FOOTBALL: Wenning’s peers label quarterback as Ball State’s best ever

Senior quarterback Keith Wenning warms up on the field prior to the start of the game against Miami on Nov. 29. Wenning plans to graduate at the end of the year, making Miami the last home game he will play for Ball State. DN PHOTO JONATHAN MIKSANEK
Senior quarterback Keith Wenning warms up on the field prior to the start of the game against Miami on Nov. 29. Wenning plans to graduate at the end of the year, making Miami the last home game he will play for Ball State. DN PHOTO JONATHAN MIKSANEK

After Ball State’s thumping of Miami on Friday, most questions directed at Keith Wenning were about the records he had just broken and his future.

But there was a question directed at head coach Pete Lembo about the senior quarterback.

“Has anybody ever had their number retired here?” a reporter asked. “Does Keith deserve that?”

Wenning stared uncomfortably at the stat booklet in front of him as he waited for Lembo to answer the question.

He never played to be the first Cardinal with a retired number or for the stats in that book.

He played to win.

THE START

Wenning was introduced to the game in the backyard of his Coldwater, Ohio, home. He continued to play throughout his childhood, moving from the grass of his yard to the turf of his junior high’s football field. His experience led him to place on the high school team, where he lead his high school to a 49-4 record in his career, including a state championship his sophomore season.

Wenning’s athletic abilities weren’t limited to football. He was an all-conference selection for Coldwater’s baseball and basketball teams, but football was his strongest sport.

His talents attracted former Cardinals’ football head coach Stan Parrish, and when Ball State offered a scholarship, he couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

“I loved him as a high school player,” Parrish said. “He had everything you were looking for [in a quarterback].”

The year before Wenning would put on a #10 jersey, the Cardinals’ plummeted to a 2-10 record after losing the first seven games of the season.

During his freshman season in 2010, Ball State won the season opener against Southeast Missouri. But in its second game, a slow start against the Football Championship Subdivision opponent Liberty saw Ball State fall behind 3-14.

Parrish put the freshman quarterback into the game late in the second quarter, desperate to rejuvenate Ball State’s offense.

Within 52 seconds, Wenning completed five of his first six passes to move the offense 50 yards to the Liberty 26-yard line. In the third quarter, he threw his first touchdown pass, a 15-yard pass to Aaron Mershman, to give Ball State its first lead of the game at 17-14.

Though Liberty came back to win the game 27-23 and Ball State lost to an FCS opponent for the second season in a row, the Wenning era at Ball State began as soon as his first 11-yard pass was completed.

Parrish was fired three days after the season ended. Then, in late December, Lembo and his staff arrived promising a fast-paced passing offense.

TURNING POINT

The first time offensive coordinator Rich Skrosky met Wenning, who started the last 10 games of the season, he thought his new quarterback was fat.

The coaches would continue to joke about Wenning’s roughly 240-pound frame as he began learning the new playbook. At first he wasn’t making throws in practices, which concerned the staff, and he was challenged to get down to 220 pounds.

Joey Lynch, one of two assistants kept from Parrish’s staff, held out hope for the player, knowing Wenning was the quarterback Ball State needed.

“I think deep down, coach Skrosky was a little worried heading into the fall,” Lynch said. “When we hit the fall camp, he was like a different kid. I think from that point, the whole staff knew that he could be pretty good.”

Wenning started all 12 games his sophomore season and posted several career highs while helping Ball State to a 6-6 bowl-eligible season.

He finished the season about 20 pounds slimmer and with 2,786 passing yards – an improvement from 1,373 his freshman season. His average per game increased to 232.2 yards from 114.4 and his completion percentage jumped nine points to nearly 64 percent.

Each season, his numbers continued to rise, breaking Ball State records that were previously held by Nate Davis, who quarterbacked the 2008 team that finished the regular season undefeated.

“The things you saw his sophomore season was his internal drive,” Skrosky said. “You knew he had the stuff to be a successful player for sure.”

RECORD BREAKER

Morry Mannies has watched nearly every Ball State football game for the last 58 seasons. The former voice of the Cardinals called his last game after the 2011 season, but is a regular attendee in the Scheumann Stadium press box.

He’s called the plays of dozens of Ball State quarterbacks, including Lynch, Davis, Mike Neu and Brent Baldwin. Mannies called Ball State’s loss to Liberty in Wenning’s freshman season and knew he was in a different class of Ball State quarterbacks.

“I thought, ‘This kid is going to be special,’” Mannies said. “A lot of us felt that way. What is Keith Wenning? He’s special.”

Mannies’ final season in the radio booth was Lembo’s first season at Ball State. He noticed a tremendous difference in Wenning’s play style his sophomore season.

Lembo’s arrival was vital to Wenning’s career, Mannies said.

Wenning has started in 36 of Lembo’s 37 games at Ball State. He’s won 27 games as the starting quarterback at Ball State and will leave the program with almost every major school quarterback record.

This season, breaking school records seemed to happen by the week for Wenning. He broke the Ball State record for passing yards in a career in the win against Virginia. The school’s career touchdown passes record fell in the win against Western Michigan.

He capped off the regular season by breaking the school records in passing yards in a season, touchdown passes in a season and touchdown passes in a game on his Senior Day against Miami.

The numbers don’t mean anything to Wenning, though. He just wants to win.

“As long as we get the W, he really doesn’t care,” senior wide receiver Jamill Smith said.

Wenning said his humbleness came from his upbringings as a child. His parents and coaches taught him how to deal with success and failure, but more importantly, becoming a man outside of football.

That mindset has made Wenning appear stoic on the field. Showing emotion or even celebrating — like he did after catching his lone touchdown against Indiana in 2012 — is a rarity.

“That stuff isn’t important to him,” Lembo said. “He would much rather come back here for a reunion in 25 years feeling good that this team reached its potential more so than reading his name in the media guide.”

LEGACY

Wenning has one game left in his Ball State career and another chance to add to his career accomplishments — by helping the Cardinals win their first bowl game.

He’s led an offense that’s won 19 games in the last two seasons and is the school record holder in a number of major records. Until the loss to Northern Illinois on Nov. 13, Ball State was on the cusp of winning a Mid-American Conference championship.

His name in the foreseeable future will remain atop the Ball State quarterback records. But even if his records are broken in the future, Wenning won’t be forgotten.

“You will know Keith Wenning,” Smith said. “People 10-15 years from now will see his name in the record book.”

The accolades and accomplishments helped Wenning seal himself as one of the best quarterbacks to play at Ball State. To some, he’s the best ever quarterback at Ball State.

“With all the records and the talent, he would stand out as No. 1,” Mannies said. “I mean, how can you choose anyone else when you look at what happened to the record book this year?”

Wenning capped his final game at Scheumann Stadium with one of his best performances ever with 445 passing yards and six touchdown passes.

At the news conference after the game, he quietly waited for Lembo to say whether his career was worthy of retiring his jersey.

“That’s not my place,” Lembo said in response to the reporter’s question. “Here’s what I think Keith deserves: Keith deserves that when we come back in 25 years and celebrate a 10-win season that I buy him a cold drink.”

Wenning looked up from the table at his coach, a smile on his typically stoic face.

“Good deal.”

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