SOUTH BEND — Jalen Elliott had a pair of interceptions that No. 8 Notre Dame turned into touchdowns and the Fighting Irish held off stubborn Ball State 24-16 on Saturday.
The Irish (2-0), coming off an emotional 24-17 victory over Michigan, looked lackluster against the Mid-American Conference foe whose campus in Muncie is a 2 1/2-hour drive. The Cardinals (1-1) also played nothing like the 34 1/2-point underdogs they were labeled in the schools’ first meeting in football.
“It was really good to see Jalen have a great game,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “Ball State did a great job coming into this game and doing what it needed to do. Their preparation was great, their coaching was better.”
After going the entire 2017 season and last week without an interception by a safety, Elliott picked off a pair of Riley Neal passes that the offense converted into a pair of rushing touchdowns of 31 and 1 yards by junior Tony Jones Jr. for a 21-6 lead in the third quarter.
“We have to come together,” Elliott said. “Coach Kelly said it best. We play nameless and faceless opponents week to week. Everyone’s going to bring their best game so we have to respect our opponents to the fullest.”
Following a 46-yard field goal by Justin Yoon that gave the Irish a 24-6 lead going into the fourth quarter, Nolan Givan caught a 10-yard scoring pass from Neal, who threw for 180 yards but completed just 23 of 50 passes. A 49-yard field goal by Ball State’s Morgan Hagee, his third of the game, closed out the scoring.
“Hats off to Ball State. They came in here and competed,” Notre Dame linebacker Drue Tranquill said.
The Cardinals’ 3-4 defense frustrated senior Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush, who threw for 297 yards but finished with minus 7 yards rushing as Ball State registered four sacks and picked off three of his passes. Ball State finished with 10 tackles for loss
“I think we lacked attention to detail and focus, especially in the second half,” Wimbush said.
Junior James Gilbert rushed for 72 yards for Ball State, which outgained Notre Dame on the ground, 169-117. Sophomore Jafar Armstrong led the Irish with 66 yards, including a 42-yard scamper up the middle in the first quarter that he followed with a 1-yard scoring run two plays later. Jones finished with 61 yards.
The Cardinals left the field at halftime trailing just 14-6 thanks to drives of 19 and 13 plays that ended in Hagee field goals.
Ball State: The Cardinals, who have just nine seniors on the roster, showed that they could be a factor in the MAC race after injuries to Neal and Gilbert last year factored into a nine-game losing streak.
Notre Dame: After receiving the game ball following last week’s victory, Wimbush couldn’t get things going with his feet as the Cardinals closed his running lanes. His longest gain rushing was 9 yards.
Notre Dame: The Irish, who rose from No. 12 to No. 8 after the win over Michigan, could lose some ground but should remain in the top 10.
Ball State: The Cardinals visit Indiana on Saturday.
Notre Dame: The Irish host Vanderbilt in their third straight home game.
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