The Notre Dame Fighting Irish have been not great (to be generous) to begin the 2016 college football season. Starting 1-2 and dropping into the position of “unranked,” ND now faces a less formidable stretch of football games that begins with a match-up against the 1-2 Duke Blue Devils at Notre Dame Stadium this Saturday.
Duke has been, and likely always will be, a basketball school, but they have enjoyed some moderate success over the past few years, including an appearance in the 2013 ACC title game. Despite that, they’ve lost back-to-back games to unimpressive opponents and certainly look beatable, even for a Fighting Irish squad that is more discombobulated than most of us had hoped.
So what do Irish fans need to know about the Blue Devils and their chances to extend Notre Dame’s losing streak against Power Five opponents (currently at four in a row)? Check out the points below to load up on information you can regurgitate while screaming at Kelly and VanGorder during a slow-starting first quarter.
1. They’ve got some pass-catchers out there (here we go again, ND corners and safeties)
The Notre Dame secondary has not been very good. The safeties, aside from serious promise shown by freshman Devin Studstill, have been slow and prone to missing tackles and not being present to help burnt cornerbacks.
The cornerbacks, with Shaun Crawford out for the year and Cole Luke/Nick Coleman incredibly underwhelming in just about every facet of their games, have also been sub-par through three games.
Combine the two, and you have an entire back half of a defense that cannot really be counted on. And so it is with great dismay that I inform you all, Irish fans, that David Cutcliffe’s Blue Devils have a handful of talented receivers at their disposal, and an offense prone to tossing the ball around a great deal.
Duke’s leading receivers for the season have put up some very impressive numbers through three weeks of play. Senior WR Anthony Nash (13 receptions, 177 yards) and sophomore WRs Johnathan Lloyd (11 receptions, 157 yards, 1 TD) and T.J. Rahming (18 receptions, 151 yards) have all been very productive this season in Cutcliffe’s offense that currently sits at 30th in the country in passing at 279.3 yards per game.
These three, along with the rest of the WR corps, have accounted for 64% of Duke’s offense to-date. Considering the ND secondary woes and the inevitable lack of a pass rush on Duke QB Daniel Jones, it’s not ridiculous to imagine the Blue Devils throwing the ball early and often on the Fighting Irish and finding a good amount of success there.
Furthermore, Duke probably won’t even need to sustain long, deliberate drives. Three of their top four receivers (Nash, Lloyd, and sophomore WR Chris Taylor) have at least one catch for 55+ yards in their first three games, and Notre Dame has shown a magnificent propensity for allowing exactly that kind of big play.
Two teams have allowed four plays of 60+ yards this season: Appalachian State and Notre Dame.— JJ Stankevitz (@JJStankevitz) September 18, 2016
Notre Dame should absolutely handle Duke in a fairly similar fashion to how they handled Nevada, but with the way Duke’s lone offensive strength matches up with Notre Dame’s biggest defensive weaknesses (okay, I know it’s hard to choose the biggest ones when you could literally list everything, but it’s gotta be the secondary and pass rush, right?), Duke’s offense could have a very big day and keep them competitive in this one all the way to the end.
2. Running back Jela Duncan is a bowling ball (here we go again, all ND tacklers not named Nyles Morgan)
One of the Notre Dame defense’s other big weaknesses is tackling, as players like D’Onta Foreman and Tyrone Swoopes of Texas, along with LJ Scott and Gerald Holmes of MSU, have shed many an Irish defender on their way to big runs in key situations.
Duke may be a pass-first team on offense, but they do boast a talented and experienced running back in senior Jela Duncan, a 5’10” and 215-pound mini-truck of a runner who averages 5.5 yards per carry and has already scored 3 touchdowns this season, including a 50-yarder against North Carolina Central in the first game of the year.
Granted, the bulk of Duncan’s production has come from his 115-yard, 2-TD performance in week one against said FCS school, but as you can see from the highlights above, Jela Duncan is not an easy guy to bring down.
Nyles Morgan will need to have another monster game to help compensate for his teammates’ missed tackles, and hopefully he can get a little more assistance from folks like Jarron Jones and Daniel Cage in the middle (to help out Isaac Rochell and Jerry Tillery, who were very solid against MSU) to help stuff Duncan before he can get out into space.
