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Ball State
vs. Kent State
When: 3 p.m. Saturday

After big win, Cards focused

– They have popped up on the edge of a few radar screens now, thanks to their big afternoon in Charlottesville, Va., six days ago. If Ball State 48, Virginia 27 didn’t put the Cardinals on college football’s map, it at least put them in the map’s vestibule.

Where head coach Pete Lembo stands these days, profoundly uninterested in his surroundings.

“It’s always nice when you don’t have to self-promote and a lot of other people are recognizing the accomplishments and are taking care of that for you,” he said this week, with Kent State on the horizon.

But?

“But we’re not focused on that at all,” he goes on. “To the contrary, on Sunday I talked a lot about how we came off the South Florida game last year and went over to Kent State and didn’t play particularly well and didn’t play Ball State football. So I really challenged the kids to remember that and to hope that we can be a little bit more mature this year from those experiences.”

And that’s the secret for the 5-1 Cardinals, other than a steadily improving defense (third in scoring defense in the Mid-American Conference at 24.5 ppg) and an offense that ranks first in the MAC in passing (337.5 ypg) and second in scoring (41.3 ppg). Call it selective myopia.

They look behind them when it suits them. And they look ahead not at all.

And so they come to this week looking back at the 45-43 loss to Kent in Ohio last year that came on the heels of another big win over a BCS opponent (South Florida). It’s an object lesson to hang onto against a Kent State team that’s 2-4 but has already played Penn State, LSU and Northern Illinois.

Against that, Ball State brings a team that’s scored a record 248 points in its first six games and which has recovered 10 fumbles while being penalized just 30 yards per game to their opponents’ 81. It’s a powerful combination, and one that hasn’t happened by accident.

“I think we all chip in on that,” Lembo says of the latter in particular. “You saw at times the last two weeks where penalties aided us in keeping drives alive, and then you saw other times where it severely affected the opponent. When those things happen it gives me more ammunition to go back to our team and say, ‘Look, this is why we do what we do, this is why we demand of you what we demand of you, this is why the expectations are so high in all areas of your life.’ ”

And the team is buying in. In wins over Toledo and Virginia the last two weeks, Ball State took advantage of a combined six turnovers and 23 penalties by the Rockets and Cavaliers, while turning it over just three times and getting flagged twice itself.

“It’s an equalizer, and the turnovers are an equalizer,” Lembo says.

And it’s made the Ball State offense, which has averaged 484.5 yards the last two games, that much more deadly. Not that any of that matters just now, of course.

Nor does talk about radars and challenging the supremacy of Northern Illinois, the MAC’s marquee program at the moment.

“I haven’t given any thought to either of those things and neither of those things are very important right now,” Lembo said this week. “In terms of it helping us beat Kent State, it’s not going to help us at all.”

bensmith@jg.net

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