For the Ball State Cardinals, leaving the friendly confines of Scheumann Stadium to travel from Muncie to Notre Dame, involves more than just 69. The left exit and the run up Highway 31 shifts the field. Behind them is the relative quiet of MAC West football — MACtion. In front, the echoes of ESPN’s College Gameday and the “cathedral of college football.”
The Fighting Irish head into Saturday’s first-ever meeting with their in-state opponent ranked 8th in the country and with considerable wind in their sails. Brandon Wimbush looked more than capable under center and was a downright danger to the very talented Wolverine front seven. Notre Dame’s defense exploited a shaky Michigan offensive line to harry Shea Patterson. The stadium atmosphere was as good as ever. Vegas favors Notre Dame. Heavily. Various odds-makers are giving thirty-plus points.
Ball State is a capable team. They opened the season against FCS power Central Connecticut and won 42-6. The Blue Devils’ only score came on their final drive, the game already a smoldering ember. The Cardinals put up 652 (!) yards of total offense. Signal caller Riley Neil threw for 259 yards and two touchdowns. He also picked up one touchdown on the ground. They will present multiple threats out of the backfield.
Ball State will present the Irish with a 3-4 defense that Notre Dame’s head football coach Brian Kelly expects to bring “a lot of pressure.” One of ND’s weak spots on Saturday was the challenge Michigan’s Chase Winovich presented. Setting aside his bone-headed personal foul that extended an Irish drive and resulted in a touchdown, Winovich and his long locks were a challenge to a re-worked Notre Dame O-line already dealing with all-world Rashan Gary. A less mobile, less aware quarterback than Brandon Wimbush could have spent a lot of time on his back.
That said, it seems unlikely that the Cardinals will be able to field a player, much less two, like Winovich or Gary. While they held Central Connecticut’s prolific offense — I can’t believe I wrote that, either — in check, I don’t see how the Cardinals compete over two quarters with Notre Dame, much less four.
Defensively, The Irish put up a fine performance against Michigan, so this game should be strength-versus-strength, at least while Ball State’s offense is fresh. If they tire, or miss an assignment, Jerry Tillery and friends should be ready and able to pounce. Look for a turnover early to turn this one ugly in a hurry.
This game should be a great opportunity for Notre Dame to continue its development. This game should be a great opportunity for Brandon Wimbush to continue to work on his consistency, confidence, and courage — and then, on his terms, turn the reigns over to Ian Book. This game should be a great opportunity.
Champions deliver under these circumstances.