either. The 31-point victory was the Cardinals’ most lopsided since they beat Northern Illinois 45-14 on Nov. 5, 2008, and it was the second time this season they’ve breached 50 points.
The Cardinals (3-1) come to the Toledo showdown as the MAC’s top scoring offense (42.2 points a game) and top passing offense (336.0 yards a game) behind quarterback Keith Wenning, who’s thrown for more than 300 yards in each of Ball State’s four games.
Not that Toledo doesn’t have its own keep-you-awake-at-night weapons.
There is quarterback Terrance Owens, who’s thrown for 576 yards and two touchdowns. There is running back David Fluellen, who’s rushed for 497 yards and four scores. And there is receiver Bernard Reedy, who’s caught 26 balls for 291 yards and a TD.
Those guys have terrorized this league for what seems an eternity, Lembo says.
The goal Saturday is to return the favor.
You look back at last year’s game and we went over there and just played with tremendous, tremendous focus in all three phases of the game, Lembo says. You watch the film and there were just so many heroes, so many guys that stepped up. This year we’re going to need similar performances.
Note: Ball State announced the addition of Illinois to its future football schedules. The Cardinals will play at Illinois Sept. 2, 2017.