Notre Dame staves off Ball State in in-state face-off
Peter Baltes | Monday, September 10, 2018
It was never easy, but No. 8 Notre Dame was able to get a win this weekend.
The Irish overcame miscues and fended off a difficult challenge from Ball State on Saturday afternoon, outlasting the visiting Cardinals (1-1) by a score of 24-16.
In a matchup widely anticipated to be a blowout, Ball State stayed within striking distance of the Irish, who never seemed to be able to fully put the Cardinals away. While acknowledging areas to improve, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly was ultimately satisfied to pick up the team’s second win in as many games this season.
“You can never apologize for winning,” he said. “Winning is hard. So understand that, that first and foremost you won a football game.”
The Irish (2-0) appeared appeared strong on the game’s opening possession, picking up large chunks of yardage and 7 points in a five-play, 74-yard drive. Sophomore running back Jafar Armstrong capped the possession off with a one-yard touchdown run, his third of the season, and Notre Dame seemed the more prepared squad.
“We’ve got to keep up the same level of energy that we came out with for the whole game,” Irish graduate student guard Alex Bars said.
The Cardinals struck back on the next possession, driving 85 yards and converting on three third downs before eventually settling for a 25-yard field goal. Ball State held the ball for nearly seven minutes on this drive and won the possession battle overall, running 97 offensive plays and keeping the ball for 34:22 of the game’s 60 minutes.
“They ate up clock,” Kelly said. “They did the things necessary to be in a position to compete. They did a great job. Their preparation was great. Their coaching was better.”
Neither offense was able to get into a rhythm after the initial round of scoring. The teams traded punts after three-and-outs on four-consecutive possessions, the score remaining 7-3 in favor of the Irish by quarter’s end.
The Irish nearly scored early in the second quarter, driving all the way down to the Cardinals 10 yard-line on a combination of rushes from Armstrong and long passes from senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush. On third-and-14, Wimbush was sacked for a 10-yard loss, setting up a 45-yard field goal attempt from senior kicker Justin Yoon that sailed wide right.
The Irish defense held firm, though, again restricting Ball State to three plays and a punt. Notre Dame responded by marching down the field once more, this time sputtering at the opponent’s 26-yardline after Wimbush’s pass to junior wide receiver Chase Claypool landed incomplete on fourth-and-8.
As before, the Cardinals were then limited to three offensive plays, this time the drive ending when junior Irish safety Jalen Elliott intercepted a third-down pass from redshirt-junior Ball State quarterback Riley Neal, giving Notre Dame the ball 31 yards from the end zone.
The next play, junior Irish running back Tony Jones Jr. broke multiple tackles and scampered all 31 of those yards to put Notre Dame up 14-3. Jones’s touchdown amounted to the longest offensive rush of his career.
Kelly expressed his satisfaction in his team’s ability to cause turnovers and capitalize from them.
“Neal did a great job,” he said. “He got outside, contained, kept some plays alive. We needed those interceptions, and we cashed them in for scores.”
Following a Ball State punt and a Notre Dame interception, the Cardinals threaded together a 36-yard drive that ended in 3 points, making the score 14-6, a mark that would hold until halftime.
The Cardinals started the second half with the ball, driving 21 yards before Elliott came away with his second interception of the game. Wimbush then connected with senior receivers Chris Finke and Miles Boykin to set up a second touchdown run for Jones, this time for one yard to stretch Notre Dame’s lead to 21-6.
Kelly praised Elliott’s ability to positively shift momentum and set up opportunities for the Irish.
“He had a great game,” he said. “One of the things was for him to grow relative to the ball in the air, tracking the ball, coming down with it, all those kinds of things. … He got the game ball, too.”
Four more possessions would come and go before more points showed up on the board. With just over two minutes to go in the third quarter, Yoon connected on a 46-yard field goal attempt for the Irish, making the score 24-6.
Ball State opened the fourth with a scoring drive of their own, taking the ball 79 yards in five minutes and finishing with a 10-yard touchdown reception for redshirt-sophomore tight end Nolan Givan.
Wimbush threw his third interception of the game on the next possession, setting Ball State up for a 41-yard drive that ultimately ended in a missed field goal attempt of 46 yards.
The Irish failed to respond, punting after three plays on the next drive, and the Cardinals then drove into field goal range again, this time connecting on a 49-yarder with 1:30 remaining. Time was scarce, but Ball State was now only a score away, down 24-16.
However, the Irish were able to recover the Cardinals’ onside kick attempt, subsequently running out the clock and taking the 8-point lead to the locker room.
Kelly said he did not expect the game to go as it did, but he sees avenues for the team to continue growing.
“Our players have to bring a little bit more energy to the game,” he said. “So we go into a game like this with we’re happy to win, but I’ve got to prepare our team better, we’ve got to coach them better, and our guys have to come with more energy into this kind of game.”