Before retiring to its Michigan City hotel last Friday evening, Ball State had something it needed to get out of the way.
Clad in suits and ties, the Cardinals stepped out of their team buses and toured Notre Dame Stadium roughly 24 hours before they were set to kick off against the Fighting Irish, digesting the grandeur of one of college football’s most hallowed venues. They walked the field, whipped out their phones and snapped photos of the stage that awaited them.
Then, they got back to business.
During Ball State’s first-ever meeting with Notre Dame, the Friday night stop in South Bend was as nostalgic as the Cardinals would get. On Saturday afternoon, Ball State stood up against the nation’s No. 8-ranked team, refusing to back down in a hard-fought 24-16 loss to the Irish.
The trip didn’t end the way the Cardinals hoped it would, but it served as evidence of the potential and talent Ball State hopes to maximize across the rest of the season.
They weren’t pressured by the moment, and they left frustrated that they fell just short of stealing the upset.
“There was disappointment in the locker room and on the bus trip home, because we felt like we had some opportunities that we missed,” Ball State coach Mike Neu said. “You never know if we convert on those how the outcome could’ve been different.”
Even so, it was quite the encouraging performance for Ball State, which ran a Notre Dame opponent-record 97 plays, seized three interceptions and held Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush to minus-seven rushing yards on the afternoon.
Next, Ball State wants to build on that effort in Saturday’s noon contest at Indiana.
When IU coach Tom Allen saw the score of last week’s week, he was little surprised. Allen, who has gotten to know Neu a bit in recent years, believes the Cardinals are equipped for a strong season. Still, a one-possession game in South Bend?
He didn’t see that coming.
“Not many teams go to Notre Dame like that and have that kind of success,” Allen said.
Ball State did it on both sides of the ball, with a mostly strong showing from quarterback Riley Neal and an assertive performance from its four linebackers, Jaylin Thomas, Ray Wilborn, Jacob White and Christian Albright.
Thomas played especially well against the Irish, posting nine tackles, including eight solo stops. This, from a player who had never recorded more than six tackles in a game prior to last week. He had seven in Saturday’s first half alone.
As a defense, the Cardinals made 10 tackles for loss, matching the most by a Notre Dame opponent since 2011 and giving themselves a jolt of confidence heading into Bloomington.
“It was a great overall effort by our defense and certainly a great confidence booster,” Neu said. “But our guys also know, too, that every week is a new week. Every day is a new day,”
And, thankfully for Ball State, every season is a new season.
The Cardinals were glad to move on from a 2-10 campaign in 2017, when injuries derailed their offense early in September. Neal and top running back James Gilbert — two of seven offensive starters to miss significant time — each missed the final nine games, torpedoing Ball State’s visions of building off a 4-8 showing during Neu’s first year back at his alma mater in 2016.
“When those two guys got hurt after Game 3, they struggled the rest of the way,” Allen said. “Now, they’re all back and healthy. … I think (Neal’s) a great quarterback. He’s the best passer we will have played, without question. He’s big, athletic and can sit in the pocket and beat you. He can run around and beat you. I think he could be a future NFL guy.”
Neal completed 76 percent of his throws (23-for-30) for 259 yards and two touchdowns in the season opener against Central Connecticut State. He was harassed and chased for portions of Saturday’s game at Notre Dame, but still illustrated the kind of upside he brings to Ball State’s offense through his poise and toughness.
The Cardinals have won three of the last four meetings in this series with the Hoosiers, a statistic Allen made sure his players were well aware of earlier this week. And on the heels of Ball State’s fine effort at Notre Dame, Allen and IU are expecting another battle this week.
Neu is, too, and he’s hopeful his Cardinals use last week’s eye-opening showing as the next step toward building something great in Muncie.
“For us, it’s about being able to get back to work and make sure that we hold up to the standard we set on Saturday in South Bend,” Neu said. “Our players have to hold themselves accountable. That’s the standard that we set. Now we have to make sure that we bring that each and every week.”