5 Things I Liked: Notre Dame vs. Ball State ’18

I picked a hell of a time to revive this column, didn’t I?  First week back and it was trying to find 5 things I didn’t like in a big win over Michigan.  Second week back and it’s trying to put some polish on the turd of a football game we all witnessed yesterday with 5 things I liked.  That is actually part of the fun of this column though. It forces us to look at all of the good and the bad in each game.  And in Notre Dame’s ugly win over Ball State there was a lot of bad.  For now though, we’ll focus on the good.

1. Notre Dame’s defensive adjustments

Ball State came out and put together an impressive 19 play drive that featured three third down conversions on the same Notre Dame defense that completely stymied Michigan for about 56 minutes a week ago.  The Irish came out in a soft zone defense that gave the Ball State receivers a lot of respect.  Ball State ate it up by marching down the field before the Irish redzone defense finally kicked it and held them to a field goal.

On that first drive Ball State quarterback Riley Neal was 6 of 8 for 67 yards.  The rest of the game Neal was 17 of 42 for 113 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions.  A third interception hit freshman safety Houstin Griffith in the numbers or Neal’s performance after that drive would have looked even worse.

Upon seeing his defense surrender that 19 play drive Clark Lea immediately adjusted and had his corners press.  The result was a career high four pass breakups for Julian Love and that pair of interceptions by Jalen Elliott.  That is good coaching and very encouraging to see from a first time defensive coordinator.

As soon as Lea realized the original plan of playing back wasn’t going to work, he course corrected and the defense look pretty good the rest the way.  That is until the 97 plays they were forced to play since their own offense couldn’t sustain any drives took it’s toll.  Now if only the offensive coaching staff were capable of such adjustments.

2. Jalen Elliott’s break through performance

Throughout the spring and summer Jalen Elliott was almost the forgotten man at safety despite spending the 2017 season in the starting lineup.  All the buzz centered around Alohi Gilman, Nick Coleman, and Houston Griffith as Notre Dame looked to improve on its safety play a year after the position was a major liability.  Through two weeks of the season it’s been Jalen Elliott who has stolen the headlines.

Last week against Michigan, Elliott delivered a monstrous hit on Michigan tight end Sean McKeon which is worth another look.

On Saturday Elliott’s improvement in coverage was on full display with the junior recording his first career interception in the second quarter with Notre Dame leading just 7-3.  It didn’t take long for him to record his second career interception either.  Elliott picked off Neal again in the third quarter to set up the Irish with good field position.  Both Elliott interceptions were almost immediately converted into touchdowns by the Notre Dame offense.  In a game where the Irish won by 8, Elliott set up his team for 14 of their 24 points.

If Elliott continues to play like he has the last two weeks, the Notre Dame secondary is going to be just fine all year long.  His first interception was the first by an Irish safety since Drue Tranquill’s INT against Virginia Tech in 2016 (Tranquill was a safety in 2016) and his two interception performance was the first such outing for any Notre Dame safety since Harrison Smith picked off three passes against Miami in the 2010 Sun Bowl.

3. Another monster game for Tevon Coney

We all knew that Tevon Coney coming back for Notre Dame was huge.  Two weeks into the season he is showing just how huge.  Coney was all over the field yet again this week racking up 14 tackles, 3.0 TFL, and his first sack of the season.  Through two games this year Coney has 24 tackles and 3.5 TFL.  At that pace he is going to put up some ridiculous statistics and get a lot of All-American and award buzz.

Clearly the move over to MIKE has not impact Coney’s playmaking ability in any way.  In fact, it appears to have enhanced it. He is playing the MIKE position how Notre Dame had hoped Nyles Morgan would have been able to a season ago.  Morgan had 92 tackles and 7 TFL in 13 starts last year.  At Coney’s current pace he will reach 156 tackles and 21 TFL.  Even if he slows down some, it’s clear that Coney is living up to his potential in this defense.

4. How Notre Dame used Jafar Armstrong

As a running back, Jafar Armstrong is showing that he has a lot of potential, but still a lot of room to grow.  On his first carry yesterday he ripped off a 42 yard run before just getting tripped up inside the 5.  His next 12 carries netted just 24 yards.  Armstrong has flashed a ton of potential but it’s also clear that he is still getting used to the running back position after playing wide receiver last year.  He’s made some decisions to bounce outside when there’s been room inside and that happened a number of times yesterday.

What was most encouraging to me with Armstrong yesterday though was how they got him involved in the passing game this week.  Armstrong hauled in three passes for 61 yards with all of his damage coming in the first half.  Why Notre Dame didn’t go back to him in the passing game in the second half, I’m not sure but it was very encouraging to see how the Irish used him in the passing game in the first half.

Because of his versatility and skillset, Armstrong can be an absolute weapon for Notre Dame if used in the same capacity throughout the season.  Lining him up in the backfield with Tony Jones Jr or perhaps Dexter Williams in a few weeks and then motioning him out wide will create mismatches few defenses will have the personnel to truly defend.  We got a glimpse of those possibilities yesterday and will hopefully only see that more as the season progresses.

5. Notre Dame won a football game

At the end of the day, Notre Dame won a football game.  Sometimes it’s good to remember that no matter how ugly or disappointing it was.  The mood around the players and coaches yesterday – and especially on the forums – felt like Notre Dame had lost.  They didn’t and I know some of you will say they might as well have considering how poor they looked, but they did in fact win.

