This Saturday afternoon in South Bend, two fantastic academic institutions will go head-to-head in the sport of football for the chance to gain a .500 record.
The Notre Dame Fighting Irish will play host to the Duke Blue Devils, their first ACC opponent of 2016. Duke comes in with the same record as ND (1-2), having lost their two preceding games to Northwestern and Wake Forest. Their one win came in the season opener against FCS school North Carolina Central.
So with very little at stake except pride and the chance to take a step in the right direction toward righting a couple of sinking ships, how do these two teams match up?
Notre Dame Offense vs. Duke Defense
The Blue Devils enter this one with a defense that currently ranks in the top 45 in the nation in all the major categories for a defense: 26th in total defense, 34th in pass defense, 45th in rush defense, and 32nd in scoring defense. Considering all four of those categories, the Blue Devils are, statistically speaking, the best defense Notre Dame has faced so far this season.
Obviously, that isn’t true. Michigan State’s defense is certainly tougher, and Texas’ squad is also likely better than Duke’s defensive unit. The Blue Devils have played an FCS school and two major conference bottom feeders, as Northwestern and Wake Forest currently rank 117th and 101st, respectively, in scoring and 108th and 102nd, again respectively, in total offense.
So, considering the high likelihood that Duke’s defense has been padding the stats against lesser opponents (two of which they lost to, mind you), it looks like the Notre Dame offense should take care of business against them.
Now, the ND offense has had its struggles this season. After scoring first against MSU, the Irish didn’t score another touchdown until late in the third quarter. They will go on streaks of poor blocking, bad throws, and poor decision-making by coaches and have shown a tendency to shoot themselves in the foot early in games.
Furthermore, the offensive line, considered to be possibly the best in the country heading into the 2016 season, has only been good, not great. Notre Dame managed to run for just over 2 yards per carry against MSU, which is abysmal considering the talent they have at running back with Tarean Folston, Josh Adams, and Dexter Williams, as well the running ability at quarterback with DeShone Kizer.
LG Quenton Nelson has been pretty stellar all year, and LT Mike McGlinchey has been solid, but the rest of the line has had serious lapses in performance that have stalled various drives.
That line will be facing a Duke defensive front that has seen excellent success in 2016 getting into the backfield, considering as a unit they have accumulated 25 tackles-for-loss, 14 sacks (3rd-most in the country) and 17 QB hurries. Northwestern and Wake Forest’s offensive lines are certainly not as big or talented as the Fighting Irish offensive front, so Duke’s production should see a serious drop-off this Saturday. Nevertheless, the Irish need to bring their A-game and dominate from the beginning, establishing the run and giving Kizer plenty of time to find open receivers against a defense that definitely has a few playmakers.
Up front, the Blue Devils boast a host of players who can make an impact, including LBs Joe Giles-Harris (25 tackles, 1 INT, 2 sacks) and Ben Humphreys (19 tackles, 1 sack, 2 QB hurries) and defensive linemen AJ Wolf (3 sacks), Danny Doyle (1 sack), and Mike Ramsay. They will be without one of their starters on the line, though, due to injury:
Starting DE Dominic McDonald will not play for Duke at Notre Dame. Shoulder injury. Danny Doyle will start. Hornbuckle, Lucas backups.— Stephen Wiseman (@stevewisemanNC) September 22, 2016
If the ND offensive line can handle the Duke defensive front as they should, then the running game can get going again as Folston and Adams and Williams and Kizer get into the second level, opening things up for the passing game.
When Kizer’s throwing the ball, he will have some very talented guys to throw to, as Torii Hunter Jr. (9 catches, 132 yards, 1 TD), Equanimeous St. Brown (15 catches, 243 yards, 3 TD), and CJ Sanders (10 catches, 154 yards, 2 TD) have all shown consistency and playmaking ability in the first quarter of the season. Reserves Corey Holmes, Kevin Stepherson, and Chase Claypool have also proven themselves capable and provide solid depth at the position.
