Beyond the Box Score: Breaking Down Notre Dame’s Near Disaster vs. Ball State

The basic concepts for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish with respect to their game against the Ball State Cardinals were to avoid both a major upset and any key injury. While the latter department saw tight end Cole Kmet leave the game with a leg injury, the Irish did manage to escape disaster by coming away with a 24-16 victory.

The imperfect win saw some continuing high points for Notre Dame, but also showed a number of flaws that might have otherwise spelled defeat against a stronger opponent. Given the emotional win against Michigan, the letdown effect was something that had to be taken into consideration, but the overall edge in talent ultimately helped give the Irish their second win of 2018.

Below are some of the key aspects of this contest:

The Brandon Wimbush Illusion

Brandon Wimbush has had his struggles when it comes to developing as a passer and has largely made his impact through the use of his legs. His afternoon passing numbers against the Cardinals consisted of connecting on 17 of 31 for 297 yards, but he failed to connect on a touchdown pass and threw three interceptions.

A number of Wimbush’s completions came on plays in which a wide receiver had plenty of room to maneuver after the catch. Meanwhile, the signal caller continues to try and force the ball into tight coverages or simply toss the ball up for grabs. That strategy might not be deadly against the Ball States of the world, but can be fatal when the stakes are raised later in the year.

Jafar Armstrong Shooting for the Moon

One player who continues to make his mark in the early going is running back Jafar Armstrong, who was strong both on the ground and among the receiving corps. He led the team in rushing with 66 yards and one touchdown, though 42 of those came on run during the first minute of the game. He also managed to grab three passes for 61 yards.

Tony Jones Jr. came close to topping his rushing numbers with 61 yards, while Miles Boykin snagged six tosses for 119 yards. Still, the impact that Armstrong’s been able to make in these first two contests has helped alleviate any angst about the absence of Dexter Williams.

Third Down Woes

One of the problems for the Notre Dame offense was their inability to get the job done on third down. Neither team was especially effective in this area, but the Irish managed to only convert four of their 14 opportunities. That ineffectiveness helped keep Ball State in the game until the final two minutes.

The fact that Wimbush’s lack of protection led to four sacks by the Cardinals certainly wasn’t beneficial to the cause. Only the first of those came on third down, though that one pushed Justin Yoon back 10 yards for a field goal that he subsequently missed. The others simply made down conversion more difficult.

Solving the Problem

Among the biggest concerns entering this game was the talent of Ball State quarterback Riley Neal, which ratcheted up during the Cardinals’ first series. That was when he completed six-of-11 passes for 67 yards as part of a 19-play drive that ended with a field goal. Along the way, he picked up five first downs through the air and ran for another.

However, a more concerted effort by the Irish pass rush after that largely kept Neal in check until the final quarter. That early outburst was followed by a stretch in which he was just 5-of-20 for 15 yards, though he did finish with 187 yards on a 23-of-50 day that included a late touchdown pass.

Delivery by Jalen Elliott

After being overshadowed last week by the strong performance of newcomer Alohi Gilman, safety Jalen Elliott garnered the spotlight by collecting a pair of interceptions. The Irish offense was then able to make the most of those by later scoring on both picks. The first gave them prime field position in the second quarter, while the second led to a 15-point cushion early in the second half.

The effort was in strong contrast to the struggles that Elliott endured last season, when his baptism was a continuing work in progress. Job security might serve as part of the reason for his improved effort, with a number of talented teammates waiting in the wings for their own opportunity.

Next Up

The Vanderbilt Commodores are next for Brian Kelly’s squad next Saturday in a game marking the first matchup between the two schools since 1996. That year marked the last of a brief back-to-back series, with the Irish coming out on top in both affairs. Vandy has yet to really be tested on the field this season, having easily defeating Middle Tennessee 35-7 before drilling Nevada hard in a 41-10 victory. With the Irish now having shown that there’s still room for improvement, they aren’t likely to look past the Commodores.

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  2. As Rockhound says in Armageddon , it’s time to embrace the horror. Wimbush is a talented athlete who cannot pass accurately, read defenses or make good decisions. Georgia had no trouble coming to Notre Dame last year with an unproven freshman and coming away with the W. Notre Dame played eight freshmen against Ball State, but it didn’t play the one freshman who would have made the biggest difference – QB Phil Jurkovec. This is not about building for the future or some other esoteric goal. This is about who gives Notre Dame the best chance of winning right now. Nick Saban, who might know something about coaching, inserted a true freshman into a national championship because he gave Bama the best chance to win, and he is starting this season for the same reason. Get Phil Jurkovec ready for Vandy and tee it up.

    1. What’s a shame is I have a feeling Wimbush won’t be finishing the season as a starter, barring some miraculous turnaround. The kid is stellar on his feet usually with the ball in his hands. I’d hate to see him on the bench. It’d be great if they could convert him to a RB, get the kid the ball in his hands and let him take off and he’ll make plays.

      I think they’ll turn to Book because he has experience and he’s got a good head on his shoulders but you’ll see Jurkovec this season. Though honestly, will it make a difference? I mean, EG, Zaire and Wimbush were all supposed to be THE ONE, and they all flamed out. Now Jurkovec is the next big thing. I’m just not all that confident anymore BK can develop his QB’s. I guess I’ve had a bit too much “I’ve seen this record before” sort of thing.

