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Notre Dame’s defense holds off Ball State while offense idles

Tony Jones Jr. scored two touchdowns for Notre Dame, as the Fighting Irish did just enough to take down Ball State on home turf.

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — It took longer than expected, but No. 8 Notre Dame eventually got around to holding off Ball State 24-16 on Saturday. The Irish (2-0) never let the game fall into doubt, but the Cardinals (1-1) similarly refused to be routed, running 97 total plays for 349 yards to strain Notre Dame’s defense.

That 3.6 yards per play average camouflaged how much the defense needed to handle. Still, Ball State found the end zone only once, a 10-yard pass from senior quarterback Riley Neal to junior tight end Nolan Givan with 12 minutes remaining in the game. Neal finished with 180 yards on 23-of-50 passing with two interceptions.

“Overall as a defensive standard, the goal is for their offense not to score,” Irish fifth-year linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill said. “When they do put points on the board, there’s stuff to learn from. It wasn’t a perfect game from us. There will be a lot of film to watch with 97 plays.”

It may not have been a perfect game, but Notre Dame’s defense allowed only one play of more than 20 yards, held the Cardinals to 3.8 yards per rush (sacks adjusted) and 8-of-23 on third-down conversions. Ball State managed only three possessions longer than 40 yards and got into the Irish red zone just three times. The first two of those each resulted in field goals.

“We just focused,” senior linebacker Te’von Coney said of the red-zone shift. “We always say we don’t want to concede points. [Irish head coach Brian] Kelly and [defensive coordinator Clark] Lea always talk about that. Just when they get down to the red zone, we have to play harder. It just takes one play to get them off schedule. Make that play and get them off the field.”

Notre Dame’s offense, meanwhile, struggled. Senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush completed 17-of-31 pases and threw for a career-best 297 yards, diminishing that feat with three interceptions. Although the running game averaged 4.89 yards per carry (sacks adjusted), it still gained only 132 yards, part of why the Irish went 4-of-14 on third downs.

“We thought we would be able to take the gimmies and the easy throws and then make big plays out of them,” Wimbush said. “We had a good game plan in terms of running the ball.

“Some things sometimes just don’t work as effectively as you may wish.”

Sophomore running back Jafar Armstrong led the way with 13 carries for 66 yards and the first score of the day, adding three catches for 61 yards. Junior Tony Jones chipped in 61 yards and two rushing touchdowns on 13 rushes.

Receiving the kickoff to open the second half, Ball State needed a touchdown and a two-point conversion to tie Notre Dame at 14. Given the flow of the game to that point, reaching a tie seemed just as likely as the Irish opening a two-possession lead. The latter came to be reality, largely because of Tranquill.

He got to Neal just before his release, forcing the quarterback to overthrow his intended receiver. The credit naturally goes to junior safety Jalen Elliott for making the subsequent interception, but it all stemmed from Tranquill’s pressure.

It was Elliott’s second interception of the day, the first of any quantity by a Notre Dame safety since the 2016 season.

“You hope with the game plan, you’re able to make the plays,” Elliott said. “Our coaches put us in position, so all we have to do is go out and make the play.”

Elliot’s first interception was caused by senior nickel back and former safety Nick Coleman deflecting a pass. In that regard, it was a stellar day for the Irish safeties, a weak spot in recent years. Junior Alohi Gilman added nine tackles, to go along with Elliot’s seven.

“We’re just trying to do our job,” Elliott said. “It wasn’t just the mindset of let’s go get a pick. It was the mindset of do our job and a play is going to come. We stuck to that, we did our job, and the play came to me.”

Six plays after Elliott’s interception, rather than Ball State tying the game, it was Jones plunging into the end zone from a yard away to eliminate any real concerns for all effective purposes. The suddenly-somewhat comfortable 21-6 Notre Dame lead began with Tranquill’s blitz.

Notre Dame junior cornerback Julian Love should not be commended for tackling an offensive lineman by the shoelaces. What deserves praise is what Love had to do to get to Danny Pinter after Ball State’s right tackle caught a backward pass across the field, opposite the defense’s momentum. Love merely shrugged off two defenders and in doing so, he saved a touchdown, bringing down Pinter at the five.

