Shaky survival of Ball State has Notre Dame searching for answers, identity

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The ugliest in a tsunami of ugly numbers plucky five-TD underdog Ball State pinned on No. 8 Notre Dame on Saturday gouged the identity that Irish coach Brian Kelly hoped his team would grow into this season.

A 169-117 Cardinal edge in rushing yards hints at which team had the edge in toughness at Notre Dame Stadium and partially explains why Ball State’s onside kick with 90 seconds left in the fourth quarter wasn’t just for show.

What is left to interpretation in the aftermath of Notre Dame’s 24-16 shaky survival is whether the closest — by far — of the seven Irish encounters with a Mid-American Conference team was a mirage, or whether the convincing 24-17 dismissal of Michigan the week before was.

“Winning the game is the goal for us each and every week, and we accomplished that,” Kelly said. “But there are a number of things that we have to do better. First of all, we’ve got to coach better. We’ve got to prepare our football team better, and that starts with me.

“Our players have to bring a little more energy to the game. That’s on them. They know that.”

An uninspired offensive game plan, paired with skittish offensive execution by the Irish, allowed the Cardinals (1-1) to not only leave South Bend with their $1.1 million compensation for not demanding an ND return trip to Muncie, Ind., eventually, but to execute their game of keep-away to perfection.

Ball State hogged the ball for 34:22 to 25:38, ran 97 offensive plays (Michigan had 69), and made the Irish defense deal with 23 third-down conversion attempts and three more on fourth down (all converted successfully).

The 23 third-down situations, of which Ball State converted eight, were the most an ND defense has faced in a game since the last year of the Lou Holtz Era, in 1996.

This on a day when Notre Dame (2-0) figured to have a freshmen-a-palooza, to get a look at many of its first-year players held back against Michigan, or at least a chance to flex its depth. Instead it taxed its starters, particularly its linebackers on defense.

Te’von Coney netted 14 tackles, three off his career high, for his ironman performance that included three tackles for loss. Sidekick Drue Tranquill added nine tackles, with one for a loss. He also had a QB hurry of Riley Neal that resulted in a Jalen Elliott interception.

Elliott finished with two on the day, the first on a deflection from teammate Nick Coleman. That one broke a drought of 15 games without a pick from the Irish safety corps, dating back to an interception by Tranquill against Virginia Tech in game 11 of the 2016 season, two position switches ago for Tranquill.

“We play as one team, offense and defense,” said Elliott who added seven tackles and picked up the game ball from Kelly. “When the offense isn’t going, we have to pick them up.”

Both Elliott interceptions eventually led to scoring runs by Tony Jones Jr. But there was plenty of sputtering and idling of the Irish offense before and after the picks, and in between.

Perhaps the most frustrating sequence to watch unfold, beyond those involving quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s career-high three interceptions, was one in which Notre Dame took possession at its own 28 with 4:50 left in regulation, following a missed 46-yard field goal attempt by Morgan Hagee.

The Irish led, 24-13, at the time.

ND ran less than a minute of the clock, moved the ball a grand total of two yards and then punted the ball for 27 yards. Ball State answered with a field goal to cut the lead to eight, and then the onside kick.

Wimbush finished 17-of-31 for a career-high 297 yards with zero TDs against a pass-efficiency defense that finished seventh from the bottom in the FBS in 2017.

“Probably a D, D-plus,” Wimbush said of the grade he’d give his performance. “You can’t throw three interceptions and win games that are going to be vital to the team’s success. We’ve got to clean it up on our part.

“Confidence-wise, I’m not going to lack confidence, but I’ve got to be better.”

Curiously, he had zero planned runs in the first half, taking a sack for 10 yards and scrambling all over the field to avoid another for a net gain of two just before the half for his two official carries.

The second half, was more improvising and going backwards. Ball State sacked Wimbush four times in the game, twice the number that Michigan’s vaunted front was able to amass the week before. At game’s end, the senior had accumulated minus-seven yards on 11 carries.

Overall, the Irish running game was held to less than three yards a carry for the second straight week.

“They gave us problems, clearly,” center Sam Mustipher said of the offensive line’s regressive day.

“We thought we would be able to take the gimmies and the easy throws and then make big plays out of them,” Wimbush said of the offensive approach to the game. “And we had a good game plan in terms of running the ball.

“Some things sometimes just don't work as effectively as you may wish, but I think we did a good job of kind of mixing it up.”

Backup QB Ian Book saw action on just one play, and as was the case with his two plays against Michigan, he handed the ball off to Jafar Armstrong for a TD Saturday against Ball State. That put the Irish up 7-0, 1:54 into the first quarter.

Book also appeared to be warming up on the sideline in the fourth quarter, but Kelly kept him on the sideline late.

“I think what we want Brandon Wimbush to do is continue to lead our offense,” Kelly said when asked if he seriously considered Book at any point in the second half. “Brandon Wimbush wasn't the reason we were ineffective offensively.

“I could name all the things that I just mentioned. I don't think we coached very well this week. I don't believe I prepared them the way we should have, now that I see the way they (Ball State) played. We didn't protect them at the highest level. There's a lot of things.

“Now, I get it. It's going to go back to the quarterback, and he gets the scrutiny. But I don't think it got to the point where, ‘Hey, let's pull Brandon Wimbush out of that game.’ It got to the point where, ‘Hey, let's execute together.’ “

The Irish host unbeaten Vanderbilt next Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium as they look for answers to questions that sound like reruns from last November’s fade.

“Listen, the first thing I tell (the Irish players) when we come in is, ‘No. 1, you can never apologize for winning. Winning is hard. So understand that, that first and foremost, you won a football game,’ ” Kelly said.

“But you've got to critique it, right? Did we live up to the standards we set in the way that we played? No. I did a poor job preparing you. But you have to bring the energy necessary to play this game.

“It's not chess. It's football.”

Notre Dame’s Miles Boykin (81) and Cole Kmet (84) celebrate with Tony Jones Jr. (6) during the Ball State at Notre Dame NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana.