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Armed with offensive weapons, Ball State looks forward to playing at Notre Dame

| Friday, September 7, 2018

Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s squad had spent the last eight months preparing for one game and one opponent. That opponent wears maize and blue helmets and has a history with Notre Dame dating back nearly to the inception of college football.

So, one week after completing a successful “green out” of Notre Dame Stadium and taking down Michigan in a much-anticipated rivalry-renewal, the No. 8 Irish (1-0) will have to come down from their high and take on a much different opponent in Ball State.

The Cardinals (1-0) snapped a nine-game losing streak with a resounding 42-6 win over Central Connecticut State to open their season and are looking to start a winning streak when they head northwest for an in-state matchup with the Irish. The opportunity to play Notre Dame on its home turf is something Ball State head coach Mike Neu and his team are relishing.

Anna Mason | The Observer
Irish senior defensive lineman Jerry Tillery (99) and junior defensive linemen Daelin Hayes (9) and Khalid Kareem (53) leap in an attempt to block a field goal during Notre Dame’s 24-17 win over Michigan on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

“That’s a great opportunity for us. A great opportunity for us. I was a young kid growing up on the south side of Indianapolis and I raced to the TV on Saturday ‘cause there was about three channels and I made sure I beat my brothers and sisters to make sure I could watch the Notre Dame game,” Neu said Saturday. “It’s going to be cool to go to South Bend. I don’t know how many times I’ve watch ‘Rudy.’ You pay attention, that’s a well-known, national program and grew up watching as a kid, but what a great opportunity for our guys. What a great opportunity to go in there and play on one of the biggest stages that exists.”

Cardinals redshirt-senior linebacker Jeremiah Jackson emphasized what his coach had to say Wednesday, adding that he and his teammates are going to try their hardest to take the Irish down, whether or not the odds are stacked against them.

“[Playing Notre Dame] means a lot to everybody,” he said. “They call [Notre Dame Stadium a] college football sanctuary, so, I mean, we’re going give it our all.”

While Ball State may be taking the approach of taking the trip to South Bend as a great opportunity and giving the Irish the best it’s got, Kelly said Tuesday the Cardinals’ offense has a number of threats and poses a danger to his squad.

“A talented offensive group led by [redshirt-junior] Riley Neal. He’s an outstanding quarterback,” Kelly said. “He’s a quarterback that could lead a Power Five team. He is an NFL prospect. … He’s got a live arm. He’s got some nice weapons around him. He’s got three very good backs, all quality backs and they run them all into the game.

“[Sophomore] Justin Hall at the wide receiver position does a lot of really, really good things for them. They’ve got a big tight end that they use. So, from an offensive perspective — coach Neu knows what he’s doing. Obviously, he’s got a great pedigree and background with the Saints and the Arena League and obviously he’s a quarterback coach; he knows what he’s doing offensively. Coach [Joey] Lynch, the offensive coordinator, has got a great background, a coach’s kid. He knows offensive football. So, this is a really good offensive system, and they know what they’re doing. They were decimated last year with injuries, so I don’t even think you can count what happened to them last year. But we’ll have to play well. This is a good offensive football team.”

Hall led the team in receiving yards by far last season, averaging close to 70 yards per game and totaling 801 yards, well over redshirt-junior Riley Miller’s next-closest 300 yards on the season, making him a weapon the Irish defense will need to contain, both offensively and on kickoff returns.

Hall stated the significance of the game, saying it would potentially be the biggest game of many of his teammates’ careers, as Notre Dame will be the highest-ranked team the Cardinals have played since 2011, when they took on then-No. 1 Oklahoma.

“I’m pretty sure for the whole team, it’s the biggest game a lot of players on this team have played,” Hall said Wednesday.

When it comes to Notre Dame, the Cardinals are aware the Irish are a force to be reckoned with and a definite departure from their typical weekly competition.

“They’re big, physical, they don’t give you the ball, so we just want to play our game, execute our plays,” Cardinals redshirt-junior running back James Gilbert said.

One of the major concerns the Cardinals have about the Irish is their offense  — namely containing senior dual-threat quarterback Brandon Wimbush.

In order to practice for Wimbush’s speed and ability to escape tacklers, Ball State has tried an unconventional technique in practice this week: hitting the quarterback as hard and as much as possible. Typically, Cardinals quarterbacks don a black jersey during practice they will not be hit. This week, the quarterbacks have been matching the rest of the team in red and getting wrapped up and dragged down.

“[We are] trying to create the best look possible and making sure we get hats to the football and wrap him up because, as we all know, [Wimbush] doesn’t just come down on first contact, so we’ve got to make sure we get people the football,” Neu said Wednesday.

Another tactic the Cardinals have been employing this week in order to prepare for the week — pumping the Notre Dame Victory March into Ball State practices throughout the week.

“They’re going to hear it at some point on Saturday … so at some point in time we want to make sure they’re sick of hearing it,” Neu said of the song.

The members of the squad are prepared to handle the large-scale environment that many of them have been dreaming of for a long time. While they are ready to take it in, they also know that Saturday is go-time.

“We’re going to get there early on Friday and that’s my time, I’m going to soak it in, I’m going to look around and see the stadium and everything,” Jackson said. “But once we hit the field, there’s going to be 70,000-plus there, we can’t worry about that. We just have to focus on the task at hand.”

Neu is confident in his team’s ability to handle the crowds at Notre Dame Stadium as well. He knows his players trust one another and their training and will play their hardest against the Irish.

“As long as you’re confident in your preparation, and you know what you’re doing, then you can go on the field — everybody’s going to have butterflies when the ball is kicked off and before opening kickoff — but it doesn’t matter what the helmet is, it doesn’t matter what the jersey is, you’ve got to do your job,” he said.

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About Elizabeth Greason

Elizabeth is a senior studying civil engineering from New York, NY (yes, the actual city). She is a proud resident assistant in McGlinn Hall and is a die-hard Mets and Giants fan. She is currently serving as assistant managing editor of The Observer and she also has an obsession with golf that is bordering on unhealthy.

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