Noie: Win is a loss for Notre Dame against Ball State

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — One weird afternoon at Notre Dame Stadium for the eighth-ranked college football team was rivaled perhaps only by the post-game scene in the building’s underbelly.

Left guard Alex Bars stood stone-faced with arms crossed in one corner of the interview room and talked of disappointment. In the middle, as usual, center Sam Mustipher, also arms crossed and face sullen in a Q-and-A scrum, talked of the game being an “eye-opening experience.” Quarterback Brandon Wimbush stepped silently to the podium and promptly gave himself a D+ grade — at best — after his day.

Once the first wave of players wrapped interviews, the media sat and waited for the next round. So did athletic director Jack Swarbrick, over in a corner. He said nothing. Stared at the floor. He looked like he could use a hug. This wasn’t supposed to be the scene, not after this buy game. This home game.

Swarbrick sat in the same spot after the previous week’s work and smiled. There were no smiles after this one.

It all was strange to see and hear and feel, and all that after a WIN. But this is the standard that these guys, this group, this program, carries. Excellence and nothing less. Every week. They play to certain level, one that they seemingly eclipsed the previous week against Michigan. On Saturday, against Ball State, that standard wasn’t met.

Not even close. Not after a 24-16 victory over a team that never did go away. Favored by nearly five touchdowns, the Irish (2-0) had trouble putting the Cardinals away.

“I think they’re being a little too hard on themselves,” said coach Brian Kelly.

But hard’s good. For this group that won 10 games last season and can’t soon settle for anything less. They’ll be plenty of guys who’ll look in the mirror the next couple days. They’ll also look at the tape, and not necessarily like what they see. Not even close.

“Our preparation didn’t match how we played,” Bars said. “We know we can execute a lot better.”

Kelly traveled the humor road to diffuse the tension afterward. He borrowed the line of former USC coach John McKay when talking about execution. McKay once said when he was the coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that he’d be all for it — of his players — after yet another loss.

Kelly repeated the line Saturday, then included himself to stand in front of the firing squad.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” Kelly said.

Any footprints remaining from steps taken the previous week against Michigan were wiped clean. Wimbush threw three interceptions. He was booed after the third. The defense was gashed for 349 yards. The Irish looked like one of the country’s top eight teams last week. On Saturday? Top 28?

“It’s an eye-opening experience,” Mustipher said. “Clearly we’ve got to go back to the drawing board.”

That board starts with something simple — want-to. A work ethic that was supposed to be unmatched, especially with the defense, which features a veteran group of guys who’ve been there and done that and experienced things they don’t want to experience again. They know they have to deliver every week out. When they don’t, they take it hard. Take it personally. Take it as if they’ve failed. Themselves. Their teammates. Their school.

If the Irish could line up and play Sunday, they just might. Dinner and desert likely wouldn’t taste well later Saturday night. Senior linebacker Drue Tranquill left the locker room looking like a boxer — shorts, a cut-off hoodie. All that were missing were the gloves. He looked like he’d been counted out.

“We lacked energy,” he said. “They played hard, had a lot of heart out there, had a lot of effort.”

The Irish? Empty on almost all fronts. They played like they knew they’d win no matter what. Just flip the switch and it would happen. Almost didn’t.

How and why were questions that didn’t immediately have answers. Why was Ball State able to look so comfortable on offense? How did Wimbush seemingly regress from one week to the next? Gotta look at the film to find those answers. Maybe find them in time for Vanderbilt. Or Wake Forest. Or Stanford. But the Irish believe they’ll get there. Eventually.

“You gotta clean it up on all parts,” Wimbush said.

Notre Dame took the opening drive 74 yards in five plays. Took less than two minutes off the clock. After that, many figured it would be a quick day for Wimbush. A game to see freshman quarterback Phil Jurkovec. Wimbush played the entire second half trying to rediscover his flow. He never did. Jurkovec never got off the sideline.

That big first drive? Just like the previous week against Michigan, it was just a big tease.

A dud of a day — cloudy, breezy, ugly — was followed by a dud of a game. There was little buzz around campus. Barely a pulse after the previous week’s party.

Ball State’s roster featured a handful of local kids — including starting right tackle Danny Pinto (Adams) and backup Grant Williamson (New Prairie) — who probably figured the closest they’d ever get to playing on FieldTurf against a Catholic school in South Bend would be about a mile down the road at Father Bly Field. For them, this was their bowl game. Their playoff. It was a big deal to run out of that visitor’s tunnel and stand toe-to-toe with the Irish.

Ball State battled because that’s what MAC schools do. But Notre Dame should’ve won this one easily. Cruised. History said so. Notre Dame’s 7-0 all-time against the MAC with the average final score— before Saturday — of 47.8 to 6.1.

The Irish never got to 40. Or 30. You know what that means around these parts, around this program. Let the hand-wringing begin.

No sport carries more knee-jerk reactions week to week than college football. Fire the coach one week; lock him up long-term the next. Same with the quarterback. and the coordinators. The kicker and the punter and everyone else who has a long day, and this was a really long day. Guys that were good the previous week are bums the next.

Such conclusions have been reached — for now — about Notre Dame. This game put the Irish in a lose-lose situation. Win big, and it’s beating up on a MAC outfit. Pull a Penn State (Appalachian State anyone?) and struggle and Notre Dame is dismissed as overrated by dinner.

Two weeks in and here’s what we’ve learned about Notre Dame — there’s still a lot to learn.

Let’s see what this week brings. Either way, it won’t be boring. Seldom is.

Notre Dame’s Drue Tranquill (23) comes up with a loose ball during the Ball State at Notre Dame NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana.