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Head to head: Ball State

| Friday, September 7, 2018

Observer Sports Staff | The Observer

Irish Passing

Brandon Wimbush came out firing last week against a Michigan unit that certainly looked dangerous on paper, but struggled to contain the senior’s mobility and gave up several big plays, including a 43-yard touchdown pass to fellow senior Chris Finke. The senior passed the eye test with a standout performance and received the game ball from Brian Kelly. Wimbush looked much more comfortable in Chip Long’s offense with a whole season under his belt, and was able to take advantage of favorable matchup’s. If Wimbush can put up the stats he did against the vaunted Michigan defense he faced last week, he should have a field day against the Cardinals. Receivers Miles Boykin and Chase Claypool should have a significant size and skill advantage and should put up impressive numbers as well. Don’t be surprised to see junior Ian Book and freshman Phil Jurkovec get some snaps against the Cardinals, who ranked a meager 78th in passing defense last season.

EDGE: Notre Dame

Irish Rushing 

The Irish rushing game posed a bit of a question mark going into the Michigan matchup last weekend. However, with stellar performances from sophomore running backs Jafar Armstrong, junior Tony Jones Jr. and sophomore Avery Davis — who has made the transition from quarterback over the course of the offseason — the Irish were able to ease some fears last week. Armstrong in particular looked explosive and elusive and scored twice in the victory. Additionally, the offensive line was a pleasant surprise against a very talented Michigan front, and should have an easier time this weekend against the Cardinals. As always, Brandon Wimbush is a constant threat to suddenly take off and run downfield, and will have plenty of opportunity to do so. Against a Ball State defense that gave up 27 touchdowns on the ground last season and an average of 188 rushing yards per game, the Irish backs should have a field day behind their improving offensive line.

EDGE: Notre Dame

Irish Offensive Coaching

Chip Long prepared a great offensive game plan against Michigan and was especially effective in the first half against Don Brown’s defense. The play calling was set to senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s strengths although the offense did stagnate in the second half and struggled to put more points on the board. But, against Ball State defensive coordinator David Elson and a defense that surrendered an average of 421.6 yards per game last season, Long and the Irish should be able to find success almost any way they want to. Whether Long can go up tempo, slow the game down, focus on the ground game or air it out — constantly keeping Elson and the Cardinals on their heels. Expect the Irish to march up and down the field time and time again under Long’s direction.

EDGE: Notre Dame

Irish Special Teams

One of the biggest takeaways from the win over Michigan is that Notre Dame needs serious improvements on special teams. The Wolverines first touchdown came at the hands of the special team when sophomore cornerback Ambry Thomas returned sophomore Jonathan Doerer’s 64-yard kickoff 99 yards into the end zone. Similarly, the Irish were unable to make much noise on the receiving end with Jafar Armstrong’s 20-yard return being the lone play made on the night. That said, Brian Kelly has said his staff intend to focus on attention to detail within the special teams unit. However, the question remains whether the Irish will be able to handle Ball State, who opened the season with a blocked field goal. However, the Cardinals also recorded no punts over 43 yards, and this could just be the game the Irish get a special teams touchdown of their own. Senior Justin Yoon has looked strong and accurate thus far, and so the Irish should be able to handle their own against the Cardinals. 

EDGE: Even

Cardinals Passing

Ball State junior quarterback Riley Neal put up pretty good numbers in the first three games of last season, throwing for 659 yards and six touchdowns before being sidelined with a knee fracture for the rest of the season. Neal will come back as the driving force of the offense. Still, although Neal shows promise for the offense, the Cardinals still scored only ten touchdowns in MAC play last year. They still lost every league game by at least 16 points. The Irish secondary looked strong against Michigan, but then again it may have been Shea Patterson that made them look good. We still don’t know how Shaun Crawford’s injury will affect the Irish secondary, and whether an opponent will find a weak spot in the Irish unit. However, the infusion of junior safety Alohi Gilman has instilled confidence and taken the unit to the next level. Neal could put up a solid game against the Irish and may often be able to move the ball downfield against the Clark Lea’s “bend-don’t-break” defense, but it’s likely that Notre Dame’s menacing defense will have no problem handling the Ball State junior.

EDGE: Notre Dame

Cardinals Rushing

While quarterback Riley Neal may be the focal point of the Cardinals offense, the Ball State rushing attack certainly performed well last week against Central Connecticut State with 318 yards on the ground. After losing starter James Gilbert last season to injury, the position is suddenly one of strength this year for head coach Mike Neu. But the Irish are dangerously athletic up front, and held the Wolverines to a meager 58 yards on the ground last weekend. Though Notre Dame will certainly miss the presence of Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, who broke his foot against the Wolverines, the Irish are deep and talented enough to make up the difference. Senior linebacker Te’von Coney and the second level will clean up anything the first level of defense doesn’t stop. While there may be some garbage yards at the end for the Cardinals, it won’t make a difference.

EDGE: Notre Dame

Cardinals Offensive Coaching

The Cardinals were outscored 488-215 last season when they went 2-10. They found themselves about equal to opponents in terms of first downs, but were incapable of converting for points. Don’t expect much to change this weekend. Despite a win last weekend, Joey Lynch’s offense will have a difficult time contending with Clark Lea’s defense, which is widely-regarded as one of the toughest and deepest in the nation. Lea has a great grasp of the defensive scheme he wants to run and has instilled that vision into his players, who were flying around the field against Michigan. Lea will dial up the right pressure at the right time and stop any threatening drives from the Cardinals, just as he did against the Wolverines.  

EDGE: Notre Dame

Cardinals Special Teams

Kick returner Malik Dunner is the star of this special teams unit. He averaged 24.4 yards per return and earned third-team all-MAC honors last year. But, beyond Dunner, the Cardinals’ special teams is nothing to write home about. Senior placekicker Morgan Hagee struggled mightily last year from 30 to 47 yards out, making only 6-of-11. The Cardinals were nearly last in the nation in punting last season. Notre Dame’s special teams defense may not be the best in the country, having given up a touchdown on a kickoff return against Michigan along with other special teams miscues such as kickoffs out-of-bounds and short punts. There’s no question the Irish should have the edge here, but they did give up a touchdown last week. If the Irish can shore up their kickoff coverage and limit Dunner from breaking a big play, then this area of the game should be a wash.

EDGE: Even

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