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The Journal Gazette

Saturday, September 08, 2018 1:00 am

Irish insist they're not taking 1st meeting with Ball State lightly

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

Notre Dame vs. Ball State

Where: Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend

When: 3:30 p.m. today


Radio: 1190 AM

Ball State at Notre Dame

3 storylines

Notre Dame defense vs. Ball State running backs: The Cardinals rushed for 316 yards and three touchdowns against Central Connecticut last week, averaging 6.6 yards per carry. Notre Dame's defensive front held Michigan to just 79 yards on 28 carries (excluding sacks) in Week 1 and didn't give up a rush longer than 10 yards. Something has to give.

Notre Dame rushing game vs. Ball State defense: Notre Dame's running backs were similarly ineffective against the Wolverines, gaining just 77 yards on 26 carries. Jafar Armstrong scored twice from inside the 5, but the Irish need better production from Armstrong and Tony Jones Jr. Ball State's rush defense gave up 174 yards to Central Connecticut on 38 carries.

Indiana matchup: Notre Dame has not lost a game against a team from Indiana since 2008, when the Irish fell to Purdue 33-19 in West Lafayette. The Boilermakers were also the last Indiana team to beat Notre Dame in South Bend, winning 41-16 in 2004. Ball State won its most recent matchup against an in-state rival, 30-20 over Indiana in 2016, and will take on the Hoosiers next week, as well.

Prediction: Notre Dame 45, Ball State 17

- Dylan Sinn, The Journal Gazette

Notre Dame had all offseason to prepare for playing Michigan and by Drue Tranquill's admission had been looking forward to the game since Jan. 1.

Preparing to play a team such as Ball State, which went 2-10 last season and comes from a conference that received zero Top 25 votes in this week's AP Poll, presents a different kind of challenge.

“As Coach (Brian) Kelly says, we play nameless and faceless opponents,” safety Jalen Elliott said. “We have to continue to grind each and every day. We come to work on Mondays and work every day during the week just to get better.”

The Irish will take on the Cardinals at Notre Dame Stadium today and have spent the week leading up to the game insisting that their preparation has not been any different before they face Ball State than it was before they took on Michigan. Kelly said the key was for veterans to impress on younger players the importance of taking every opponent seriously.

“Ball State has got enough weapons that they can put some points on the board,” Kelly said. “Why not go in and play and have fun and enjoy it? (They've) worked so hard to get to this point.”

The matchup will be Notre Dame's first ever against Ball State and first against any team from Indiana since the Irish defeated Purdue 30-14 in a Shamrock Series game at Lucas Oil Stadium in 2014. 

Ball State finished the 2017 season on a nine-game losing streak but snapped that string in Week 1, routing Central Connecticut 42-6. The Cardinals gained a school-record 652 yards against the Blue Devils, giving some weight to Kelly's praise of the Ball State offense.

The Cardinals were particularly effective on the ground, rolling up 316 yards rushing, including at least 40 from four different backs. Running back Justin Gilbert, who missed the final nine games of 2017 with a hand injury, gained 100 on just 14 carries and scored a touchdown.

The dynamic Ball State rushing offense reflects well on the Cardinals' rebuilt offensive line, which is anchored by former Norwell standout Curtis Blackwell. Blackwell, a sophomore guard from Ossian, started seven games as a true freshman in 2017 and has matured into a solid player and one of the leaders of the Cardinals' offense.

“Coming in as a freshman, the toughest transition is really in the trenches,” Cardinals coach Mike Neu said during a summer visit to Fort Wayne. “Curtis, to be a starter as a true freshman was very impressive. That's just a testament to how hard the young man worked.”

With Carroll graduate Tranquill more frequently rushing the passer this season from his new “buck” linebacker position, the pair of area natives could face off today. Tranquill said Ball State was one of the first schools to see him play at Carroll and he's excited to face another school from Indiana.

“It's great, man, Hoosier pride,” Tranquill said. “We gotta take pride, we believe we're the best team in Indiana, and we're gonna have to go out and prove that on Saturday against a very capable Ball State team, which is gonna have a lot of guys hungry to be on national television.”

Tranquill had special praise for Cardinals quarterback Riley Neal, who the linebacker declared can “sling the ball all over the field.” Neal missed the last nine games of 2017 with a leg injury but threw for more than 2,500 yards in 2016 and went 23 for 30 for 259 yards and two touchdowns against Central Connecticut last week. 

Keeping Neal from feeling comfortable in the pocket will be a priority for Notre Dame's pass rush, while the Irish's still-improving defensive backs group will have to avoid giving up big plays like it did when Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson completed a 52-yard pass in the third quarter last week.