It’s 145 miles from Ball State to Notre Dame and for the first time ever the Cardinals football team will make that trip north to face the Fighting Irish this Saturday. Ball State won its season opener against FCS opponent Central Connecticut State last Thursday 42-6, but the Cardinals know they will be in for a whole different experience during their trip to South Bend.
The Irish are coming off an impressive 24-17 victory against Michigan and have risen to No. 8 in both major polls. The game against Ball State will be Notre Dame’s fourth battle with a MAC school, all of which have occurred since 2010.
Ball State at Notre Dame
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 8 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Notre Dame -34.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Notre Dame’s front seven
The first two layers of the Fighting Irish defense were sensational against Michigan, allowing just 58 yards on the ground and harassing Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson all night. The line deservedly received much of the credit, but the play of the linebackers should not be overlooked. Te’von Coney was his usual tackling machine, Drue Tranquill made a seamless position shift, and Asmar Bilal was very active in his first start at Rover. Due to last year’s massive injury issues, the Cardinals return several offensive linemen that have started at least one game. The question is, will that experience help against this talented Notre Dame front?
2. Ball State’s Riley Neal and James Gilbert
Quarterback Neal and running back Gilbert were injured and lost for the season after just three games in 2017 and their departures were felt. The Cardinals were 2-1 at the time and proceeded to lose their last eight games, averaging just 14 points a game in those contests. The two Ball State stars are back and they stood out in the Central Connecticut game. Neal was 23 of 30 for 259 yards and a couple of scores while Gilbert ran for 100 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries. If Ball State has any success moving the ball, it will start with Neal and Gilbert.
3. Notre Dame running game
Coming into the season, ND offensive coordinator Chip Long said that the Irish want to continue the success they had running the football last season. The opening performance produced just 136 rushing yards, but they were going against a very stout Michigan defense. This week, the Irish should be able to flex their muscles a little more versus a Ball State defense that returns just one defensive front seven starter from a unit that was 91st in rushing defense last season. ND’s offensive line should be able to open up quality running lanes for Tony Jones and Jafar Armstrong as well as quarterback Brandon Wimbush.
The only worry for Notre Dame this week is complacency. Ball State is much better than the 2-10 group of 2017 mostly because the Cardinals have their key pieces healthy again. But the talent level isn’t close and even with Riley Neal and James Gilbert in the lineup in 2016, the Cardinals still finished 4-8. It would be a bit of a surprise if Notre Dame didn’t come out a bit flat considering the emotion of last week’s game and that Ball State is not a brand that will get the juices flowing. Ultimately, it won’t matter. The bigger, more talented Irish will wear their opponent down, get a cushion in the second quarter, and really open things up after the break. When the final score roles across television screens on Saturday night, it will show that the Irish did what they were expected to do.
Prediction: Notre Dame 41, Ball State 10
— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.