Early arrival at Notre Dame nearly paid off for Ball State

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Mike Neu arrived with his team at Notre Dame Stadium on Friday — one day earlier than usual.

Ball State’s head coach tweaked routine, aiming for a different approach for No. 8 Notre Dame. Players like Danny Pinter, an Adams High School alum who grew up in South Bend, caught an early glimpse of the locker rooms and atmosphere they would compete in.

Neu hoped it would shake off any jitters — and it nearly worked.

“That definitely helped us mentally,” said Justin Hall, Ball State’s sophomore receiver. “We got to see what we were coming into beforehand. This is basically everybody’s biggest game they have ever played — 75,000 people. That’s more people than I’ve ever seen in my life.”

The Cardinals (1-1) came within one possession of upsetting the Irish (2-0), falling 24-16 Saturday evening. They clawed back from an 18-point deficit and could have made it interesting had they recovered an onside kick.

“I’m proud of my guys, and we asked them this morning — we prepared all week to make sure that you just fight, scratch and crawl,” Neu said. “Just leave everything that you’ve got on the field for 60 minutes.

“And I know, without doubt, those guys in the locker room, as we left the field, we left everything we had on the field. I heard the disappointment just leaving the field. We had our opportunities. There are no moral victories.”

Ball State traveled 150 miles for the first-ever interstate matchup. Pinter almost took advantage, falling five yards short from scoring before his home crowd.

Trailing 14-3 in the second quarter, the Cardinals executed a misdirection that sent all but Pinter and a pair of blockers to the right. A shoelace tackle prevented Pinter from converting his lateral on the second-and-goal play. A missed block on the outside and Pinter’s leisurely pace advanced him just three yards.

Was the play installed this week?

“He’s from South Bend,” Neu quipped.

Said Neu: “He expected to score. But it was good to see it executed. Those guys worked hard on it in practice, getting the timing down and all that. and making sure it’s getting thrown backwards, because if not, it’s an illegal play.”

Pinter, a former tight end, converted to left tackle this season. 

“Yeah, it was a little bit of a blur,” he said.

The Irish initially looked like the team that defeated then-ranked No. 14 Michigan 24-17 last Saturday. Running back Jafar Armstrong’s 42-yard run sparked an opening 5-play, 74-yard touchdown drive.

The Cardinals sparked a rebound, though, by revamping pressure and limiting running lanes. Senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, who carried it 19 times against Michigan, registered just two yards on one carry in the first half. On the game, he rushed on 11 occasions for -7 yards.

The Irish might have wanted to avoid wear and tear for Wimbush. It came at a cost, as Wimbush forced a handful of throws and finished with three interceptions. He tallied 297 yards on 17-for-31 passing.

“I can’t speak on what they were trying to do from an offensive standpoint today,” Neu said. “But I can speak on our guys being disciplined. We knew that was a big part of it, rushing lanes and discipline on your assignments and being gap sound. Those are all things that are important when you play a team like that with a quarterback that is the true definition of a dual-threat guy.”

Wimbush’s first mistake came on a deep pass floated for Chase Claypool midway through the second. Cornerback Josh Miller hauled in the interception with one hand before gathering possession. Halfway through the third, Wimbush threw behind Miles Boykin — who tipped it to the hands of cornerback Antonio Phillips.

Neither interception gave Ball State more life than Wimbush’s third error. Ray Wilborn's snag handed the Cardinals possession with 8:39 left trailing 24-13.

“We knew he wasn’t a pocket passer, the quarterback,” said Wilborn, a junior linebacker. “We knew he liked to scramble. We kind of knew he was going to throw us the ball. Once he leaves the pocket, he’s just going to throw it up for grabs. Last week against Michigan, their receivers came down with a lot of 50-50 balls.”

Ball State generated more sacks (4), tackles for loss (10), turnovers (3), pass breakups (5) and quarterback hurries (4) than Michigan’s vaunted defense. 

“We’ve worked hard to try to develop ball skills,” Neu said. “You can ask, ‘Well, how do you do that?’ Well, in practice, you’ve got to catch the ball as a defensive back from a quarterback who is throwing a heater at you.

“So doing some deep ball drills where you are trying to locate the ball ... We’ve worked hard at those things. Our defensive backs — Josh Miller, he’s led that group time and time again.”

Junior quarterback Riley Neal didn’t light up the stat sheet, throwing for 180 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions on 23-for-50 passing. But Neal helped the Cardinals convert 8-of-23 third downs and 3-of-3 fourth downs.

“Whatever we gave up a little bit in size, we made it up with the way we were going to play,” Neu said. “We were going to go toe-to-toe. We were embracing that underdog role. We were embracing that David vs. Goliath comparison.”

Especially Pinter, whose lone catch served as a microcosm for the game. Pinter came prepared and executed the play and timing. But Notre Dame's superior athleticism allowed it to save face.

“But don’t tell him that,” Neu said with a laugh.

Notre Dame’s Julian Okwara (42) chases Ball State’s Riley Neal (15) during the Ball State at Notre Dame NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana.
Notre Dame’s Josh Miller (3) intercepts a pass intended for Notre Dame’s Chase Claypool Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.