If anyone wondered why Ball State coach Pete Lembo would be so excited for his team’s appearance in next week’s Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl, consider the closing minutes of the Cardinals’ 31-27 win over USF.
One Florida native (Willie Snead) caught the winning touchdown pass. Another (Plant High alum Eric Patterson) snared the game-sealing interception.
Now Lembo and his program get a trip to Tampa Bay, with free headlines and TV exposure in the recruiting oasis that helped spawn his Cardinals’ 9-3 record and the best season in Mid-American Conference history.
“When we fly down here to recruit players,” Lembo said, “this is where we come first.”
Lembo — and the rest of the MAC.
The league is invading Florida this bowl season, with Ball State playing UCF on Dec. 21 at Tropicana Field, and Northern Illinois crashing the BCS with an Orange Bowl matchup with Florida State.
But the conference is no stranger to Florida. Its teams have mined the Sunshine State for speedy recruits to fuel their flashy spread offenses and yield the high-scoring, weeknight games that have spawned a clever nickname — MACtion — and a cult following among college football junkies:
• Nearly 11 percent of the league’s 1,343 players hail from Florida, including its special teams player of the year (Kent State’s Dri Archer) and freshman of the year (Western Michigan WR Jaime Wilson).
• Floridians were responsible for 127 of the MAC’s 552 touchdowns this fall. Three of the league’s top eight leaders in all-purpose yards are from the state.
• Of the 412 receivers, cornerbacks or safeties on MAC rosters this fall, almost one in five (78) are Floridians. By comparison, only seven of the conference’s 219 offensive linemen are from here. "We're not in short supply of big human beings," NIU coach Rod Carey said. "We're in short supply of guys that can run fast."
• That trend isn’t slowing. In a July analysis by the Tampa Bay Times, only the SEC had extended more offers to Tampa Bay players than the MAC (111). USF and FAU were the only schools to offer more local prospects than Ball State (23) and UMass (22).
"There's a ton — a ton — of good football down there," Carey said. "Florida, Florida State, Miami, Central and South Florida can't take them all. That's just the way it is. There's good players left."
So how does a conference headquartered in Cleveland fill its roster with players from 1,100 miles away?
Chris Nee, a recruiting analyst for 247Sports.com, said the MAC has a few advantages with Florida prospects. Many assistants have ties to the state, like former FSU star Terrell Buckley (Akron), Tampa Catholic alum Allen Suber (UMass) and ex-Gator and Buc receiver Dwayne Dixon (Ohio).
MAC schools have also mastered when to offer recruits scholarships, either by wooing them first — UMass offered Nature Coast defensive end Rohan Blackwood after his sophomore season — or by swooping in late to steal an underrated prospect. Kent State landed Zephyrhills athlete Jamal Roberts and Plant defensive back Keenan Stalls in the final week before February’s signing day.
“I think some of it is they do a good job, largely identifying kids that fall through the cracks,” Nee said.
Kids like Bernard Reedy.
The Times’ 2009 Pinellas County player of the year rushed for 1,300 yards and 20 touchdowns as a senior at Lakewood. His 5-foot-9 frame kept him from landing an offer from bigger names like USF or FSU, but Toledo didn’t care.
Since signing with the Rockets in 2010, he has scored 19 touchdowns and earned all-MAC honors at receiver and punt returner.
“Being small, you get overlooked by a lot of people,” said Reedy, whose Rockets face No. 18 Utah State in Saturday’s Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. “So when you do get settled into a program, you’ve got to prove yourself.”
Reedy said he and some of his overlooked MAC colleagues carry the chips on their shoulders into games against bigger conferences. That extra motivation could explain Ohio’s season-opening win over Penn State, Kent State’s takedown of then-No. 15 Rutgers or Ball State’s victory over the Bulls.
Those upsets, plus NIU’s No. 16 ranking and showcase games on ESPN have boosted the MAC’s national profile and attracted the attention of recruits like Matt Breida.
The Nature Coast running back and two-star recruit said he has followed the league’s rise by watching a handful of games on Tuesday or Wednesday nights and by checking the movements of Toledo in the polls. He has already set up a visit to the Rockets and is considering making one to Ball State, too.
“That just shows you,” Breida said, “the conference is stepping up.”
It might not be enough to lure Florida prospects away from the Gators or Seminoles, but it will keep MACtion running long past bowl season.
Notable Tampa Bay players on MAC rosters
Jahleel Addae (Riverview): Earned all-conference honors the past two years at defensive back. Led Central Michigan with 107 tackles as a junior and is tied for MAC lead with four interceptions
Tevin Drake (Nature Coast): Led Western Michigan with 586 rushing yards in 2011
Trey Dudley-Giles (Pasco): Started seven games and recorded 43 tackles as true freshman cornerback at UMass
Daz’mond Patterson (Plant City): Scored two TDs and averaged 5.5 yards per carry as true freshman running back at Ohio
Bernard Reedy (Lakewood): All-conference receiver and punt returner scored nine TDs at Toledo
Times staff writer Bob Putnam contributed to this report. Matt Baker can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.
Photo credit: Jeremy Wadsworth, The (Toledo) Blade