MUNCIE – So stick that target on their backs, now that the breakthrough season has happened. Theyll never feel it, these kids out here practicing long and longer on a glorious sun-splashed day. They wont even know that you mentioned it.
So I guess a man could say, as receiver Willie Snead sprints past a defensive back and quarterback Keith Wenning drops the football like a feather in his hands, that 8-4 and a Beef OBradys Bowl berth were only the faintest preview of whats to come for these Ball State Cardinals.
I guess a man could say that with all the glitter coming back – Wenning and Snead and receiver Jamill Smith and running back Jahwan Edwards, just to scratch the surface – two things are going to happen every week when an opponent looks up and sees the Cardinals waiting.
One thing is that theyll know theyre in for a brawl.
The other, a byproduct of the first, is that theyll come with their best stuff, because everyone knows what happened last year when people didnt.
Six victories in row to end the regular season is what happened. Wins against two BCS opponents, Indiana and South Florida. A 52-27 lacing of an Ohio team that had beaten Penn State to start the season; a 34-27 win at then-No. 25 Toledo; a 30-22 victory over Army.
Of course, the Cardinals arent going to read any of that, or at the very least arent going to pay attention to it. For one thing, practice still has another 40 minutes to run. And when its done, Zane Fakes, a senior tight end who caught 57 balls for 461 yards and five touchdowns last season, will set you straight on expectations and targets on backs.
They dont mean squadoosh. Thats basically it.
We basically just try to focus on us, says Fakes. Coach (Pete) Lembo does a great job of making us not pay attention to what (the media) is saying about us. Were just trying to get better, be better than the day before. He always stresses to us if you dont get better than the day before, you get worse.
So just bettering yourself, just being better than you were the last day, thats what were focused on.
All that other stuff, it seems, stays outside the bubble thats almost a visceral thing when you stand on the sideline and watch the Cardinals march through their meticulously segmented practices.
We dont change what we do at all, Lembo said after the second practice of fall camp. We know who we are, and we know whats gotten us this far. Our guys have remained very down to earth and very focused on practice.
Excitement around the program is a good thing. Thats part of why we exist. But that doesnt mean we change how we operate. And the way weve come so far so fast is by respecting opponents, worrying about ourselves and not putting the cart before the horse.
The latter theyll leave for the rest of us, and its tempting with this team. The progression – from 6-6 in Lembos first season to 8-4 in 2012 – seems so logical, and the wealth of returning talent so obvious, that its hard not to see yet another leap forward this fall.
But only by keeping eyes wide shut, apparently, will that happen.
This is Ball State, where there has not been a lot of consistency through the years, Lembo says.
And were trying to change that. I think we proved last year if we focus on ourselves and play some clean football, we can beat some good people.
Thats the result. Thats the byproduct of what we do internally every day.
Externals be hanged.