Embarking on the second half of its schedule, it’s already been a special yet bittersweet season for Ball State.
The No. 25 Cardinals play the first game as a ranked team in their history when they visit independent Western Kentucky on Saturday night.
Off to the school’s best start since winning its first nine games in 1965, Ball State (6-0) became the first team from the Mid-American Conference to crack the Top 25 since Bowling Green held the same spot late in the 2004 season.
“It’s flattering obviously, but there’s so much season left to play,” said sixth-year coach Brady Hoke, who guided the Cardinals to a 7-6 mark and a trip to the International Bowl in 2007. “You have to evaluate the season at the end. We’ve got a lot of big games ahead of us.”
The Muncie, Ind., school has a pair of impressive victories, beating Navy 35-23 on Sept. 5, then winning 42-20 at Indiana on Sept. 20 for its first victory over a school from a BCS conference. The defeat of the Hoosiers, however, was marred by a career-ending spinal injury to star receiver Dante Love.
Love, who had been the nation’s leader with 144.3 receiving yards per game, took a head-on hit early in the second quarter, was carted off the field and eventually underwent surgery. Though the senior is expected to make a full recovery, the former NFL prospect has played his last game after recording 199 career receptions for 2,778 yards and 20 TDs.
Despite his loss, the Cardinals have used Love as an inspiration as they look to secure their second consecutive bowl bid.
“He’s a big part of this team,” Hoke said. “He will always be a big part of this program. When something like that happens, your heart sinks and you feel for him as a guy who loves to play the game and has a passion for it.
“Our maturity and the leadership of our football team has been phenomenal.”
Led by junior quarterback Nate Davis and running back MiQuale Lewis, the Cardinals are 3-0 in the MAC, while ranking 11th in the nation with 472.3 total yards per game and 12th with a 39.7 scoring average.
Lewis, eighth in the country with 133.7 rushing yards per game, looks to reach the 100-yard mark for a sixth straight game after gaining 157 yards on 31 carries and scoring twice in a 31-0 rout of Toledo last Saturday. He has rushed for 802 yards and 12 TDs in 2008.
Davis, meanwhile, has thrown for 1,662 yards with 11 touchdowns and three interceptions. His 164.6 passer rating ranks 10th in the nation. Davis, then a sophomore, was 21-for-31 for 288 yards and three touchdowns in Ball State’s 35-12 win over Western Kentucky last season.
That contest was the first between the schools since the Hilltoppers won the only previous meeting in 1929.
In its second season as a member of the Football Bowl Subdivision, Western Kentucky (2-4) has endured a brutal schedule. Its losses have come to Indiana, then-No. 11 Alabama, Kentucky and 27-13 last Saturday to then-No. 20 Virginia Tech.
“They have played probably the hardest schedule as anyone in this country when you look at Alabama, Kentucky and Virginia Tech,” Hoke said. “Those are tough games and Western Kentucky has a lot of good football players.”
One of those is running back Dexter Taylor, a transfer from Tulsa who rushed for a career-high 96 yards on 14 carries - most of which came off direct snaps - against Virginia Tech.
The Hilltoppers outscored the Hokies 10-7 in the second half.
“We don’t believe in moral victories, and we aren’t happy with a loss, but I saw some real good things out of this football team,” said Western Kentucky coach David Elson, whose team will join the Sun Belt Conference in 2009.
Ball State will be the first ranked FBS school to visit Western Kentucky.