FORT WAYNE – So now we get into the archives, with this Pete Lembo. His winning percentage as Ball States football coach (.686) is the best since 1967, three years before he was born. And its the second best of all time – which, in case you were wondering, means 1924.
Want to know how long ago that was?
The Four Horsemen were spreading dramatic lore and stuff, up there in South Bend. Red Grange was turning tacklers into macramé over at Illinois. Indiana might well have been a state by then, but there were persistent rumors to the contrary.
In other words: Theres some history going on here.
And none of it means a darn thing if you fumble the present.
The present is tonight, in DeKalb, Ill., where the two best football teams in the Mid-American Conference get together. One is Lembos Cardinals, who are 9-1 and 6-0 in the conference. Going back to last year, theyve won 11 straight conference games.
Of course, then theres Northern Illinois.
Which is 9-0 and 5-0 in the MAC. Which has won 22 straight conference games. And which has won nine straight games overall, and four straight over the Cardinals.
Its gonna be a huge challenge, Lembo says. Its not gonna be easy. Youre gonna have to put your best foot forward in order to have a chance to win.
Sure. But you know what?
That could actually happen.
It could happen because Ball State has weapons, too – record-setting quarterback Keith Wenning, record-setting receiver Willie Snead and a few other guys. The Cardinals have the No. 1 passing offense in the MAC (323 yards per game), the No.2 scoring offense (39.9 points per game) and theyre the least penalized team in the league (3.7 per game).
Heres what else theyve got: Lembo and his staff, who have the revolutionary notion that nights like tonight, with all their implications, should be above all else fun.
You want your guys to enjoy it, Lembo says. This is where you want to be. You want to have these opportunities.
And so theyll come to this night unrattled and unimpressed, at least with themselves. Thats another extension of Lembo and his staff, or so says Lembo.
Were not flashy about it, he says. And I think thats how our team is, too.
Partly thats because they know what theyre up against here. Northern Illinois went to the Orange Bowl last year, and theyre ranked 15th in the latest BCS poll. They have Jordan Lynch, the most multi-faceted quarterback in the MAC. And they have depth Ball State cant match – the main culprit, Lembo believes, in the Cardinals 35-23 loss in 2012.
That was then, of course. And this is now. And now is where the program, and Lembo himself, can make the leap to a whole new level.
Were not overconfident, Lembo says. (The players) are not cocky. I think they know if we go out and turn it over two or three times were not gonna beat anybody. But theyre excited about the way this year has gone and excited about this opportunity.
So were gonna have some fun with it.
That word again.