  3. This is all on Kelly—again! How much more of this do we have to take? Imagine—an Irish coach who cannot motivate…
    A coach who year after year cannot decide on his QB…
    You cannot teach someone to be a great QB. Either got it, or you don’t. Missed chance to turn BW into a decent RB.
    Book’em or go to the Single Wing!

  4. This game is exactly why I will maintain a healthy dose of skepticism until the season is over. ND should have overwhelmed Ball State. Michigan hangover? I could buy that for maybe the first quarter. But once Ball State proved it was there to play ND should have woken up and taken over.

    Wimbush? I’m starting to really believe this is the best he can do on average in the passing game. Every so often he’ll have a good passing game, but more times then not I’m starting to think this is who he is. I just don’t have faith BK has the ability to develop QB’s at ND. I know I sound like a broken record but ND under BK is littered with broken QB dreams. How many were supposedly the ones that were perfect for BK’s system and how many flamed out. I’m frankly not convinced the same thing wouldn’t happen to Jurkovec, start off with a lot of promise, something breaks down, rinse repeat.

    At the same time I’d hate to lose Wimbush because he is a monster with the ball in his hands on the run. Someone has to convince him that if he wants to play in the NFL, it’s going to be as a RB or WR and maybe he should start now. No team is going to take him as a QB with his lackluster passing. But…all that being said I do think he’ll get a few more chances to show we’re all wrong. They have some winnable games coming up so he’ll get his chance.

    It’s a win, yes. And if they go 11-1 or 12-0, no one will remember their mediocre win in this game. I hate to be a negative Nelly and all, but if they don’t clean things up they could very well be 8-4. I hope this game is a wake-up call (even that sounds like a broken records–how many times have we said that?).

  5. O-LINE is a serious overwhelming problem!! We knew when HH left for the BEARS they would have to fill big shoes, that has not happened!! BALL ST ran through our O-LINE just the same way MICH did last week, even worse considering there a MAC TEAM picked for last place in there conf. Wimbush once again waits way to long to throw to open receivers!! Its not even going through his options, he waits to long on his first option! If were throwing the ball over 40 times a game then BOOK should be QB ! Wimbush had 1 running play all day, outside of the last drive. We knew the DEFENSE would b fine, but the OFFENSE is in alotta trouble unless something changes FAST!!

  6. I THINK Next week against Vanderbilt is going to let us know how this season plays out. If they play like yesterday I can see 4 losses at least.If they totally turn it around like Penn State did then Notredame can have a really good season. I just don’t get Kelly from week to week. I also think if Wimbush starts next week poorly I look for Kelly to go to Book.Also I would like to see them give zJurkovic a chance.Finally I’m sorry another 3 or 4 loss se add son Notredame should fire Kelly.

  7. O-line is a serious problem. Coaches needed to adjust here , maybe by a different set in back field. Ball State surely must have studied Miami game clip of last season. Defenses are teeing off on the Wimbush/halfback RPO exchange. Coaches need to realize Wimbush is not the Heisman pocket passer QB — and let him run the ball where he is most dangerous as an offensive weapon. I wouldn’t be pulling Wimbush out of games this early- the 2nd game of season. Irish win — not a blowout as we all expected–pulling Wimbush would be mistake. Lot’s of improvement needed — Vandy and Wake Forest won’t be cake walks –especially at Winston Salem. Go Irish.

  8. I would give my right nut to ask Kelly just how many interceptions or almost interceptions does BW have to throw before he pulls him from the game. And I would also ask him how many times do we have to hear him say he needs to coach better or get his team prepared better before Swarbricks says enough is enough? I have a bad feeling that Vanderbilt will out shine the Irish next week!

  9. I agree with most of the comments. I don’t get the
    Wimbush thing. He’s a hyper talented runner and is flat out not good at reading coverage and not at all
    a pocket guy. Use Book. He can manage a game, on time with his throws and pretty mobile. I am tired that only the fans can see the Wimbush flaws. Miami? We all remember last year. The offensive line needs help quickly at the tackles. Frustrating we have talent
    and it should work. Also forgive Dexter. I don’t care We need a running back.

  10. Gojm,
    Football as most sports is highly emotional. Momentum swings. Very difficult to get this Irish team excited to play a downtrodden mismatch that everyone expected. However, whether we won by 8 or 80 we still won. Even if we won by 30 , detractors would say we didn’t cover. The point is we needn’t put all our cards on the table. The Irish have plenty to look forward to to get revenge vs. Cardinal.

  11. Irish sure as hell didnt play like a champion or an 8th ranked team. Looked inept. They continue to play to the level of their competition, no killer instinct. Maybe it was a mental letdown after last weeks game but elite teams rarely have those issues. What is clear is Wimbush issues of past havent been fixed. Vandy played great and may upset next week if this lackluster attitude isnt corrected…

  12. TWO.
    It is alarming that we throw an interception for every 100 yards of passing offense, roughly estimating.
    The offensive line needs to do in week 3 what “M”‘s O line did in week 2. Make some improvement!
    Defense is there.

    BGC ’77 ’82

  13. Losing to Ball State would not have been a disaster. In that it would likely hasten Kelly’s inevitable ouster, it would be psoitive for ND football.

    Winning this game just kicks the can down the road for awhile. A road that goes nowhere.

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