BALL STATE'S surprising surge into the Top 25—the 7--0 Cardinals climbed to No. 24 after last Saturday's 24--7 win at Western Kentucky—may have been kick-started by a disappointing loss to Michigan in November 2006, according to senior center Dan Gerberry. The Cardinals fell to 3--7 that day in Ann Arbor, but they put a scare into the then No. 2 Wolverines before losing 34--26. "We went into the Big House and competed with them," says Gerberry. "That's when we thought, 'We can be special.' The whole offense was freshmen and sophomores, and we kept our composure."
Those freshmen and sophomores are now upperclassmen, and they're delivering on the promise they showed against Michigan. Quarterback Nate Davis threw for 250 yards against the Wolverines as a freshman in '06, but he crumbled during a potentially game-tying drive. Now a junior, he ranks ninth in the nation in passing efficiency (162.3), and he has thrown for 13 touchdowns against just four interceptions. Star running back MiQuale Lewis, a junior who is barely 5'6", saw his freshman season end after six games when he dislocated his shoulder, and an assortment of other ailments limited him to just four starts as a sophomore. Now healthy, he ranks fourth in the country in rushing, with 914 yards.
Davis and Lewis are thriving in large part because of a tight-knit offensive line that includes four senior starters. Put it all together and you have an offense that averages 455.6 yards a game—15th best in the nation—and a team that could well go undefeated. (Though, with the Cardinals' relatively weak Mid-American Conference schedule, it's unlikely that they'll get a BCS bid.)
The high and low point of the season for sixth-year coach Brady Hoke may have come on the same day, Sept. 20, when Ball State blew away in-state rival Indiana 42--20 in Bloomington. It was the program's first win against an opponent from a BCS conference, but instead of celebrating on the 120-mile ride home to Muncie, Hoke found himself racing with a police escort to Indianapolis's Methodist Hospital. That's where his star senior receiver, Dante Love, had been transferred after suffering a spinal fracture when he was hit following a catch in the second quarter against the Hoosiers.
Love, an NFL prospect who had 100 catches as a junior, had been the heart of the Ball State offense. He underwent surgery a day after the game, and two days later he was walking, but his football career is over. While a stable of receivers have filled in capably, Love's teammates are still coming to terms with his injury. A group of them, including Davis, Gerberry and junior defensive end Brandon Crawford, visited him at the hospital in Indianapolis on the Thursday after the Indiana game. "He said that he did not want his injury to be a distraction to us," says Crawford, a 32-year-old Marine Corps veteran. "It brought tears to everyone's eyes. We told him, 'You'll never be a distraction. You're our inspiration.'"
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CARRY ON With Hoke (inset) calling his number, Lewis (33) could win the rushing title.
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