MUNCIE, Ind. -- The Touchdown Panda was in the front row of Section S, amid a sea of 11,088 cold, crazed Ball State students.
On the field, the Cardinals were putting the final touches on a 45-22 waxing of Western Michigan that cemented a 12-0 regular season and the Mid-American Conference West Division title. In the packed stands, Touchdown Panda cradled his round head in his hands. He was in his glory.
"I've watched them suck every year," the talking panda said. "Finally, a winning season my senior year. An undefeated season. It's awesome."
Away from picturesque Scheumann Stadium, he is Jake Erdley, a senior telecommunications major from Brownsburg, Ind. But at every home game, Erdley rocks the ridiculous panda costume and a T-shirt that reads, "Touchdown Panda."
Erdley does a dance every time Ball State scores a touchdown -- which has been often this fall. And his fellow students rub his head for good luck.
This is not a David Letterman (Ball State Class of '69) joke. This is real.
Um, Jake? What's with the panda getup?
"My aunt owns a costume store," Erdley explained. "She didn't have a cardinal. And everybody likes pandas."
Sure. With the exception of animated kung fu experts, pandas always look like nice, docile, nonthreatening creatures. Kind of the way Ball State football has been in recent times.
This is a program steeped in mediocrity, crafting 10 straight nonwinning seasons from 1997-2006. That run included an 0-11 season, a 1-10 and a 2-9, as Ball State slid to the lower tier of the MAC.
But now change has come to Muncie in a stunning flourish. The proof was right there in black and white Tuesday night: the Touchdown Panda was partying on the field, part of a streaming mass of delirious collegiate humanity that overtook the artificial turf at the final gun to celebrate the greatest season in Ball State history.
(And make no mistake, this is the best program in Indiana in 2008. Not even close.)
"It reminds me of -- I don't know what it reminds me of," coach Brady Hoke said, tacitly acknowledging that storm-the-field moments don't happen here. "But it was neat."
Quarterback Nate Davis' description of the postgame mosh pit: "It was very exciting, but boy, it was hectic out there."
Running back MiQuale Lewis said he began the postgame celebration at midfield and wound up being carried by the mob into the end zone.
"I dropped my helmet twice," Lewis said. "Dropped my mouthpiece twice."
Lewis was especially endangered in the wild scene, given his 5-foot-6 stature. The talented, confident Davis is the face of Ball State football, but Lewis is its soul.
The product of nearby Fort Wayne is the poster boy Cardinal: He was never recruited seriously by any other FBS schools. Too short, he heard a thousand times. Like the rest of the program, the junior took his lumps the past two years. He played in four games as a freshman before injury knocked him out for the year, and six games last year.
Now, in this kismet-kissed season, Lewis is a breakout star. His 20 rushing touchdowns is a single-season school record, and he's 49 yards away from setting the single-season rushing record (he has 1,570).
Lewis is one of the many players who have stepped forward when Ball State's biggest game-breaker, receiver Dante Love, was nearly paralyzed by a career-ending hit against Indiana. It's a touching tribute to the Cardinals' resilience and togetherness that they have not just survived the loss of a great player, they've thrived. Love is an inspiration.
He is no longer in uniform, but he's still a vital Cardinal. He walked out arm-in-arm with teammates Dan Gerberry and Brandon Crawford for the pregame coin toss, then sat in the press box with the coaches during the game. Late in the contest, the student section chanted Love's name.
"We've got to be thankful," Hoke said. "We got one guy that football is not part of his life. That's a guy we play for."
Nobody in red is playing better than Davis, the quarterback who helped bring half a dozen NFL scouts to the stadium Tuesday night. Davis showcased a sizzling arm, deft touch, swift feet (he ran for 64 yards) and a cat burglar's confidence on third downs. Several times he broke Western Michigan's back on third-and-long with stellar throws or savvy scrambles, on his way to 337 yards of total offense.
"He didn't make us look real good a could times there," Western Michigan coach Bill Cubit said.
A learning disability kept the Bellaire, Ohio, product from being widely recruited (he was also a sensational high school basketball player), but he said Ball State was swift to lay out a plan for helping him academically. And offensive coordinator Stan Parrish got in on the ground floor and never went away.
That's a big reason why, even when West Virginia came calling late, Davis stuck with Ball State.
"Coach Parrish," Davis' brother Jose said, as an explanation for how Nate wound up in Muncie. "He stuck with him, and he sold the NFL. He coached a lot of guys in the NFL, and he has an NFL system."
Parrish is part of a grizzled staff -- the average college experience for Hoke and his nine full-time assistants is 21 years. They've seen it all, which is perhaps why Ball State is the least-penalized team in the nation and is tied for third in fewest giveaways with 10.
"They don't make a lot of mistakes," Cubit said, and the proof was on the stat sheet Tuesday night: zero turnovers, 5 penalty yards.
That goes back to Hoke, whose self-described tunnel vision has trickled down to his players. The Lloyd Carr disciple (his cadence is even similar to Carr's) has programmed his players to think short term and to think and speak in plural possessives. In fact, one sign on the offensive meeting room reads:
Which was fitting Tuesday night. This was a we-us-ours night for Ball State, for a program that has never experienced anything close to this level of success and attendant euphoria. Even the futile "BCS! BCS! BCS!" cheer late in the game lacked any real ardor.
They know the deal. And given their history, they'll gladly take the deal as it's currently presented.
"That's not what counts," said Erdley, the Touchdown Panda, of the impending BCS bowl snub. "They made this happen without any of that mattering. We'll take whatever bowl we get in, and we'll win that, too."
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.