For the BALL STATE CARDINALS, this has been a season long journey for respect. As they kept winning, detractors were many, suspicions were high and as their record improved, the cat-calls of "over-rated" increased. It was a never ending debate between their success on the field and the lack of strength in their schedule.
One by one, they mowed down their opponents impressivly with only one regular season game ending in single digits. Previous to this season, they had never beaten a BCS team, but in the 4th week of the year, they dismantled Indiana in Bloomington. The Cardinals went through their MAC schedule unscathed to end their regular season 12-0 for the first time in school history.
The pollsters weren't paying attention to the over-rated chants as each week, the Cards elevated in the polls. By the end of the regular season, they had reached 12th in the all-important BCS rankings. Yes, it had been a storybook year for Ball State.
Then came the MAC Championship last Friday night against Buffalo.
The third quarter of the game was one unbelievable nightmare for the Cardinals. Despite uncharateristic miscues, things appeared to be going their way but an apparant touchdown by MiQuale Lewis was overturned when the official determined he had stepped out of bounds just prior to getting into the end zone. The call on the field was "touchdown" and replays did not provide inconclusive evidence to the contrary, but the call was reversed and the TD taken away.
That TD would have pushed the lead for Ball State to 24-14 instead, two plays later, Nate Davis leaped for the end zone, a Buffalo player hit his shoulder jarring the ball loose at the 2 and the Bulls defense scooped up the ball and returned it for a touchdown.
The wheels continued to come off for Ball State for the remainder of the game, including another unforced error resulting in another fumble recovery for a TD. Buffalo won the game on the scoreboard but clearly Ball State beat themselves and as a result, failed to achieve their #1 goal for the season - the MAC Championship.
As hard as it might be to do, Ball State's players and coaches need to keep things in perspective. This has been arguably the best season in Ball State football history. They played two bad quarters and lost one game. There are over 100 other FBS teams that would love to boast of a 12-1 record right now.
Oh sure, there are those who have been waiting all season for the Cardinals to stub their toe so they could point their finger and say "see, I told you they were over-rated". They lost a game but not a season. There are also individuals who would say they lost respect for Ball State for losing this game. I would say those individuals never had respect for Ball State to begin with.
This Cardinal team should hold their head high and be proud of their accomplishments this year and remember there is still one game to go, one more chance to go out a winner and end the year 13-1. This team is full of talent and is capable of playing with just about any team in the country on a given day. Last Friday, they also proved if they don't remain focused on the task at hand, anyone can beat them.
Later today we find out who Ball State's opponent will be in their bowl game. I look for the Cards to come out and play one hell of a game against whoever opponent turns out to be. After the distasteful, self-inflicted loss of last Friday, I sure wouldn't want to be the team that draws Ball State in that bowl game.