Replay: Irish Fall Short Of Standard

A career-high 297 passing yards by University of Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush would prompt rave reviews on most Saturdays.

He had seven completions for 20 or more yards — normally a cause for some celebration.

That yardage figure was 127 yards more than what Wimbush threw for last week against Michigan when his play was lauded.

Irish senior wide receiver Miles Boykin had 119 receiving yards Saturday — also a career-best figure that normally would inspire smiles and pride. Five of his receptions (for 99 yards) came in one productive period (the third).

Yet Boykin wasn’t smiling when this game ended.

Notre Dame’s defense allowed only 16 points Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium — one fewer than it did a week ago when that unit’s play was celebrated late into the night by Irish fans.

If none of this makes sense, understand that Irish coach Brian Kelly has set a particular standard for the week-to-week performance of his football team.

Kelly talked about that standard before kickoff Saturday, again at halftime and once more after it was over.

That standard is the bar by which Kelly, his staff and players – as well as Irish fans – judge the progress of this 2018 Notre Dame football team.

And that was the subject on almost all those people’s minds by early Saturday night following Notre Dame’s 24-16 victory over Ball State at Notre Dame Stadium.

“Doing what you’re supposed to do, the way you’re taught, is the epitome of accountability and responsibility,” Kelly told his players in the locker room before kickoff.

“This is about Notre Dame and Notre Dame football and the standards we set within this program. This is a team sport.

“So when we talk about knowing what to do, how to do it and when to do it, that’s about our team. It’s each of you doing your job, offense, defense and special teams. When you do that, we win.

“This tradition, this history, is about great teams. Great teams have lockered in here. There are no trophies in this locker room. This is about a team, a team that comes together every day when we take this field. Understand that and think about it.

“When we take that field together it’s about sharing everything we do together as a team.

“We are prepared for whatever hits us. We have the traits to overcome anything that comes our way. You know what the goal is today.”

That goal appeared in plain sight the way the game began.

Wimbush found a wide-open Chris Finke for 27 yards on the first play from scrimmage. Jafar Armstrong did his best Josh Adams impersonation on the second play, bursting right up the middle for 42 more yards.

Armstrong’s one-yard scoring run three plays later capped a 74-yard possession, and Notre Dame led 7-0 less than two minutes into the contest.

It would never be that easy again for the home team.

Ball State bounced right back on its initial possession and showed exactly what the Cardinal offensive game plan would feature: possession football, a mobile quarterback and a running game that was just good enough.

Ball State ran 19 plays in a row, covered 85 yards and took 6:17 off the clock on its way to a field goal.

That set the tone for a cloudy, 64-degree afternoon on which the visitors would run 97 offensive plays (50 in the first half alone), 25 more than Notre Dame.

The Irish missed a field goal, turned the ball over on downs at the Ball State 26 and threw an interception.

In between, Ball State threw an interception of its own – the first of two picked off by Notre Dame’s Jalen Elliott, who earned the game ball. Tony Jones Jr. needed a single play to go 31 yards (the longest rush of his career) into the corner of the end zone for a 14-3 Irish advantage.

The Cardinals took over on the Notre Dame 41 after their interception – and they turned that into a second Morgan Hagee field goal with 2:30 to go until halftime.  

The Irish led by eight at the break.

Kelly offered his thoughts at halftime:

“So play with energy and enthusiasm. Fly around and do your job when you need to do it. You’re all capable of it. It starts with our process, not the outcome.
“The outcome takes care of itself if you don’t think about the scoreboard. Just think about how we do our stuff and we’ll be fine.
“We’ve got another chance.”

The Irish began their statement three minutes into the third period when Elliott made his second interception, setting Notre Dame up at its own 44.

Wimbush promptly threw 17 and 14 yards to Boykin, then 13 yards to Finke – and Jones went the final yard to make it 21-6 with 10:37 remaining in that third period.

The Irish defense responded as well – forcing Ball State into three consecutive three-and-out possessions.

A 46-yard Justin Yoon field goal late in the period pushed the Irish advantage to 24-6 just before Tim McCarthy’s patented safety message signaled the start of the final quarter.

But the Cardinals weren’t done.

They drove 79 yards in 13 plays, taking exactly five minutes more off the clock. They converted on fourth and one from the Notre Dame 17 and quarterback Riley Neal finished the possession with a 10-yard scoring pass to Nolan Givan.

Notre Dame’s ensuing march reached the Cardinal 38 but ended in Wimbush’s third interception.

Ball State ran off 13 more plays, only to miss a 46-yard field-goal attempt. After a short Irish punt, the visitors drove for a 49-yard field goal to make it 24-16 with 1:30 on the clock.

When Drue Tranquill gathered the Ball State onside kick attempt, the contest effectively ended.

The Irish stood 2-0 – after they and the Cardinals fought to a 10-10 tie over the last two quarters.

“We are grateful and appreciative of winning football games. So appreciate winning football games. And we’re gonna do that,” said Kelly after the game.

“We’re gonna be excited about winning football games. But we’re also gonna understand what it takes to win football games to our standard – because that’s all that we do. We do not think about outcomes – we think about process.

“Our practice this week was not at the standard it should have been and that falls on me. We will prepare so we are not in this position again.

“Number two, when it comes to standards, to play this game of football, I can’t bring the energy to this game. Our coaches can prepare you, but you have to bring the innate ability to get yourself to the optimum level to play this game. You have to find that place. We did not have that today.

“Third, we should always remember this. When you strap it on against an opponent, always respect the game and your opponent. I’m not sure that was at the level it should have been. In a lot of ways that opponent today was the better team at a lot of things they did.

“We found a way to win because we have better players in this room.

“We can’t leave here today without learning something. We’ve got to learn a lot from tonight. And we’ve got to get back to where we need to be.

“You know what you are capable of. You showed it in the way we played against Michigan. We didn’t do it this weekend but we got the ‘W.’

“We’ve got to get better. Let’s get back to our process.”

The Irish players clearly understood where they fell short Saturday, even in winning:

“It’s definitely a lesson learned, an eye-opener,” offered Irish center and captain Sam Mustipher.

“They came out and played physical and fast and we didn’t execute the way we’re supposed to.”

Added Boykin, “Coach (Kelly) talks about learning from every game we play. What we learned today is that we have to play to our standard every time we step on the field. If we don’t play to our standards, any team can beat us.

“We have to prepare the right way and play the right way. Every time.”

That theme was echoed in every corner where Irish players and coaches huddled in the postgame locker room.

A football season weaves in all sorts of directions from one Saturday to the next throughout the fall.

Where the Irish go from here will be based on how Wimbush, Boykin, Mustipher and their teammates negotiate those Notre Dame standards on all those Saturdays to come.

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.