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Ball State vs. Central Florida
When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 21

Cards happy to make trip to Florida

Set to face Central Florida in 3rd bowl appearance since ’07

So who doesn’t like the idea of Florida in December?

There are probably a few cranks in snow country who don’t. But the Ball State football team is definitely not among them.

The Cardinals are headed to the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl St. Petersburg on Dec. 21, where they’ll play Conference USA runner-up Central Florida (9-4) in Ball State’s third bowl appearance since 2007. And no one in Muncie is unhappy about that.

“We did feel like we were on the radar for this one,” second-year head coach Pete Lembo said in a phone interview Sunday night. “Obviously this one is a prime location. Tampa is an area that we recruit heavily, so being in St. Pete is great exposure for our program. And obviously the travel for our fan base is pretty good.”

The invitation comes on the heels of a 9-3 season in which Ball State defeated two BCS conference schools (Indiana and South Florida) and won its last six games. That and the Cardinals’ balanced, potent offense – Ball State averaged 35 points and 471.3 yards per game behind record-setting quarterback Keith Wenning and 1,000-yard rusher Jahwan Edwards – were key factors in swaying the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl committee.

“Ball State is a hot team right now,” said Brett Dulaney, executive director of the Beef O’ Brady’s Bowl St. Petersburg, in written statement. “We look forward to providing a great bowl week experience for the team and their fans.”

In Central Florida, the Cardinals will face a team that in some respects is a mirror image. Under the direction of former Georgia Tech and (briefly) Notre Dame coach George O’Leary, it, too, fields a potent and balanced offense centered around a stellar quarterback (Blake Bortles) and a 1,000-yard rusher (Latavius Murray).

The Knights averaged 35.2 points and 400.7 yards per game this season, the latter fairly evenly divided between rushing (178.7 ypg) and passing (222.0 ypg). Murray ran for 1,035 yards and 14 touchdowns, and Bortles completed 62.6 percent of his passes (299-of-366) for 2,787 yards, 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

Two of the Knights’ four losses were to Ohio State (31-16) and Missouri (21-16). The other were narrow defeats at the hands of Conference USA champion Tulsa, 23-21 in the regular season and then came from behind to beat the Knights 33-27 in overtime in the conference championship game.

As for Ball State, it was one of a record seven MAC schools to draw bowl invitations Sunday – the biggest, of course, being MAC champion Northern Illinois, which landed an Orange Bowl invite to become the first MAC school ever to secure a BCS bid.

“It’s a banner year for the conference in so many ways,” Lembo said. “And now Northern gets a trip to a BCS game and every bowl eligible team gets in.

“I don’t know if it gets any better.”