SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly understands where Ball State coach Mike Neu is this week, what he’s facing as the Cardinals visit the eight-ranked Fighting Irish.
In 2005, Kelly was the second-year coach at MAC member Central Michigan when his team prepared to visit Penn State to play Joe Paterno’s Nittany Lions before more than 100,000 fans at Beaver Stadium. Kelly’s Chippewas fell 40-3.
Kelly kidded about what first crossed his mind back then (“How much was the guarantee . it better be a big one”) then suggested what Neu might be telling his Cardinals, 34 ½-point underdogs Saturday against a Notre Dame team that is coming off a 24-17 victory over Michigan.
“Nobody expects us to win this football game,” Kelly reflected while walking in Neu’s shoes. “Let’s go in there and shock the world.”
If Neu, a former MAC Offensive Player of the Year as quarterback of the 1993 Ball State team, is preparing a Knute Rockne-type pep talk for his school’s first game in the house that Rockne built, that remains a secret. The third-year Ball State coach watched his Cardinals open the year with an easy 42-6 victory over FCS visitor Central Connecticut.
“It’s a great challenge for us, one of those you look forward to,” said Neu, who visited Notre Dame Stadium as an 11-year-old with his father to see the Irish knock off Michigan in the 1982 season opener. “The stage will be awesome. We’ll get to South Bend Friday, walk the stadium, get that over with and get ourselves mentally ready to go.”
In the opener on Aug. 30, the Cardinals, 2-10 in 2017, came within 12 seconds of a shutout while piling up a school-record 652 yards. They were led by quarterback Riley Neal and running back James Gilbert, whose season-ending injuries last year coincided with Ball State’s season-ending nine-game losing streak. Neal and Gilbert are two of the 50 Indiana-grown players on Ball State’s roster. Neal, a 6-foot-6 junior, completed 23 of 30 passes for 259 yards and two touchdowns and ran six times for 37 yards and another score. Gilbert, a 5-foot-9 junior, rushed for 100 yards on 14 carries, one a 35-yard TD.
“This is a really good offensive system . they know what they’re doing,” Kelly noted.
Tale of two QBs
Fully recovered from the leg injury he suffered in 2017, Neal has certainly impressed Kelly.
“He’s a quarterback who could lead a Power Five team,” the Irish coach said. “He is an NFL prospect.”
Ball State, which ran up 316 yards against the Blue Devils with six different players, passed for 336 yards as 12 different receivers were employed by Neu, who is wary of Notre Dame’s dual-threat quarterback: Brandon Wimbush, who struggled at the end of last season. He completed 12 of 22 passes for 170 yards, including a 43-yard TD to senior slot receiver Chris Finke against Michigan and added another 59 yards on 19 carries.
“He’s greatly improved as a thrower,” Neu said. “You have to contain him because he’s so dangerous. He makes a ton of plays with his feet. I know that’s been a big point of emphasis with us. We’ve got to contain him and eliminate the big plays he can create with his feet.”
Sign of the times
Consecutive sellouts at Notre Dame Stadium reached 263 games against Michigan, but the school was still advertising that seats were available for Saturday’s game with Ball State. Because of expansion and renovation, the capacity of Notre Dame Stadium has varied since 1997. A full house is now 77,622. The last time there wasn’t a capacity crowd for an Irish home game was Nov. 22, 1973, for a game against Air Force. The game was moved to accommodate national TV and only 57,236 showed up in the then 59,075-capacity stadium to see Ara Parseghian’s Irish beat the Falcons, 48-15, on the way to the national championship.