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.
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.