NOTRE DAME, Ind. — It had been 658 days since a Notre Dame safety snagged an interception — 15 full regulation football games.
Jalen Elliott made sure that streak ended Saturday against Ball State.
In a game that saw the Irish produce in fits and starts, the play of the junior strong safety and the rest of the Irish secondary proved critical in the 24-16 victory over the Cardinals. Elliott snared the first two interceptions of his career — both of which set up Tony Jones Jr. rushing touchdowns.
“He had a great game, and it was really good to see him (do that) … because for him to grow relative to the ball in the air, tracking the ball, coming down with it (he needs to do those things),” Dick Corbett Head Football Coach Brian Kelly said following the game. “He got the game ball.”
The last time an Irish safety snatched an interception was Nov. 19, 2016, when Drue Tranquill — now a linebacker — recorded a pick in Notre Dame’s 34-31 loss to Virginia Tech.
Elliott changed all that with the first of his two interceptions midway through the second quarter, pulling in a pass tipped by fellow safety Nick Coleman at the Ball State 31-yard line. A play later, Jones was in the end zone for the longest rushing touchdown of his career, staking the Irish to a 14-3 lead.
Not content with a single mark in the interception column, Elliott picked off his second pass less than three minutes into the third quarter. The play set up a six-play, 56-yard scoring drive, again culminating in a rushing score by Jones, this time from one yard out to put Notre Dame up 21-6.
“(Coleman) made a great play on the slant and read it perfectly,” Elliott said of his first interception. “He got in there and tipped the ball up and I was just in the right place at the right time.
“On the second one, I was playing post and helping over top, trying to make a play on the ball. You hope that with the game plan, you’re able to make the plays the coaches put you in the position to make, so you just have to go out there and make the play.”
To hear Elliott tell it, the returning experience in the secondary has contributed to the confidence of that group coming into the 2018 season. Five of the six safeties listed on the Irish depth chart for Ball State are juniors or seniors, and having faced some big moments, they expect those big plays so long as they execute on their preparation.
“We have a lot of guys coming back that are juniors, pretty much the whole unit, and you’ve been in those big games and those moments where it’s been tough for us, as younger players, to really understand what’s going on,” Elliott said. “Now it’s moving a lot slower for us, we’re starting to get it, and we just have to keep getting in the lab and going at it every week.
“It’s not a mindset that we just have to go and get a pick. It’s a mindset that if we do our job, plays are going to come. I think we did that, did our job, and the plays came today.”
Elliott’s play Saturday, coupled with the production of highly touted Navy transfer Alohi Gilman, has elevated the Irish secondary through the season’s first two games. While Gilman ranks second on the team in tackles (16) and pass break-ups (two), Elliott’s two interceptions pace the team while his 12 tackles rank fourth on the squad.
On a day when not all fell Notre Dame’s way, Elliott and the Irish defense were more than willing to lift the rest of their team. It was the “bend-don’t-break” mentality that aided the Irish in limiting Ball State’s scoring chances and allowing just 13 red-zone points. Where the Irish offense struggled with three turnovers, Elliott and the defense picked it up in kind.
“We play as a team, both offense and defense. When the offense isn’t going — and we have a great offense — we have to pick it up because there are going to be some games where we aren’t going and the offense is going to carry the load for us. We come together as a team and we have one goal: to get the ball back to the offense.”
On Saturday, they did just that.
Joanne Norell, Senior Editor, Athletics Communications at the University of Notre Dame, has been a member of Fighting Irish Media since 2014 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of Gameday Magazine. Additionally, she oversees editorial content for UND.com, WatchND and department publications. She has previously served as athletics communications director for women’s soccer, men’s and women’s tennis, and cross country/track & field, and continues to work with the national championship fencing program.