Teddy Cahill

DETROIT – The tiniest hole, the faintest juke and all that was left was a flash of red and white heading into the open field.

The crowd stood, roaring as MiQuale Lewis raced toward the end zone. When it seemed he should be kicking into the clear for another long touchdown, a defender appeared from behind. And he was gaining ground.

Finally, Lewis was caught from behind and dragged to the turf, short of the goal line.

That scene occurred multiple times last season. Even once would've been too often for the tailback, who set Ball State University's single-season rushing record in 2008 and who is 689 yards from becoming the program's all-time leading rusher.

"It's frustrating not being able to finish plays that I started," Lewis said at the Mid-American Conference media day.

An ACL tear in 2007 and a nagging ankle injury last season contributed to his inability to run away from defenders as he always had before, but Lewis went to work in the offseason to make sure it didn't keep happening. He and coach Stan Parrish talked and decided losing weight would benefit Lewis.

Ball State's most effective offensive weapon lost about 20 pounds after the season ended at Western Michigan in November. Parrish said Lewis is at 185 pounds, his lightest weight since his freshman season.

The difference is already noticeable to Lewis, who is ready to start running away from defenders again.

"I've got to be a home run hitter," he said. "The times where I break and get caught, that's all old news. When I break, I've got to score."

None of Lewis' efforts in the offseason would have mattered if the NCAA hadn't granted him a medical redshirt. Tearing his ACL at Nebraska cost him nine games in 2007.

Lewis was one of two Cardinals to apply for an extra year of eligibility. Tight end and captain Madaris Grant hoped to get a medical redshirt after tearing his ACL on opening night last season against North Texas. His request was denied because it would have been a sixth season of eligibility, something the NCAA rarely grants.

Lewis is disappointed his teammate won't have the opportunity he will get this season.

"I really do think he deserves it," Lewis said. "He played one quarter in his fifth year. I really do think he deserves that sixth year."

Parrish hoped to have both offensive leaders back, but he will settle for just Lewis. The tailback's return gives Ball State one of the best running back trios in the MAC. The question for Parrish is how to best use Lewis, Cory Sykes and Eric Williams.

Parrish plans to have at least two running backs on the field at all times. The Cardinals introduced a wildcat package last year — and will use it again to get as many running backs on the field as possible.

"We've always had good offensive schemes," Parrish said. "We've worked hard on that since last winter. We'll probably play 20 plays a game in wildcat."

With that in mind, Lewis prepared for his wildcat role. As the formation's triggerman, he must be comfortable reading the defense, calling his cadence, taking the shotgun snap and handing off on a jet sweep.

When offensive coordinator Eddie Faulkner initially suggested Lewis learn the position last year, he was uncomfortable. It quickly paid off when Williams strained a ligament in his knee against Eastern Michigan and the passing game's failure forced Parrish to rely heavily on the wildcat.

Lewis said he practiced the formation twice a week this summer.

"I've been getting snaps from multiple centers and working the jet stuff," he said. "You can't be too perfect."

The Cardinals can't run wildcat every play, and with three running backs vying for carries, relationships could become strained. Lewis said it won't happen with the trio, partially because he and Williams are cousins. As for Sykes, his humor breaks any tension that might develop.

"Cory is one of the funniest people on our team," Lewis said. "We hang out off the field. It's a good bond."

While each running back has different skills, no one questions Lewis is the leader. In his four years at Ball State, Lewis has made a name for himself throughout the conference.

When Lewis and Sykes combined to rush for 504 yards against Eastern Michigan last season, other coaches took note. Eastern Michigan coach Ron English remembered the pair well.

"MiQuale looks all chubby, but the guy can run," English said. "[Lewis and Sykes] are both explosive, good runners. I think Stan does a nice job with formations to get them in position to have good runs."

Coaches aren't the only ones watching. Northern Illinois running back Chad Spann has competed against Lewis since high school. Spann went to North Central High School in Indianapolis, while Lewis attended Fort Wayne Snider.

Both Spann and Lewis are short, and Spann said he uses Lewis' running style as an example because of the similarity.

"His center of gravity is really low," said Spann, who ran track in high school against Lewis as well. "I've learned from watching him. He can break a lot of tackles because he can stay on his feet when he gets hit. I've tried to emulate that myself."

Spann and Lewis' personal competition may flare up again when Northern Illinois visits Muncie on Nov. 20 for Ball State's season finale. Both teams hope the game will have MAC West championship implications.

A chance at a MAC title is what drives Lewis as he enters his fifth and final year at Ball State. Not the NFL, which he said he is content to let God take care of for now. Not the school rushing record. Not personal accolades.

"Still my No. 1 goal is to win the MAC," Lewis said. "That hasn't been done [at Ball State] in a while. We got here in '08, and we got bamboozled."

All that matter is returning to Detroit for the MAC championship game and coming home with the hardware.