Notre Dame continues a three-game home stand on Saturday when the Irish host in-state neighbor Ball State University. This is the first game between these schools as the Cardinals are a member of the Mid-American Conference. Coach Mike Neu is in his third year at the helm and is coming off an injury-plagued 2-10 record in 2017. This season already looks more promising as Ball State recorded over 650 yards of offense while swamping Central Connecticut by 42-6 in its opener. The Irish are still basking in the glow of their solid victory over Michigan last week. The game will be nationally televised on NBC beginning at 3:30 pm ET.
Coach Brian Kelly hopes to see improved play from his offensive line as well as the continued development of quarterback Brandon Wimbush, who must improve his decision making while absorbing fewer punishing hits. The other area of focus identified by Kelly is the ability to close out a win. “What we learned is that we have to finish off an opponent,” Kelly said. “We had opportunities to put Michigan in a very difficult position, and we did not, so I think we learned a lot from that experience. We’ve got to — when we see an opportunity to put an opponent away, we’ve got to have a dominant mindset and be able to do that.”
Ball State plans to do more than show up, roll around in the fake grass, and collect a nice seven figure paycheck. Coach Neu, a native of Indianapolis, could not mask his enthusiasm for this matchup. “It’s going to be cool to go to South Bend,” Neu said. “I don’t know how many times I’ve watched ‘Rudy.’ It’s a well-known national program. I grew up watching them as a kid. What a great opportunity for our guys to go in there and play on one of the biggest stages that exists.” On the other hand, quarterback Riley Neal promises he will not be in awe of the Irish. “I don’t look at them as super-humans or anything. They’re a Power Five school, they are what they are.”
The Irish suffered a costly injury last week as defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa broke his foot. He will likely miss the regular season with the possibility of a return for a bowl game. This loss impacts the depth along the line and may force freshman Jayson Ademilola into early action behind senior starter Jerry Tillery. Combined with the season-ending injury to cornerback Shaun Crawford in the days leading up to the opener, Notre Dame’s stellar defense needs to avoid further attrition.
NOTRE DAME’S OFFENSE vs. BALL STATE’S DEFENSE
The Notre Dame skill position players performed quite well last week against Michigan. Receivers Chase Claypool, Miles Boykin and Chris Finke stood out while running backs Jafar Armstrong and Tony Jones, Jr. made their presence known. Tight ends Alize Mack and Cole Kmet need to be more involved in the passing game, and Wimbush should experience less stress in the pocket while he finds the open man. Both the running and passing attacks need to find a rhythm that was missing last week against a disruptive defense.
The Cardinals have more quality players on offense, but the revamped 3-4 defense played well last week and gained confidence. They return ten starters from a very young 2017 group, although end Fred Schroeder is the only senior among the front seven. Cornerbacks Marc Walton and Josh Miller are senior leaders on the back end, where an abundance of freshmen are needed to fill the two deep.
Guard Alex Bars is the only Notre Dame offensive lineman who received praise for his play last week. The rest of the troops need to improve under new position coach Jeff Quinn. The Irish suffered five negative plays in the running game along with two sacks and numerous quarterback hurries. Tackle Robert Hainsey may need to sit this one out and rest his injured leg, while the entire group of second teamers should get some meaningful minutes in the second half.
Ball State is a bit undersized up front, which should allow Notre Dame to gain control of the line of scrimmage.
BALL STATE’S OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSE
The 6’6” Neal, who was 23 of 30 passing for 259 yards and two touchdowns last week, is very accurate and is also a threat to run it on occasion. He missed most of last season due to injury after a strong start, but showed no signs of rust in last week’s romp. Twelve different Cardinal receivers caught passes last week, which is impressive at any level. Two young players, sophomore Justin Hall and freshman Yo’Heinz Tyler, will pose a credible challenge to the Irish secondary. Tight end Nolan Givan is also a highly regarded and productive player.
Ball State’s offensive line features center Andrew Poenitsch, the best player in the group who is also a Rimington Award Watch List member, and right tackle Danny Pinter, who hails from South Bend. A group of talented running backs led by James Gilbert managed to gain 314 yards last week. Caleb Huntley and Malik Dunner will also see action. Note that Dunner is frequently a target in the passing game.
The Cardinals have the capacity to put up points in this contest if the linemen can win enough of the individual battles to allow Neal and his many weapons to execute the offense. Notre Dame’s front four demonstrated it could pressure the passer last week without help from blitzing linebackers, an element that has been missing from Irish defenses since 2012. End Khalid Kareem was particularly effective and gained some national recognition in the process. The unit also held Michigan to a paltry 58 rushing yards. Safety Alohi Gilman was aggressive in making tackles at or behind the line while Tevon Coney was his usual dominating self in the middle. It will be interesting to see if Poenitsch can keep Coney from doing more damage this week.
Notre Dame had several special teams gaffes in their debut, most notably a 99-yard kickoff return by the Wolverines. Kicker Justin Yoon was the only member of this group to perform well, and even strong-legged Tyler Newsome clanked a poor punt that failed to reach midfield. The return game was not yet in evidence, but Finke is at least dependable. Irish fans would like to see discernable improvement across the board on the special teams front, as lackluster coverage and returns have been a constant sore point throughout the Kelly era.
Ball State’s kicker Morgan Hagee had his only field goal attempt blocked last week, a 37-yarder. On the positive side, last week’s opponent was only able to return two of seven kickoffs. Punter Nathan Snyder did not work up much of a sweat, but averaged only 37 yards per boot with no return yardage.
One cannot expect Notre Dame to enter this contest with the same level of intensity they carried into the opener with Michigan, but recent history suggests the Irish should not assume the Cardinals will go quietly. Their offense has the capacity to cause some embarrassment to the hosts if afforded sufficient time and space to operate. Although Ball State’s defense does not have the horsepower to shut down the Irish attack, the question really is whether Wimbush and company will limit themselves by making costly mistakes.
Here are a few questions that will shed light on the outcome:
Will the Notre Dame defensive front continue where it left off last week?
Can the speedy Cardinals receivers burn the Irish for big plays?
Will Wimbush improve his pocket presence and timing?
Can Notre Dame’s offensive line get on a roll against this smaller opponent?
Will the Irish return and coverage teams turn in a solid performance?
Which Notre Dame freshmen will get on the field and have an impact?
Will the national pundits criticize Notre Dame for scheduling this game?
The Irish have plenty of areas to work on in this contest and should be focused on the quality of their own performance rather than the pedigree of their opponent. Notre Dame, even at home, does not intimidate teams as it once did, so the objective should be for all 85 men to show up and play hard. If the Irish do that, it should be a fun afternoon for all.
NOTRE DAME 48 BALL STATE 14