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.
— Adam Derengowski (@AdamDerWSBT) September 2, 2018
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.
— NBC Sports (@NBCSports) September 8, 2018
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.