Notre Dame is sitting at 2-0 right now and if they can chalk this up to overlooking their opponent and a Michigan hangover and rebound next week, no one will ultimately care in November that Notre Dame only won by 8.  In 2016 Clemson opened their season with a road victory over a ranked Auburn team only to come home the next weekend and eek out a 7 point victory over powerhouse Troy.  Then they lost to a middling Pitt team in October.  Clemson still made the playoffs despite those two blemishes and ultimately won the national championship over Alabama.

Sometimes clunkers like this happen and teams rebound from them and grow to be a better team because of it.  That could be a pie in the sky outlook on this one, but hey, that’s the point of this column.  And don’t worry, I have plenty of material for the 5 Things I Didn’t Like about this one for tomorrow.

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  1. I liked the receivers, for number 5. There were a few drops, not very many, and a LOT of catches. Interceptions must end. They make all the catches on the drive meaningless. The “O” line needs to start pass blocking in an effective and consistent way. Several top teams, including Michigan and Penn State, bounced back this week and cleaned up. We simply need to do the same on offense next week.

    PS: The media made a big deal about Texas A&M playing Clemson to within a last minute failed two point conversion, and that was an impressive game…at least I thought so. But recently ND played Clemson to an identical ending AT CLEMSON…and I thought that was an impressive game. Do you all remember how it played in the media? Not the same at all. Hmmm. Interesting.

    BGC ’77 ’82

      1. Is that a rhetorical question? And who, exactly, are the Puritans who would even care?

        BGC ’77 ’82

      2. Anyone who watched the Clemson game. The look in Kelly’s glazed eyes as ND entered the stadium made me think he was high too.

  2. You kind of know things weren’t all that great when Frank had to put in “Notre Dame won a game” at number 5. Basically means he couldn’t find 5 good things about the game itself.

    But yes, I’d agree. It’s a little easier to grumble about how lousy ND did at elements of the game after a win. Imagine if this were a loss. Many would feel the season was already lost (it wouldn’t really be, though their playoff shot would have taken a significant wallop). But they won. And it’s an early game. If they come out and take care of business, this game will be a distant memory by the end of November.

    My primary concern stands though, and that is Wimbush’s passing. It’s a bit late in his career to still be complaining about that. I honestly don’t expect it to improve much. If it hasn’t by now, I just don’t see it happening. He has trouble with simple dunk passes, throwing them too strong. He’ll get more chances the next two weeks. But if it doesn’t get better by Stanford then I honestly think they should turn things over to Book (with some Jurkovec time when appropriate). We can’t risk a mentldown with Stanford. But we’ll see what happens.

    1. I agree. He’s looking more and more like the next Rusty Lisch: could hit the broad side of a barn at 80 yards, but maybe not the narrow side. Went on to be probably the only guy in the NFL who could consistently overthrow Willie Gault.

    2. Obviously BW is inconsistent- and he too often throws into double coverage, but inconsistency describes also the blocking for run and pass situations.
      Can we risk a less mobile less athletic QB against a Stanford or a Virginia Tech ?
      Will we continue to go so conservative after/if we get a two score lead on future opponents?
      How many more sacks would ND have yielded so far without BWs mobility to avoid pressure?
      What makes us think the OL will protect the next less mobile QB better?
      When you hit a QB about 15-20 times a game when passing, it tends to give them “happy feet”.
      Also, Is Wimbush better as a pocket QB, which is where most of his passes originate?
      Does keeping him in the pocket play to his strength, or even improve his protection?
      Take away Jones’ 31 yd TD run, and Armstrong’s opening 42 yard gain, and Jones averaged 2.5 ypc, while Armstrong would have averaged 2 ypc.
      How many times does ND pass on first and ten; instead they face second and third and long all game long, and the pressure is brought.
      NDs OL and inability to generate a rushing offense are as big problems as Wimbush’s inconsistency.
      Tentative play calling once ND gets a two score lead keeps opponents close.
      My point here is a different QB doesn’t solve the OL issues and the predictable play calling once ND leads by more than a score.
      Rely on your D’, but the O’ needs to play to score more, even when they lead by two scores.

      1. MTA you are right about the O-LINE 100% , but BW takes too long to throw to open receivers!! Watch the replays guys are open for 2-3 seconds b4 he releases the ball!! BOOK is not nearly as mobile but his release and getting the ball out is much better than BW. The playcalling was very vanilla against BS . There never seemed to b any change from start to finish, so hopefully we will see a offense with a little imagination this week from CHIP LONG!! Any signs of struggle this week will get BOOK off the bench fast!!

  3. Go ahead, put Va. Tech and Stanford ahead of the Irish. It may just light a fire under their arses. As far as Tebow is concerned maybe he was referring to his Gators.

  4. 5 good things:
    1 The defense looks pretty good so far.
    2 Though stirring a bit, Kelly seems to still be taking his meds.
    3 No one got seriously hurt.
    4 ND made another big deposit at the bank
    5 I could think of a few good things…and that is a 5th good thing.

    1. BTW…when everyone made their season predictions, and all doled this game into the “automatic win, gimme game, ND-should-be-ashamed-of-itself-for-scheduling-it” category….doesn’t using this win to round out your “5 Good Things” list not seem a tad grasping at straws?

      1. No, I don’t think so. As Kelly said, never apologize for a win. A win is a win, and by definition a good thing. But if we keep playing like that, there are going to be more losses than any of us would like.

        I had them at 52 to 6. Shows what I know.

  5. Totally agree with the above. I am not sure why Notredame didn’t put up 50 or 60 points in this game. Talent gap was huge. Not sure about Wimbush. If he comes out poorly against Bandy I think will see Book.

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