The Blue Devils will surely try to throw the ball on the ND secondary, but be warned - Jela Duncan is looking to make the Irish pay when he carries the rock.
3. The Duke Defense is actually pretty solid all-around
Thinking of a Cutcliffe-coached Duke squad, most fans would likely assume that they have a pass-first, high-scoring offense to try to win shoot-outs against opponents, who will score pretty much at-will on their defense. However, when you look at the stats from the first three weeks, this Duke team is quite the opposite.
The Blue Devils actually rank very low in all offensive categories except passing, currently sitting 95th in scoring, 57th in total offense, and 86th in rushing offense. The defense, on the other hand, has really graded well so far.
Duke’s defense is 32nd in scoring (18 points per game allowed), 26th in total defense (302 yards per game), 45th in rush defense (121 yards per game), and 34th in pass defense (181.3 yards per game).
Now, all of this needs to be said with a caveat - the Blue Devils have faced North Carolina Central, Wake Forest, and Northwestern so far this season. Those aren’t exactly juggernaut offenses, and so the defensive numbers are expected to look pretty good after that stretch. Still, it’s worth noting that this won’t be a unit that will roll over at the sight of McGlinchey and Nelson and Co., and will instead look to put up a very good fight.
4. Their pass rush is especially good, so Kizer and Hiestand’s boys need to be prepared
DeShone Kizer is pretty fleet of foot, and his offensive line is typically pretty good about giving him time to throw. But, there have been moments against both Texas and Michigan State’s pass rush where the offense has folded in on itself and Kizer has been sacked.
There is a very good chance that happens at least a couple more times on Saturday. Duke ranks 3rd in the country in sacks through the first three games, registering 14 so far - a number topped only by Florida (16) and Utah (15).
Key names to know in that menacing Blue Devils pass rush include senior DL AJ Wolf (3 sacks), senior DB DeVon Edwards (3 sacks), and freshman LB Joe Giles-Harris (2 sacks). A host of other players, such as DB Corbin McCarthy, LB Ben Humphreys, and DL Dominic McDonald, Trevon McSwain, and Danny Doyle all help provide that constant QB pressure (17 QB hurries).
As I said before, Duke has played three mediocre-to-bad teams so far this season. They have not yet had to face an offensive line as big and talented as Notre Dame’s (however overrated they might be after seeing three weeks of their on-field production). So, there’s a chance the Blue Devils defense struggles to get to Kizer.
However, so far in 2016, the evidence supports otherwise, so Kizer might have a long day full of scrambling out of the pocket to avoid big hits and having to make a lot of plays with his feet.
5. David Cutcliffe, known as a great QB coach, nearly got to coach Brady Quinn
Cutcliffe was fired as head coach of Ole Miss in 2004, and following that stint, he was hired to come to ND to serve as quarterbacks coach under Charlie Weis’ brand new regime (meaning he would have had Brady Quinn under his tutelage with Maurice Stovall, Jeff Samardzija, Rhema McKnight, and Anthony Fasano to throw the ball to).
However, health concerns forced him to resign before his first season, as he needed triple-bypass surgery to correct a 99%-blocked artery in 2005. In 2006, Cutcliffe returned to Tennessee (he had been offensive coordinator there in the late 1990s and coached up Heath Shuler and Peyton Manning, while also helping lead the Vols to the 1998 national championship) and revamped the Volunteers offense under Phil Fulmer before being hired by Duke as head coach in 2007.
Another fun fact: Cutcliffe coached Colorado Rockies star Todd Helton when he played QB at Tennessee.
Even better fun fact: There are lots of great Cutcliffe-raising-his-hands-in-the-air pictures out there:
Whoops, sorry...got sucked down the David Cutcliffe USA Today photo gallery rabbit hole. Happens to the best of us, I suppose.
Well, that’s all I have for today. Hopefully you learned a little something about Duke to go along with what you already knew:
- Coach K is there
- They are good at basketball things
- Shane Battier went there and loves Bud Light
- Their name rhymes with “puke,” “juke,” “kook,” “nuke,” “spook,” “rebuke,” and probably some other words
- Possibly other fun facts
Let’s all try to have some fun watching these two losing programs battle on Saturday, eh?