Just minutes after opening the season with a convincing win, Ball State players and coaches were already excited to play Notre Dame.
MUNCIE, Ind. — The Ball State football team enjoyed itself Thursday night, and now it is going into the first-ever matchup with Notre Dame on the highest note possible.
The Cardinals’ 42-6 win over Central Connecticut State was a long time coming and worth celebrating, even if it was over an FCS program. The nine-game losing streak to end last season is officially history.
And now Ball State can look forward to next Saturday’s matchup with Notre Dame (3:30 p.m., NBC). By the time head coach Mike Neu and players James Gilbert, Riley Neal and Jacob White met with the media, the focus already was shifting from the win to the 12th-ranked Fighting Irish.
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Ball State has 49 players on its roster from Indiana, and many surely grew up watching the historic program.
“As a kid, I watched Notre Dame football, so for me it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get to play against them and go to their stadium, because I’ve never been there,” said Gilbert, who ran for 100 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries in his return to the lineup. “We’re pumped, we’re going to celebrate this win, then get back to work for Notre Dame next week.”
Like Gilbert, Neu is an Indianapolis native who grew up watching the Fighting Irish.
“It’s going to be cool to go to South Bend,” Neu said. “I don’t know how many times I’ve watched Rudy. It’s a well-known national program. I grew up watching them as a kid. What a great opportunity for our guys to go in there and play on one of the biggest stages that exists.”
Well, not everyone grew up a Notre Dame fan.
“It’s cool. I’m not a die-hard Notre Dame fan or anything,” Neal said. “I didn’t grow up idolizing them, but playing big schools is fun. It’s a good opportunity for us.
“I don’t look at them as super-humans or anything. They’re a Power Five school, they are what they are.”
Mike Neu shares why this was a meaningful victory.
Ryan O’Gara/Star Press
The Ball State staff will surely be watching closely Saturday night when Notre Dame hosts No. 14 Michigan. Neu said that they spent some time this summer watching Notre Dame film from 2017.
As far as team morale goes, Ball State could not be going in to this game on a higher note. The Cardinals broke a 41-year-old program record with 652 yards of offense Thursday, and the defense had a shutout going until the final 12 seconds. Gilbert, Caleb Huntley and Malik Dunner will be a load for opposing defenses this season, and if Neal continues to play with the precision he did Thursday night, then it’s going to be a much different season in Muncie than the last few.
Thursday was a good reminder that Ball State is an entirely different team with Gilbert and Neal, both of whom missed that nine-game losing streak to end 2017 due to injury.
“It was good to see No. 34 back out there,” Neu said. “He is a warrior. I’m so glad he’s on our team.
“… And just like James, it was great to have No. 15 back in there.”
Ryan O’Gara covers Ball State and East Central Indiana high schools at the Star Press. Contact him at (765) 213-5829, [email protected] or @RyanOGara.