I believe it was Herb Brooks that said, “Great moments are born from great opportunity.” And that certainly is what is facing the Ball State Cardinals on Saturday as they travel to South Bend to take on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Both squads come into the contest at 1-0, but not all 1-0 records are created equally.
Ball State downed FCS Central Connecticut State in their season opener 42-6. The bad news was that it was an FCS squad and the talent gap between CCS and Notre Dame is somewhere between gargantuan and epic, but there was good news to be had. For perhaps the first time in the Mike Neu era, the offense looked sharp and consistent en route to a program-record 652 yards of total offense. Could Ball State’s 2018 team be the next offensive MAC juggernaut? It’s possible based on a one-game FCS sample size.
Of greater concern for Ball State fans historically was the defensive side of the ball, one that is of especially large concern for Saturday. The Cardinals have switched from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4 scheme, allowing the linebackers greater freedom and mobility, thus creating more chaos and confusion for the opposing offense. It showed in the season-opener, but again, that whole FCS opponent thing skews the results a bit.
The Cardinals weren’t the only one taking the field this weekend to have a positive season-opener. The Fighting Irish were able to down their rival, the Michigan Wolverines, on national television 24-17. It was the return of a historic rivalry game after a three-year hiatus with all the bells and whistles you’d expect. From College Gameday live from the stadium to a green out in the stands, it was the epicenter of college football’s opening weekend. Suffice to say, this weekend’s contest will have a bit less pomp and circumstance. But let’s be honest, it’s still Notre Dame and it’s still a must visit for any football fan. Especially one who happens to be rooting for Ball State.
When Ball State has the ball…
Ball State’s offense put up eye-popping numbers in the season-opener, but the bigger takeaway was how they did so. Long thought of as Running Back U for this 2018 season with the triumvirate of James Gilbert, Caleb Huntley, and Malik Dunner the Cardinals showed that the rush isn’t the only way for the Cardinals to fly. After enduring an injury-plagued 2017, the Cardinal offense seemed high octane and effective, led by QB Riley Neal and having a bevy of wide receivers at his disposal. An offensive line that is experienced and kept Neal clean last week will have their work cut out for them Saturday, but the offense looked sharp under the playcalling of Mike Neu. That’s new for this season, also.
Defensively, the Irish were a standout unit on Saturday against the Wolverines. Outside of the seven-play, 80-yard drive that provided Michigan with its first offensive touchdown inside Notre Dame Stadium since 2010, the Irish limited the Wolverines to just 252 yards from scrimmage on the other 63 Michigan offensive plays in the game. Notre Dame forced two turnovers, an interception and fumble, and turned Michigan away on downs three separate times in the win. It’s Notre Dame, so the amount of talent on the defensive side of the ball isn’t impressive, it’s expected.
When Notre Dame has the ball…
One of the biggest things Ball State has going for it defensively is depth and youth. 16 different defensive players saw their first game action in last week’s season opener, and it is hard to argue with the results. Ball State came within 12 seconds of recording its first shutout since 2008. The Blue Devils scored on a 2-yard run on their final possession to get on the scoreboard. It was one of only three trips inside the BSU 40- yard line for the game.
Obviously Notre Dame isn’t Central Connecticut State, and the Irish offensive unit is led by QB Brandon Wimbush. A dual-threat attacker, as he goes so goes the Notre Dame offense in this game and beyond. Against the celebrated Wolverine defense, Wimbush put up 170 yards passing and 59 yards rushing en route to the victory. Tony Jones Jr. is the primary running back for the Irish, and should find significantly easier yards against the Cardinals than the Wolverines.
The biggest intangible is simply the difference in talent and scope for each of these programs. Consistently one of the best recruiting classes from a national base, the Fighting Irish are loaded all over the roster with four and five-star talent. I’m a big proponent of the “football recruiting is an inexact science” train of thought, but that only goes so far. At some point, a major talent discrepancy across the roster comes home to roost. There’s also the attention factor and how each team will respond. For Ball State, it’s a great opportunity on a national stage. For Notre Dame, it’s business as usual and a small MAC opponent. Are you willing to bet that you can predict how a bevy of 18-22 year olds are going to respond in any given moment? I work professionally in that arena and I can tell you with absolute certainty it’s impossible.
Ultimately, the outcome of this game has little to do with Ball State and more to do with Notre Dame in that if the Irish show up, take it serious, and give maximum effort, this one may be decided by halftime. But, and it’s a big one, any sort of overconfidence or assumption of an easy win has the potential to be problematic given the sheer ability of the Ball State offense to score. It is more likely than not that once substitutions occur and the talent gap widens, Notre Dame will be able to walk away with a rather lopsided victory.
Notre Dame 44
Ball State 10