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Ball State
Aug. 29: vs. Illinois State, 7 p.m.
Sept. 7: vs. Army, noon
Sept. 14: at North Texas, 4 p.m.
Sept. 21: at Eastern Michigan, 1 p.m.
Sept. 28: vs. Toledo, 3 p.m.
Oct. 5: at Virginia, TBA
Oct. 12: vs. Kent State, 3 p.m.
Oct. 19: at Western Michigan, 2 p.m.
Oct. 26: at Akron, noon
Nov. 6: vs. Central Michigan, 8 p.m.
Nov. 13: at Northern Illinois, 8 p.m.
Nov. 29: vs. Miami (Ohio), TBA

Returning skill players provide hope for Ball State

With a full complement of skill players back on offense, the Ball State Cardinals open preseason camp at 7 tonight, looking to match or improve last year’s 9-4 Beef O’Brady’s Bowl season. Here are a few things to ponder as they head to camp:

5 top questions

1. Dee-fense, anyone? The Cardinals’ defense gave back most of what the high-powered offense gained last season, giving up 32 points and 462 yards per game while the offense was putting up 33.6 and 457. That has to improve for the Cardinals to take the next step.

2. Where’d Travis Freeman go? The Cardinals’ keystone defensive player has graduated, which means middle linebacker will be a fulcrum position in a generally veteran defense. Sophomores Ben Ingle and Trent Toothman are the heirs apparent heading into fall camp.

3. Does Keith Wenning have yet another gear? Wenning enters his senior season with virtually every school quarterbacking record in his sights. He’s gotten better every year – last season he threw for 3,095 yards and 24 touchdowns, completing 65.4 percent of his passes – but with a multitude of stellar weapons at his disposal, this could truly be a ridiculous year for him. Could he be the MAC’s next great QB?

4. Who gives Jordan Hansel and Matthew Page a hand up front? They’re the veterans around which Ball State will build its offensive line, but beyond them it’s a rebuild. Can Jalen Schlachter, Jacob Richard, Drake Miller and Steven Bell (to name but a few) fill the holes left by Austin Holtz, Cameron Lowry, Dan Manick and Kitt O’Brien?

5. Who’s the next Steve Schott? The 2012 Cardinals had a red-zone scoring percentage of 84 percent, and Schott was a big reason why. Sixteen of the senior placekicker’s 25 field goals (in 32 tries) came inside the red zone. With him gone, it falls to Scott Secor, who kicked off for the Cardinals last year, the take up the standard.

5 more questions

1. Who’s your leader? Wenning’s the obvious guy to take charge of the locker room, but it’s not really his nature to do so. If he can’t, the Cardinals will have to look elsewhere – Hansel, Nathan Ollie, Jahwan Edwards, Zane Fakes, Jonathan Newsome, perhaps.

2. Can the run continue for Jahwan Edwards? He rushed for 1,410 yards and scored 14 touchdowns last year, and he’s on the Doak Walker Award watch list. But the yards for both Edwards and Horactio Banks (586 yards, four TDs) will likely come harder this year behind a rebuilding OL.

3. Can the balancing act continue? Ball State’s offense thrived on balance last season, scoring 28 touchdowns through the air and 28 on the ground and averaging 254 yards passing and 203 rushing.

4. Where’s the finishing kick? The Cardinals closed with a rush last season, winning their last six games before falling 38-17 to Central Florida in the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl. That will be harder this year with a back-loaded schedule that includes road games at Virginia, Western Michigan, Akron and Northern Illinois and home games with Toledo, Kent State and Central Michigan in the last eight weeks.

5. Where’s the finishing kick, Part Deux? If the Cardinals had a defining characteristic last year, it was that they had a hard time stepping on people’s throats. They outscored their opponents 126-58 in the third quarter but were outscored 114-102 in the fourth. Which might have had something to do with the fact that six of their nine victories were by eight points or fewer.