MUNCIE – As of sunrise this morning, there are only three nine-win Division I football teams (Ball State, Ohio State and Northern Illinois) in the country. And the fact that two of them will play each other in six days is relevant to all who follow the Mid-American Conference and college football.
Well, almost all of them.
Ball State (9-1, 6-0) jumped all over Central Michigan (3-6, 2-3) Wednesday in front of 9,494 rain-soaked and frigid fans at Scheumann Stadium and earned an easier-than-expected 44-24 win.
The win was the seventh straight for the No. 34 Cardinals, whose next game is at No. 18 Northern Illinois (9-0, 5-0) on Wednesday (8 p.m., ESPN2), and the winner has a fairly clear path to the MAC Championship Game next month in Detroit.
“I don't want to be rude,” Ball State coach Pete Lembo snapped when asked about the upcoming game, “but we're going to enjoy this win. We'll start worrying about (Northern Illinois) about 6 p.m. Thursday.”
The third-year Cardinal coach has reached this point in his tenure (he's the most successful Cardinal coach in five decades) by following a strict philosophy founded on three principles:
• It's not tough to lay on the road
• Don't look ahead (which was pertinent Wednesday)
• There's no such thing as a “letdown” game
“Those are three things that tangibly reflect on the culture that we have and what we expect from these guys,” Lembo said. “If we live that way every day then you've got a chance to keep (the players) focused when they get put in this situation.”
On Wednesday, Lembo's team was playing Central Michigan and that was all that he, his coaching staff and his players were concerned with. And it showed.
Less than 17 minutes into the game, the Cardinals had taken a 21-0 lead on drives of 75, 96 and 82 yards.
“We came out ready to go tonight,” Lembo said. “(The players) lived it as far as I'm concerned. Now, they might have lived it for all 60 minutes, but we came out with guns blazing tonight. We were focused on Central Michigan. We came out to play Central Michigan. All of this other stuff, that's for you guys.”
The problem was, as Ball State was playing pitch-and-catch at will and stretched its advantage to 34-3, it was difficult for the Cardinal fans (and media) to ignore the “other stuff” that lies over the horizon.
On Wednesday, the nation will get to see Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch and Ball State's ultra-talented Keith Wenning.
The game will pit the two top offenses in the MAC against each other.
It'll provide a chance for redemption for the Cardinals, who had one victory (2011) taken away from them against the Huskies on a questionable call and another given away (2012) with poor second-half play.
In short, it'll be awesome.
“I don't even want to talk about who we're playing next week until we wrap this thing up (with Central Michigan),” Lembo said. “There were a lot of good things that happened out there tonight. And there are some things that we need to fix. It doesn't matter if we're playing Saint Mary's of the Plains next week.”
But if Saint Mary's was 9-0 and a league championship was essentially at stake, then it'd sure be fun to think about.