SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame had a nearly-perfect setup to play well in their season-opener. The Irish were able to spend the whole offseason with the thought of playing Michigan in the back of their heads, then they had all the motivation they needed during the first game week.
When they finally did take the field against the Wolverines, the Notre Dame Stadium crowd was one of the most raucous in recent memory.
"It's the loudest and most hype environment at Notre Dame I've played in," fifth-year senior Drue Tranquill said. "The fans were great, having family and friends and being able to share that moment was obviously big."
Many of those natural advantages are gone this week. The Irish's Week 2 opponent, Ball State, went 2-10 last season and ended the season on a nine-game losing streak. Sure, the Cardinals won 42-6 in Week 1, but it was against Central Connecticut of the FCS. Unlike against Michigan, Notre Dame will have to work to motivate itself for this matchup, especially coming off a rousing victory over the Wolverines. The threat of a letdown looms for the Irish, especially on a cold, rainy day.
Of course, even if they do have a letdown and don't play their best, the Irish should win this game. Ball State's defense will struggle to stop Notre Dame's offense and should give the Irish a chance to get their running game in order after a mostly ineffective effort in Week 1. The Cardinals ran up 652 yards against the Blue Devils in Week 1, but Notre Dame's defensive front should be up to the challenge against an undersized offensive line.
A good team would win this game, but Notre Dame has aspirations for more. A great team would dominate, demonstrating that they're able to bring their best against any opponent, no matter the stakes. It's unclear which category the Irish fall into at this early point in the season.
One key for Notre Dame will be limiting big plays. The best way for an overmatched team to hang around against a physically dominant opponent is to come up with a couple of quick-strike touchdowns. The Cardinals showed they have that big-play ability against Central Connecticut, when they had four different receivers catch a pass for 30-plus yards and three different running backs break off 20-plus-yard runs. The Irish were generally solid against the Wolverines in limiting downfield throws, but they did give up one 52-yard pass on a broken coverage. The re-made secondary will face another test today, especially in covering freshman Yo'Heinz Tyler, who had catches of 63 and 20 yards for touchdowns last week.
The story will be the same on offense. Brandon Wimbush should have plenty of time to throw and he will need to avoid turning the ball over. If he can do that, the Irish should be able to move the ball, especially on the ground. Central Connecticut averaged 4.6 yards per carry against the Cardinals defense. Jafar Armstrong had 17 touches in Week 1, so look for him to be a factor again today.
Look for Notre Dame to try to put this game away early and get its starters some rest in the fourth quarter. Although the Irish had more organic motivation against Michigan, they said they're ready for this in-state matchup.
"We've celebrated (beating Michigan), we loved it, it was great," Tranquill said. "But we're just 1-0. We've got 11 more to go."