Honestly, it would have been pretty easy to turn off that second half and call it a night. I was watching in Europe and did not have access to a reliable feed. It was past midnight, and I was jet lagged. The end result was never really in doubt, but déjà vu crept in as the Irish yet again struggled to put a less talented team away. A win is a win, but beating a team of Ball State’s caliber by a single score means that more than a few things went wrong. Let’s briefly break down what happened so we can all move forward in peace and erase this Saturday from our memories entirely.
Excluding the kneel down at the end of the first half, Ball State drove the ball 14 times, and the Irish defense held them to 3 plays or fewer on exactly half of those occasions. Especially after their first drive, it felt like we suffocated them until halftime. Turns out when you don’t give an eight-yard cushion on every pass play, things tend to get harder for a mediocre offense.
Possession, however, ultimately allowed Ball State to run 97 plays from scrimmage (easily besting ND’s 72) and control a significantly larger proportion of the clock. Part of this is due to some narrow conversions Ball State picked up on third and fourth downs, part of it is due to uncalled holds on just about every play from scrimmage, but most of it is due to the Notre Dame offense breathing life back into the Cardinals far too often.
Special individual shoutouts to Drue Tranquill, who was all over the field, Te’Von Coney, he of the 14 tackles (including three for a loss), and Jalen Elliott, who grabbed two key picks. There was actually a decent amount of pregame buzz about QB Riley Neal, and for the most part the Irish made him look like, well, a MAC quarterback. This defense is very good, and absolutely is holding up the floor of this team to respectable at worst. Big ups to Clark Lea.
The afternoon was not without some positives: Jafar Armstrong paced us early with 60 yards and a score in the first quarter alone, and Tony Jones Jr. found the endzone twice. Miles Boykin had a career day and really utilized his size and strength. His playmaking ability set up both of our second half scores, which proved to be the difference. Hard to blame him too much for tipping an already tipped ball into a defender’s hands.
The offensive line, however, really struggled with Ball State’s 3-4 scheme, seemingly unable to distinguish Gary and Winovich from…uh, whoever plays defensive line for BSU. Relatedly, there were stretches in the second half where you could see signs of panic in Brandon Wimbush’s footwork almost as soon as he dropped. Ultimately, he tallied a career high with 297 yards and completed about 55% of his passes. Seven pass attempts of 20+ yards resulted in a solid 9.58 yards per attempt. Cool!
But three turnovers is brutal, and that’s not to mention another near-interception and a fumble that a lineman alertly and mercifully dove on. His third pick was particularly frustrating, and indicative of some poor decision making that continues to rile up the doubters. Frankly, Kelly’s assertion that Ball State’s defense dictated our gameplan is pure, grass-fed horseshit, and we all know it. Notre Dame should not be dictated to by our opponents, especially not ones from the outside of the Power 5. And I’m sure BK saying “I don’t know what the standard is for running the ball” will be taken in stride by the entirety of the fanbase.
Moving on. Wimbush needs to play better, but he knows that as well as we do. And in the end, who did we turn to to make the plays we needed on our final possession? Back to back designed Wimbush runs clinched it, and here we stand at 2-0, with Brandon still standing as The Guy.
At this point in BK’s tenure, there remains little reason to hold out hope for excellent, or even above average, special teams play across the board. As we sleepwalked (this feels grammatically dubious but just go with it) through this one early, you could almost feel Justin Yoon’s miss coming – obviously, though, he’s the least of our worries moving forward. Tyler Newsome remains very capable but inconsistent, conversely pinning opponents deep and mishitting punts while under little to no pressure. Again, no reason to fret much about his play.
This was an opportunity for a nice bounce back game for Jonathan Doerer, but he still managed to shank a kickoff out of bounds. Can you blame Kelly for being upset when it’s happened twice in two games? Seeing C’Bo Flemister return kicks was a nice surprise, but there wasn’t much of a spark. Make Special Teams Special Again!
Personally, I think we can and will improve greatly on that performance. Preparation and play calling will have a lot to do with it – Chip Long’s gameplan may have been the difference against Michigan, but it really held the Irish back here. Wimbush was asked quite often to make plays in a tight pocket, and his instinct was to improvise. That instinct was not very effective on Saturday. Ball State players were getting at him from different angles, and they generally managed to keep contain if Wimbush was able to evade a man or two. Credit to them, but the Irish
should will adjust and Wimbush will continue to grow. Don’t panic. We’re on to Vandy.