Disappointment wasn't exactly painted across their faces as you would expect from a team that may have played its final game of the season.

In many ways their finale brought everything they expected.

Ball State knew it was going to be a high scoring affair against Toledo, with both teams combining for 65 points coming into the game and then reaching 73 over 60 windy minutes in Muncie.

Defeat was certainly a possibility against the high-powered Rockets, who indeed left Schuemann Stadium with a 45-28 win over the Cardinals Friday afternoon.

But lacking during the post-game walk to the south end of the field were the gloomy looks that often come in defeat. Smiles were few and far between, but the beginning of the Pete Lembo era at the school brings a shade more optimism than the disappointing end at the hands of Toledo.

"I really like our players," said Lembo, who finished his first season with the Cardinals at 6-6. "We have good kids here and they certainly embraced us-and we've got to keep them here."

According to a few Cardinals that will be guarenteed not to be-the seniors-there will be plenty of reasons for underclassman to hang around Muncie the next few years-much of that has to do with Lembo.

The coach walked into a program which had two coaches in three seasons, with Stan Parrish lasting just two seasons after Brady Hoke left in 2008 for San Diego State.

Senior Sean Baker admitted that he had to look up Lembo on Wikipedia to learn about him when he was hired last December. But after a full year of getting to know his new coach in person, he has plenty of faith that the future will be brighter than it was on Friday.

"Everything worked out great, gave us a chance to make a run at the end of the year and we were in every game," said Baker of the coaching staff. "I'm excited for the guys coming up. I'm ready for next year already, I'm not gonna be here but I'm gonna be a proud alum."

Some building certainly remains for the Cardinals as they look to improve a team that showed its potential and drawbacks at many times this season. They opened by surprising some with a victory over Indiana at Lucas Oil Stadium to start the season and the Cardinals opened the season 3-1.

They were knocked down with back-to-back blowout losses by Oklahoma and Temple before winning two more MAC games. After splitting the next two games, Ball State appeared on the verge of a major upset when the lead Northern Illinois by 17 points in the second half only to fall on a late field goal.

"We got some young guys and when they get out in these games and there's very little margin for error, they've got to step up and not take a half step back," said Lembo of his team-and the same was true on Friday.

The Cardinals fell behind by 14 points in the first half thanks to a pair of touchdown passes from Toledo quarterback Terrance Owens. He would throw another touchdown early in the third quarter to Cassius McDonald to push the lead out to 28-7.

Twice Ball State would rally to cut it to 14 points twice thanks to a pair of long drives led by quarterback Keith Wenning, But when they finally stopped the Rockets without a point late in the fourth quarter, Wenning tossed a pick that led to a field goal to push the lead to 17.

On the next possession, Wenning was picked again and Jermaine Robinson returned it 58 yards for a game-sealing touchdown.

"We knew as an offense that we we're gonna have to be sharp and the tempo of the game, it going a little faster, helped us out," said Wenning, who threw for 308 yards and broke Nate Davis' record for completions in a season. "We did that quite a bit throughout the game and it seemed to work for the most parts.

"Toledo is a fast, strong, physical team and its tough to execute when they're doing all their different things on defense. You have to give them credit for the things they did." 

Yet even in defeat, the Cardinals were willing to give credit to their new leader, who helped them to bowl eligibility in his first season. While the Cardinals appear a bit of a longshot for a post-season game, the future has already begun.

"My freshman year came in, undefeated season. The last two years, not so good," said senior receiver Briggs Orsbon. "Coach Lembo came in and I think everyone really accepted him and think to coaches we're great in accepting, knowing we had a big transition to make."