The Duke secondary will give those guys a pretty good fight, though, as players like DeVon Edwards (28 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 forced fumble this season), Corbin McCarthy (15 tackles, 1.5 sacks), and Breon Borders (2 INT, 5 pass break-ups) have shown they can make plays and wreak havoc both in coverage and in the backfield.
Edwards has been a consistent playmaker in the Blue Devils defense his entire career, as he currently has 326 career tackles, which is 3rd among active players. Borders holds a similar rank when it comes to his 12 career interceptions, as that stat has him tied for first among active players.
So looking at all of this, the Duke defense definitely has some ability to slow down Kizer and the squad come Saturday afternoon. However, considering their stats are inflated due to their competition to-date, I feel confident in saying that the Irish will begin to pull away as the line clears some holes for Adams and Folston and Williams and the receivers and Kizer start to consistently beat the Blue Devils secondary through the air.
Duke Offense vs. Notre Dame Defense
On offense, Duke is fairly one-dimensional in that they rank 30th in the country in passing offense (passing makes up 64% of their offensive production) but 86th in rushing. Coach David Cutcliffe has quarterback Daniel Jones tossing the ball around a lot, and Jones has looked decent so far with 800 yards, 2 touchdowns, and a 61.3% completion rate. He’s thrown two picks as well, though, and 2 TDs through 3 games (against NCC, Northwestern, and Wake Forest, no less) is definitely not anything Notre Dame needs to be scared of going into Saturday’s contest.
But, with the volume at which they throw, the Blue Devils could still do some damage against an ND secondary that keeps finding new ways to look hopelessly lost. Duke WRs Anthony Nash (13 receptions, 177 yards), Johnathan Lloyd (11 receptions, 157 yards, 1 TD), and T.J. Rahming (18 receptions, 151 yards) have all looked good through the first three games, and give Jones plenty of talent with which to work.
Furthermore, in a game against a defense prone to giving up big plays, three of Duke’s four top receivers having at least one catch for 55+ yards so far this season definitely helps the Blue Devils and does not bode well for the ND defense:
Two teams have allowed four plays of 60+ yards this season: Appalachian State and Notre Dame.— JJ Stankevitz (@JJStankevitz) September 18, 2016
However, those numbers and big plays again need to be taken with a grain of salt. For however bad the Notre Dame secondary has looked against Texas and Michigan State, they are still light years ahead of NCC, Northwestern, and Wake in terms of talent, and Duke’s receivers are definitely not tougher to cover than Texas’ or Michigan State’s guys. This will come down to players like Nick Coleman (14 tackles, 1 pass break-up) and Cole Luke (9 tackles, 1 pass break-up) doing their jobs and safeties Devin Studstill and Drue Tranquill staying disciplined. If they do so, they might actually find some success here.
Running the ball, Duke has a stout, strong running back by the name of Jela Duncan who will be looking to continue the trend of ball carriers breaking tons of Irish tackles. He’s run for 193 yards so far this season, averaging 5.5 yards per carry and scoring 3 touchdowns.
However, 115 of those yards and 2 of those touchdowns came against North Carolina Central. Duncan is averaging 39 yards per game against FBS opponents, so as long as Nyles Morgan continues to make tackles and the defensive line even somewhat holds the point of attack, the Irish shouldn’t (this being the operative word, as you never know with a VanGorder defense) have any issues stopping the run.
Considering Duke is 95th in the country in scoring offense and that their defense has not yet encountered an offense even close to ND’s in terms of talent, I think the Fighting Irish win this one going away.
However, the first quarter could easily contain another slow start for Notre Dame and possibly one or two big plays by the Duke passing game and/or secondary that put the fear of
God Blue Satan into the Irish faithful.
Eventually, though, the offense will get going (including running the ball successfully again!!!), the defense will begin to dominate (and maybe even get its first sack??), and by the end of it all Malik Zaire will be running the offense and lots of freshmen will be playing on defense, signaling that Notre Dame has gotten back to a .500 record and hopefully can start a string of easy, momentum-building wins that work out some kinks and get the team better prepared for the second half stretch, which begins with Stanford coming to town in mid-October.
Notre Dame 45, Duke 20
Go Irish, and as always, feel free to leave your own predictions in the comments below!