For the third time in this decade (also Western Michigan in 2010 and Miami in 2017), a Mid-American Conference football team visits Notre Dame Stadium, as Ball State comes to South Bend Saturday afternoon to face Notre Dame for the first time in its history.
There’s something of a comfort level for Irish head coach Brian Kelly, who spent three seasons in the MAC as head coach at Central Michigan from 2004-06 (his Chippewas defeated Ball State all three of those years).
Here are some areas to watch when the Cardinals square off against the Irish:
- How well will Ball State match up against the eighth-ranked team in the country in Notre Dame? The Cardinals’ last win over a ranked team came in 2012 (34-27 over 23rd-rated Toledo. Since then Ball State has fallen to ranked foes Northern Illinois in 2013, Texas A&M and Northwestern in 2015 and Western Michigan in 2016.
- Will the Irish have a hangover from the Michigan win? Coaches preach handling victory and defeat with the same aplomb. So, how will the Notre Dame players handle their win over Michigan in that hyped atmosphere last Saturday night in South Bend? Kelly believes his squad understands the week-to-week process and focus required. How well the Irish understand will be on display Saturday.
- How much trouble can Riley Neal cause the Irish? Kelly likes the looks of the redshirt junior Ball State quarterback, who completed 23 of 30 passes last Saturday for 259 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Neal missed the final nine games of 2017 due to injury, yet he already has thrown for 5,735 career yards. At 6-6 and 225 pounds, he also ran six times for 37 yards and another score last weekend versus Central Connecticut State.
- How about the new guys? A handful of Irish freshmen — as well as a number of upperclassmen — played for the first time against Michigan last Saturday or played a much more significant role than in past seasons. So how much more comfortable will players like running back Jafar Armstrong, offensive lineman Liam Eichenberg and defensive back Alohi Gilman be this week with a game under their belts? Other first-time starters versus the Wolverines were tight end Cole Kmet, defensive lineman Khalid Kareem and linebacker Asmar Bilal. How will game No. 2 go for all of them?
- Where can the Irish build? A football season is nothing but a fall-long process, so it’s critical that Brian Kelly’s squad builds and adds something to its resume each week in 2018. What could those things be on Saturday? How many position groups will feel like they are better situated at the end of the Ball State game compared to a week ago? Which individual players will take the biggest steps forward?
John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame. He is editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series.