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Ben Smith

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Ball State football coach Pete Lembo

Talks about staying the course in a season of high expectationsc

Cardinals ignoring targets on backs

– So stick that target on their backs, now that the breakthrough season has happened. They’ll never feel it, these kids out here practicing long and longer on a glorious sun-splashed day. They won’t 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 O’Brady’s Bowl berth were only the faintest preview of what’s 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 they’ll know they’re in for a brawl.

The other, a byproduct of the first, is that they’ll come with their best stuff, because everyone knows what happened last year when people didn’t.

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 aren’t going to read any of that, or at the very least aren’t going to pay attention to it. For one thing, practice still has another 40 minutes to run. And when it’s 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 don’t mean squadoosh. That’s 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. We’re just trying to get better, be better than the day before. He always stresses to us if you don’t get better than the day before, you get worse.

“So just bettering yourself, just being better than you were the last day, that’s what we’re focused on.”

All that other stuff, it seems, stays outside the bubble that’s almost a visceral thing when you stand on the sideline and watch the Cardinals march through their meticulously segmented practices.

“We don’t change what we do at all,” Lembo said after the second practice of fall camp. “We know who we are, and we know what’s 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. That’s part of why we exist. But that doesn’t mean we change how we operate. And the way we’ve come so far so fast is by respecting opponents, worrying about ourselves and not putting the cart before the horse.”

The latter they’ll leave for the rest of us, and it’s tempting with this team. The progression – from 6-6 in Lembo’s first season to 8-4 in 2012 – seems so logical, and the wealth of returning talent so obvious, that it’s 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 we’re 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.

“That’s the result. That’s the byproduct of what we do internally every day.”

Externals be hanged.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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