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Ben Smith

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Ball State
at Northern Illinois
When: 8 p.m. today
TV: ESPN2

Cardinals can make jump to new level

– So now we get into the archives, with this Pete Lembo. His winning percentage as Ball State’s football coach (.686) is the best since 1967, three years before he was born. And it’s 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: There’s 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 Lembo’s Cardinals, who are 9-1 and 6-0 in the conference. Going back to last year, they’ve won 11 straight conference games.

Of course, then there’s 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.

“It’s gonna be a huge challenge,” Lembo says. “It’s not gonna be easy. You’re 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 they’re the least penalized team in the league (3.7 per game).

Here’s what else they’ve 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 they’ll come to this night unrattled and unimpressed, at least with themselves. That’s another extension of Lembo and his staff, or so says Lembo.

“We’re not flashy about it,” he says. “And I think that’s how our team is, too.”

Partly that’s because they know what they’re up against here. Northern Illinois went to the Orange Bowl last year, and they’re 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 can’t 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.

“We’re 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 we’re not gonna beat anybody. But they’re excited about the way this year has gone and excited about this opportunity.”

“So we’re gonna have some fun with it.”

That word again.

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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