Notre Dame turned in one of its ugliest offensive performances in recent memory, but Drue Tranquill of the Irish managed to recover an onside kick late in the fourth quarter to preserve a 24-16 victory over Ball State. While the defensive effort was businesslike and featured two interceptions by safety Jalen Elliott, the offensive line was embarrassed time and again by the Cardinal front seven. Notre Dame failed to establish a running game, while Brandon Wimbush repeatedly poured gasoline on the fire by throwing three interceptions and scrambling aimlessly around the backfield as play after play broke down. There were probably fewer than ten teams in the top 100 that Notre Dame could have beaten today based on their quality of play, and the Irish should be very thankful that the Cardinals are one of them.
The Irish, who were favored by five touchdowns, started fast by sprinting to an early score in under two minutes. Jafar Armstrong capped a five play opening drive with one yard plunge into the end zone, and it looked like a blowout in the making. The Cardinals answered quickly with a field goal behind the passing of Riley Neal and some blatant offensive holding that miraculously escaped notice by the referees. The action quickly deteriorated into an exchange of punts, although Notre Dame got close enough for a Justin Yoon field goal attempt early in the second period. He missed.
Later in the quarter, Elliot snagged his first interception and returned it to the Ball State 31. Tony Jones, Jr. wasted no time as he broke two tackles and outran the rest of the Cardinals to the end zone for a 14-3 advantage. Wimbush was picked off by Josh Miller late in the half, setting up another three-pointer by Morgan Hagee. The Irish could not mount a drive in the last two minutes and went back to the locker room at intermission with a 14-6 lead.
Notre Dame appeared to have more energy in the third quarter as Elliott stopped the opening drive by the Ball State with another interception. Wimbush immediately hit Miles Boykin and Chris Finke with passes and Jones, Jr. rolled in with his second score of the day. Leading 21-6 at the 10:37 mark, fans looked for the Irish to start running downhill and win going away. Instead, another interception by Wimbush and numerous negative plays put the crowd to sleep. Yoon came on late in the quarter to atone for his earlier miss with a 46-yard field goal, but the fourth period belonged to the Cardinals.
Neal led the visitors on a 79-yard scoring march, capped by a 10-yard strike to tight end Nolan Givan with 12 minutes remaining. Yet another errant pass by Wimbush set up a field goal attempt by Hagee, but it went wide. The Ball State defense held on the next series, but the Irish defense again kept Neal and the Cardinals out of the end zone. When Hagee converted a 49-yarder to bring his team to within 24-16, there were only 90 seconds remaining. Coach Mike Neu was forced to gamble on an onside kick, but Tranquill grabbed it to turn out the lights.
Let’s review the answers to the pregame questions:
Will the Notre Dame defensive front continue where it left off last week? The group was not as dominant this week, but Khalid Kareem continues to impress and Jerry Tillery proved he can create havoc when he is properly motivated.
Can the speedy Cardinals receivers burn the Irish for big plays? Justin Hall and others made some nice grabs, but they were all short range throws. The Irish secondary did not allow Ball State to get deep.
Will Wimbush improve his pocket presence and timing? No, and it was painful to watch him struggle.
Can Notre Dame’s offensive line get on a roll against this smaller opponent? The stunting 3-4 Ball State defensive front continually kept the Irish off balance to the point of embarrassment. Note that the Cardinals outrushed Notre Dame by 169-119 despite trailing the entire game.
Will the Irish return and coverage teams turn in a solid performance? Both were mediocre, but there were no disasters in the return game. We did see a missed field goal by Yoon, several short punts by Tyler Newsome and another kickoff out of bounds, but that’s the new normal.
Which Notre Dame freshmen will get on the field and have an impact? C’Bo Flemister returned kickoffs in a competent manner, while safety Houston Griffith dropped a certain interception in the fourth quarter.
Will the national pundits criticize Notre Dame for scheduling this game? No, but they might throw shade at Ball State for scheduling the Keystone Kops.
The victory also came with a high cost. Talented tight end Cole Kmet suffered what appeared to be a serious leg injury in the fourth period. We will await further word on his status. There were no other injuries reported, although Wimbush and various offensive linemen may suffer the indignity of being thrown under the bus by their head coach in the post game presser.