“We knew they were going to come in and do a lot of tricks, try to get our eyes in the wrong place, try to make some plays,” Coney said. “A great job on their part — happy that Julian Love was able to come up and make the play.”

The Cardinals executed the misdirection well, hence Love being isolated against two blockers. If not for his takedown, Pinter would have likely scored and brought Ball State within 14-10 with fewer than three minutes remaining in the first half, rather than merely gain three yards on what was technically a rush.

Instead, Love’s agility forced the Cardinals to settle for a field goal, their second of the day, not finding the end zone until the fourth quarter. It does not take a logical leap to credit Love with literally saving four points, provided Ball State could convert the extra point.

Te'Von Coney, Khalid Kareem

Notre Dame linebacker Te’Von Coney, right, celebrates with defensive line Khalid Kareem after he tackled Ball State quarterback Riley Neal during the first half of an NCAA college football game in South Bend, Ind., Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)


PLAYER OF THE GAMEConey’s presence was not as omnipresent as it has been in the past. His 14 tackles felt like many more than only three fewer than the 17 he had in the Citrus Bowl victory, but they were 14, nonetheless. Three of them came behind the line of scrimmage, including a six-yard sack.

“All week we talked about things we thought they would do and trying to go out there and do my job,” Coney said. “Execute as best as I can.”

Coney now has 24 tackles through two weeks with 3.5 for loss, but he wants more.

“We have a standard that we hold ourselves to, and today we don’t think we did that,” he said. “We’re going back into the film room and correct things, come back much harder next week.”

Whether it was a byproduct of a vanilla offensive scheme or simple ineffectiveness, the Irish offense spent much of Saturday afternoon stalled. As did Ball State’s. Each team managed only one possession that covered a suitably-full length of the field to reach the end zone. Notre Dame opened with a five-play, 74-yard touchdown drive, and the Cardinals put together a 13-play, 79-yarder to cut the deficit to 24-13 early in the fourth quarter.

The difference, then, between the offensive outputs? The Irish scored touchdowns immediately following both Elliott interceptions while Ball State got just one field goal off three turnovers.

“It all goes back to getting off the field and getting the [offense] the ball back,” Elliott said. “We know we have a dynamic offense. Once we get them the ball back, they’re bound to make a play.”

Without two interceptions from an Irish safety — for so long a foreign concept — this result actually may have gone the other way.

“You can never apologize for winning. Winning’s hard.” — Brian Kelly.

The full context: “The first thing I tell them when we come in (to the locker room) is, number one, you can never apologize for winning. Winning’s hard. Understand that. First and foremost, you won a football game. But you’ve got to critique it. Did we live up to the standards that we’ve set in the way that we played? No.

“I did a poor job preparing you. You’ve got to bring the energy necessary to play this game. It’s not chess. It’s football. It requires an energy that may have been lacking. Let’s look at why that wasn’t there.”

First Quarter13:06 — Notre Dame touchdown. Jafar Armstrong 1-yard rush. Justin Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Ball State 0. (5 plays, 74 yards, 1:54)6:17 — Ball State field goal. Morgan Hagee 25 yards. (19 plays, 85 yards, 6:49)

Second Quarter8:14 — Notre Dame touchdown. Tony Jones 31-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 14, Ball State 3. (1 play, 31 yards, 0:09)2:30 — Ball State field goal. Haggee 23 yards. Notre Dame 14, Ball State 6. (13 plays, 36 yards, 2:55)

Third Quarter10:37 — Notre Dame touchdown. Jones 1-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 21, Ball State 6. (6 plays, 56 yards, 1:55)2:01 — Notre Dame field goal. Yoon 46 yards. Notre Dame 24, Ball State 6. (8 plays, 33 yards, 2:30)

Fourth Quarter12:01 — Ball State touchdown. Nolan Givan 10-yard pass from Riley Neal. Hagee PAT good. Notre Dame 24, Ball State 13. (13 plays, 79 yards, 5:00)1:30 — Ball State field goal. Hagee 49 yards. Notre Dame 24, Ball State 16. (8 plays, 26 yards, 2:21)

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