After a solid start to the 2018 Notre Dame football season, the Irish remain at home on Saturday for a matchup against the MAC-based Ball State Cardinals. This marks the first-ever meeting between the two schools, though the Irish are seeking to extend their spotless 3-0 mark against schools from that particular conference. All of those wins came within the last decade.
Both teams won their opening clashes last weekend, though the level of competition offered was drastically different. The Irish were facing the 14th-ranked Michigan Wolverines and came away with a 24-17 win, while the Cardinals pounded Division I-AA Central Connecticut in a 42-6 rout.
Listed below are some of the key matchups to watch in the contest:
Notre Dame Running Game vs. ILB Jacob White
With Dexter Williams still in limbo, an assortment of Irish running backs will team with Brandon Wimbush to supply the team’s ground game. None of the backs really made much of an impact against Michigan, though Jafar Armstrong did reach the end zone on two occasions. Given the soft early schedule, Notre Dame should be able to get by with this makeshift arrangement until Williams finds his way back.
White is not the largest linebacker at 6-feet, 230 pounds, but he always seems to be around the ball. He was also one of those Cardinals players that were felled by injury last season, but still managed to play in the majority of games. He’s had a knack for finding his way into opposing backfield, though the Irish line is a little more formidable than his previous foes.
NT Jonathan Bonner vs. G Curtis Blackwell
In comparison to his fellow line members, Jerry Tillery and Khalid Kareem, Bonner had a quiet game against Michigan. Of course, he wasn’t even destined to be on the 2018 squad, but ended up changing his mind. The fact that he’s fully recovered from a nagging wrist injury that plagued him last year offers hope that he can continue to make life easier for all of the defensive line.
Ball State’s top player on the offensive line is right guard Curtis Blackwell. The second-year man already has plenty of experience after being thrown into the Cardinal lineup last year because of the chaotic turnover caused by injuries and basic struggles. Of course, that background may not be enough to deal with a steady flow of pressure from Bonner and his cohorts.
Notre Dame Defense vs. QB Riley Neal
The fact that the only Michigan offensive touchdown came in the waning moments of the game is a clear example of just how effective this unit was in the win. The Wolverines never really got their running game going and stayed primarily with an intermediate passing attack that the Irish defenders should seek to tighten u. That approach will be an asset as the schedule gets progressively tougher.
Neal has plenty of size at 6-foot-6 and appeared to show no ill-effects last week from his season-ending injury last season by connecting on 23 of 30 for 259 yards and two touchdowns. He needs to be contained since he’s able to throw on the run, but he does have the same flaw of Brandon Wimbush: nagging inconsistency. A good game against the Irish may garner him a closer look from NFL scouts.
MLB Te’von Coney vs. Ball St. Running Game
After coming on strong in the second half of last season, Coney showed against Michigan that he’s ready to take it up a notch in 2018. He led the team in tackles with 10 against the Wolverines and also managed to force an interception against a quality opponent. That means he can deliver some true damage against an opponent who’s not considered to be in the same league.
When it comes to the Cardinal running game, it will likely be one performed by committee. In their easy win last Saturday, the trio of James Gilbert, Caleb Huntley and Malik Dunner combined for 224 yards. That sort of output against the Irish stands to be a much more difficult proposition, especially with a player chasing them like Coney.
CB Troy Pride vs. WR Justin Hall
Pride has the type of speed that allows him to keep up with any receiver, but he has to make sure to keep his head in the game. That wasn’t always evident last year, especially in the loss to Stanford. Whilemany fans of the Irish are already chalking up this game in the win column, Pride can’t afford to have such a mindset.
Hall doesn’t bring a lot of height to field at 5-feet-9, yet shouldn’t be ignored. That’s because he’s Neal’s favorite weapon and grabbed five tosses last week after leading all freshmen in the country last season with 78 catches. Hall may also be used when the Cardinals try the jet sweep.