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NCAA Football Preview - Ball State Cardinals

2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: It was an extremely successful 2013 campaign for the Ball State Cardinals, although the team ended it on a not-so-high note. Still, the Cardinals went 10-3 and completed a seven-game win streak between losses.

Ball State finished with a 7-1 conference record, which in almost any normal circumstance would have landed the team a spot in the conference title bout. But the Cardinals had Northern Illinois with which they needed to contend in the Mid-American Conference West Division. The Huskies completed an 8-0 run in the conference and forced Ball State out of the equation.

The Cardinals were a perfect 6-0 at home and made it to the GoDaddy.com Bowl against Arkansas State, where they appeared as seven-point favorites against the Red Wolves. That wasn't enough for Ball State to avoid a crushing 23-20 loss and an 0-7 all-time record in bowl games.

Regardless of the bowl outcome, the Cardinals were a force in the MAC behind standout quarterback Keith Wenning, who threw for over 4,100 yards and registered 35 touchdown passes. Wenning was drafted in the sixth round of the 2014 NFL Draft by the Baltimore Ravens.

Head coach Pete Lembo returns to Ball State for his fourth year, and will try to replace one of the nation's top quarterbacks while also maintain the level of success the Cardinals have been used to the past two seasons.

2014 ANALYSIS:

OFFENSE: Obviously the biggest question mark for the Ball State offense is at the quarterback position. Where do the Cardinals go after Wenning? The answer may not be what Ball State fans want to hear.

The only other quarterback that saw action on the field a year ago was Ozzie Mann, who completed 2-of-9 passing for 29 yards and an interception. He'll be a junior in 2014, and may not even be the favorite for the job. Sophomore Jack Milas will be a serious contender for the starting gig, along with junior Kyle Kamman.

Wenning was also a factor in the running game after gaining 132 yards and scoring five rushing touchdowns. But fortunately for the Cardinals, they won't need to be replacing offensive staple Jahwan Edwards out of the backfield. Edwards carried the ball 212 times for 1,129 yards and 14 touchdowns to lead the team, and Horactio Banks even scored seven times on the ground. Edwards returns for his senior season.

Only one starting receiver is back for Ball State in 2014 in junior Jordan Williams, who caught 72 passes for 1,050 yards and 10 touchdowns a year ago. Lembo will need to find replacements for Willie Snead (15 touchdowns), Jamill Smith (eight touchdowns) and Zane Fakes. The Cardinals, who averaged 476.8 ypg offensively in 2013, have some work to do before kickoff.

"We really got to lock in and make positive strides," Ball State offensive coordinator Joey Lynch said. "We've got to fine-tune what we're doing and start executing a little better, a little faster, and I'm looking forward to seeing it."

DEFENSE: The Ball State defense returns six starting members for the 2014 season, including the team's top four leading tacklers from a year ago. The defensive line was hit the hardest in graduation, having to replace three members entering this upcoming campaign.

Nick Miles, who registered five sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss from his defensive end position, is the lone returning player up front. But two of the Cardinals' three linebackers are back, and three of the team's four defensive backs will be ready to take another shot at the MAC title.

Linebacker Ben Ingle topped the squad with 116 tackles in 2013, and added two quarterback hurries to his resume. Safety Brian Jones was second with 97 tackles, adding six pass breakups, four fumble recoveries and two forced fumbles to his stat line.

Sophomore Aaron Taylor is one of the favorites to win the vacant linebacker job, while sophomore Tyree Holder will battle for the open cornerback slot. Ball State gave up 24.7 ppg to opponents in 2013, which the offense could support. If that's the case again with many fresh faces on the other side of the ball, the Cardinals may be in trouble trying to support the defense.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Lembo won't have to worry about replacing either his kicker or punter from the 2013 season. Place kicker Scott Secor returns after hitting 19-of-24 field goal attempts last season, which included a long of 47 yards. He also handled the kickoff duties for the Cardinals.

Punter Kyle Schmidt is just a sophomore. As a freshman, he sent up 45 punts for an average of 40.9 yards in 2013, including a long of 62.

OUTLOOK: There's a good chance this will be a middle-of-the-road year for Ball State after having to replace the program's all-time leader in passing yardage in Wenning. There will always be some sort of fallout after losing such a valuable member of the roster.

But with the senior Edwards at the tailback position, and leaders Ingle and Jones on defense, the transition might not be so bad. Expect a dip in the team's production, especially on offense.

It could be a rough year if the defense can't cut down on opponents' scoring in 2014 (nine teams scored at least 20 points against the Cardinals last season), since the offense likely won't be able to maintain a near-40 ppg average again. Trust in Lembo, though. He'll make sure the damage is minimal.

"We've got a lot to prove, and just the culture of Ball State to keep it going," receiver Jordan Williams said. "We've got a lot of new players stepping in to fill a lot of big roles. Obviously the culture has been set and it's been getting us wins, so we want to keep sticking with what's working."