by John Vannie
Just when Notre Dame needed it most, the soft ACC portion of the schedule has arrived to get the Fighting Irish back into the win column. Duke is the first of three consecutive lightweights, and the teams will square off at Notre Dame on Saturday afternoon. The Blue Devils are also 1-2 following losses to Wake Forest and Northwestern, and are in the midst of a youth movement as several first time starters are coming on board following significant graduation losses. The Irish are still smarting from the physical beat down administered by Michigan State, and Coach Brian Kelly has challenged himself and his staff to address numerous fundamental breakdowns. NBC will provide national television coverage starting at 3:30 PM Eastern time.
Coach David Cutcliffe is in his ninth season at the helm, and has successfully rebuilt the program from perennial doormat to competitive respectability. His 49-55 overall record masks the fact that he guided the Devils to a 27-13 mark in the last three seasons, and the team has played in four straight bowl games after a 17-year drought. This season, both coaches face similar challenges as underclassmen are thrust into the lineup. Notre Dame is in a much better position in this regard, especially at quarterback, but inconsistent performances by veterans and poor fundamentals across the board have been the story of September.
The offense has been a point of frustration for Duke, where they managed only 37 yards against Wake Forest and 86 last week at Northwestern. Of course, ten turnovers in 12 quarters of play have not helped the situation. Quarterback Daniel Jones is a first year starter who was thrust into the lineup when injury-plagued veteran Thomas Sirk suffered a second Achilles tear just prior to the season opener. The 6’5” Jones has impressed his teammates and coaches, but a set of equally young receivers and an inconsistent line has yielded uneven results.
Notre Dame’s issues have been primarily on defense, although the running game managed only 57 yards in last week’s loss. The team has failed to register a sack in its first three games, while Duke has recorded 14. Poor tackling and a failure to create negative plays have been problematic, although the results have overshadowed strong performances to date by linebackers Nyles Morgan and James Onwualu. Both teams are relatively healthy at this stage of the season.
NOTRE DAME’s OFFENSE vs. DUKE’s DEFENSE
DeShon Kizer and the Irish represent a significantly greater challenge to the Blue Devil defense than they have seen from the likes of Wake Forest and Northwestern. The undersized visitors, who deploy a 4-2-5 alignment, are the perfect antidote for Notre Dame after last week’s embarrassment against the Spartans.
Tackle A. J. Wolf leads the defensive line and has three sacks from his interior spot. The rotation includes three true freshmen, including end James Hornbuckle. Linebackers Joe Giles-Harris and Ben Humphreys are productive although they weigh in at only 215-220 pounds. A five man secondary averaging just over 180 pounds per man rounds out the unit. Senior safety DeVon Edwards is the team’s best player, leading tackler, and a record setting kick returner during his successful career. It should be noted that most of Duke’s 14 sacks have been recorded by the linebackers and secondary, with Edwards responsible for three of them.
A blitz-happy defense may not be effective against the Irish, as Kizer has been quite successful in reading and making adjustments at the line. More importantly, Notre Dame needs to establish physical control in the trenches and regain confidence in its running game. The Blue Devils should be accommodating in this regard against an Irish front line that has something to prove.
Duke’s secondary has talent beyond Edwards, and the Irish will play into their hands if they try to rely on the pass. Cornerback Breon Borders is the active leader among all FBS players with 12 interceptions. Kelly remarked earlier this week that Borders “caught his eye” on tape. A potential matchup between Borders and Notre Dame’s Torii Hunter could be cvery interesting. Another Duke starting safety, Deondre Singleton, will sit out the first half following a targeting penalty last week.
DUKE’s OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’s DEFENSE
The Blue Devils have accumulated impressive passing statistics to date, but penalties and turnovers have ended several scoring chances. Jones has exhibited poise in the pocket and has run the ball effectively. He is second on the team in rushing attempts, just a few carries behind starting tailback Jela Duncan. Shaun Wilson is also in the mix and shares the workload with Duncan.
Duke’s receivers, as is the case with the Irish, are learning on the job. Sophomores T.J. Rahming and Johnathan Lloyd are improving each week, while a pair of seniors, wideout Anthony Nash and tight end Erich Schneider, are reliable veterans. The small but quick Rahming has emerged as a favorite target, and is used in much the same way as Notre Dame’s C.J. Sanders. To date, Jones has completed 60% of his passes with three touchdowns and two interceptions.
The Irish defensive line needs to find a way to penetrate Duke’s forward wall. The Devils have surrendered eight sacks and have been somewhat vulnerable up the middle, but Jones will hurt the Irish if he is allowed too much time in the pocket. Duke’s strength up front is on the right side with seniors Tanner Stone and Casey Blaser. Since the Devils have been unable to sustain a running game against the likes of Wake Forest and Northwestern, one would certainly expect Notre Dame’s defense to have similar success.
Much to Cutcliffe’s frustration, Duke has encountered serious malfunctions in the kicking game this season. Punter Austin Parker has dropped multiple snaps and kicker A.J. Reed has missed all three field goal attempts and an extra point. Ryan Smith has done a credible job on punt returns with a 12 yard average to date. Edwards has six career touchdowns on kickoff returns including three last season, but is off to a slow start this year with only one for 20 yards. Opposing teams obviously want to avoid him at all costs.
Irish punter Tyler Newsome has been somewhat inconsistent this month, and produced another clunker against Michigan State at an inopportune moment. Kicker Justin Yoon looks solid to date, but his only field goal attempt in the past two games has been from 21 yards. Return man C.J. Sanders has kept Notre Dame fans from heading to the concession stand or the refrigerator on fourth downs, as his often electrifying runs are not to be missed.
Notre Dame should be angry after its poor performance last week, and it will be disappointing if they don’t play with passion on Saturday. Duke is not a particularly strong opponent, however they can do damage as we’ve seen previously when an unheralded but talented quarterback has time to work against an unsettled, mistake-prone secondary.
The Irish need to stop the run, and I’m sure the defense has had quite enough of the constant reminders that they have yet to record a sack. Missed tackles, especially by defensive backs, have kept them on the field for long, painful stretches. Tackling was a focus area in practice this week, so there should be a measurable improvement. Offensively, Notre Dame can set the tone early by unleashing Josh Adams behind Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson. Adams will present a difficult challenge for the undersized Blue Devil back seven, and Kelly needs to play this trump card early and often.
Here are a few questions that will shed light on the outcome:
Can the Irish offensive line muzzle Duke’s blitzes?
Will Notre Dame be the third consecutive team to hold the Devils under 100 yards rushing?
Which young wide receiver corps will enjoy the most success?
Can the Irish special teams make a significant contribution?
Will Notre Dame’s defense force more turnovers from Duke’s mistake prone offense?
Do any of Brian Van Gorder’s 60 defensive variants require knocking down the ball carrier?
Unless this team goes completely into the tank, Notre Dame should win its next three games and face its next true test against Stanford at 4-2. Duke will improve as the season progresses and become even better next year, but they should be the perfect antidote for what ails the Irish right now.
NOTRE DAME 40 DUKE 17