This time, Ball State football isn’t getting left at home during the bowl season.
Made official during ESPN’s selection show Sunday night, Ball State has accepted the invitation to play in the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl on Dec. 21 in St. Petersburg, Fla. against Central Florida. It’s the first bowl game for Ball State since the 2008-09 season.
And after missing out on a bowl game last season, coach Pete Lembo said he couldn’t be happier about Ball State’s opportunity to play in a bowl game this season.
“There’s no question that was motivation for our guys throughout the year,” Lembo said following the bowl announcement. “Last year’s team overachieved in many ways, and it was unfortunate we didn’t get a chance to go to the postseason.
“I’m really happy for our players and our assistant coaches and the challenge we have lying ahead.”
Ball State isn’t a stranger to the St. Petersburg area. The team heavily recruits in the area and several players on the current roster, including wide receiver Willie Snead and cornerback Eric Patterson, are from the area. Safety Jarrett Swaby played his undergraduate football at Central Florida before transferring to Ball State in the offseason.
When the reports started coming in that Ball State’s bowl destination was the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl, several players tweeted out their excitement. Snead tweeted specifically about how he was excited to get to play the bowl game in front of his family.
“It’s exciting for those players, but it’s also exciting for our fan base,” Lembo said. “We have a lot of alumni in the area, and it’s a very easy place to travel to — to watch us play. On a lot of fronts, this is a very good location for us to be playing.”
The team had to wait nine days for its bowl fate following the team’s final regular season game Nov. 23.
In that time span, athletic director Bill Scholl said it was a stressful time because he knew there was no guarantee Ball State would get picked for a bowl.
“As much as you felt good that at 9-3 we were going to be part of the postseason, there are no guarantees beyond the top teams in the [Mid-American Conference],” Scholl said. “The division winners are guaranteed, but beyond that you’re hoping you have a spot.
“You certainly feel like you earned it. You hope the rest of the world agrees with you.”
The bowl selection marks vindication for a Ball State program that just two seasons ago was at the bottom of the MAC West Division for two seasons. Before those seasons, Ball State had its most successful season when it entered the 2008 MAC Championship game undefeated and as the No. 12 team in the country.
In the two seasons prior to when Lembo took over as coach, Ball State went 6-16. In the two seasons with Lembo and 36 players remaining from the 2010 season on the current roster, the Cardinals have gone 15-9.
And with the bowl game selection, Scholl said he believes it does wonders for Ball State moving forward.
“Being a part of the postseason is a huge step forward for the program,” Scholl said. “It’s another weapon you have to fire now in the recruiting wars with kids. It’s a great indicator of a successful program. It’s a huge benefit when you go out in the recruiting wars. It’s a very important step for us.”
The MAC also had a successful Sunday, getting seven teams into bowl games. The highlight bowl pick for the conference was Northern Illinois’ selection into the Orange Bowl, becoming the first team from the MAC to play in a BCS bowl game.
Toledo was selected for the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, and conference runner-up Kent State was selected to the GoDaddy.com Bowl.
“It’s been a banner year for the conference,” Lembo said. “It started that way in September with some huge out-of-conference wins. It continued through the season right up to the championship game. Northern is being rewarded for a terrific season.”
But for Ball State, they were just excited to be playing in a bowl game.
“They [the players] were clearly very, very excited,” Lembo said. “I know they’re looking forward to the opportunity.”