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Notre Dame Football: Duke Blue Devils Preview

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Notre Dame has to play Duke again. It will hopefully not be like last time.

NCAA Football: Duke at Wake Forest Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

You guys are never going to believe this, but the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team has yet ANOTHER game this weekend.

Yes, I know, it’s wild.

The 6-2, #15 Irish travel to Durham to face off against Coach David Cutcliffe and his 4-4 Duke Blue Devils tomorrow, and after the past two games for Notre Dame, it goes without saying that even Duke can make us uneasy about how our team will perform...especially remembering the last time ND took on the Blue Devils.

Sorry about that, you’ll probably want to toss some acid into your eyes really quick. Maybe watch this to get some positive feelings back in ya?

Once you’ve done that, let’s move past watching a BVG defense lose to Duke at home and focus on Clark Lea’s squad hopefully turning it up a notch while the offense does the same, eh?

Here’s how the two teams match up.

Duke Offense vs. Notre Dame Defense

The Duke Blue Devils offense is not particularly great this season. They’re ranked 95th offensively in SP+ and are 100th in total offense (66th in rushing, 103rd in passing). Furthermore, they average less than 30 points per game, 64th in the country in scoring offense.

Meanwhile, Clark Lea’s defense has, besides the Michigan game, proven to be very consistent and pretty stingy, ranked 29th in SP+ ratings, 33rd in total defense, and 28th in scoring defense. On paper, this group should suffocate the Blue Devils and it should be smooth sailing for the Irish.

Unfortunately, that’s not how things have gone for the Irish lately, and Duke brings another dual-threat QB and some explosive offensive weapons to the table that could cause some issues.

Let’s start with the Duke passing game, which is certainly their weakness, which is odd considering David Cutcliffe is known for being such a good developer of QBs and a strong offensive mind. However, with the departure of 1st Round pick Daniel Jones, Quentin Harris has stepped in as QB1, and although he’s been decent passing the ball, he also hasn’t seen a pass defense as good as ND’s since the opener vs. the Alabama Crimson Tide. Duke lost that game 42-3 while Harris went 12-for-22 for 97 yards, 0 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions.

NCAA Football: Duke at North Carolina Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

Indeed, the Irish’s pass defense is 14th in the country in passing yards allowed per game, and 19th in yards allowed per passing attempt, surrendering just 6.28. That group, as we all know at this point, is led by a bevy of veteran guys that includes a pair of senior captains at safety — Alohi Gilman (46 tackles, 1 INT, 1 FF, 1 FR) and Jalen Elliott (29 tackles, 2 PD, 2 INT) — as well as reliable cover guys Troy Pride Jr. (27 tackles, 5 PD) and Shaun Crawford (17 tackles, 2 PD, 1 INT). That nucleus of seniors does a fantastic job of not letting receivers get behind them for many big plays, and none of them shy away from contact or making key tackles in space.

Along with those older guys, there have been a couple of youths making waves in the secondary, as TaRiq Bracy (21 tackles, 5 PD, 1 FF, 1 FR) stepped up in Crawford’s absence while he was injured, and freshman Kyle Hamilton has been better than advertised — 28 tackles, 3 PD, 3 INT (1 TD) — which is saying a lot for the 5-star talent.

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

The continued strong play from that group will be important, as Harris has been able to find some success this year with some pretty dynamic receivers running routes for him. The leader of that group has been WR Jalon Calhoun, who’s hauled in 37 passes for 294 yards and 3 touchdowns so far this season.

WR Scott Bracey is a big-play, home run threat kind of guy who’s got 257 yards and a pair of scores on just 19 catches, and Aaron Young has been equally strong with 18 catches, 234 yards, and two touchdowns himself. Add in TE Noah Gray’s 32 receptions for 238 yards and 2 scores, along with the unbelievable catch-to-touchdown ratio of Eli Pancol — 4 catches on the year, 3 touchdowns scored — and the Blue Devils have some skill guys who can hurt you if allowed to get open.

Running backs Deon Jackson and Mataeo Durant, in fact, are pretty strong in the passing game as well, combining for 28 receptions, 262 yards, and 3 touchdowns out of the backfield.

Of course, none of this will matter if QB Quentin Harris can’t get the ball consistently to those guys — especially considering they won’t be open every play with that vaunted Irish pass defense hounding them on their routes.

Harris is an okay passer, having tossed the ball for 1,500 yards and 13 touchdowns so far in 2019 while completing passes at a 61% clip. However, he’s averaging just 6.1 yards per attempt through the air, and has managed to throw 7 interceptions already, meaning the Irish secondary has to be licking their chops a bit, hoping Harris takes the wrong chance out there.

One way Clark Lea can help nudge Harris in that direction will be by hitting him with a good pass rush that gets to the QB, hits him often, contains him in the pocket while collapsing said pocket, and piles up the sacks. The defensive end duo of Julian Okwara (16 tackles, 4 sacks, 2 FF, 1 FR) and Khalid Kareem (28 tackles, 4.5 sacks) are WAY overdue for a repeat of the 2nd half performance against the Virginia Cavaliers, and Harris is similar in a lot of ways to Perkins in terms of his being a decent passer and a VERY dangerous runner.

Bowling Green v Notre Dame Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

If Okwara and Kareem — in conjunction with key reserves Adetokunbo Ogundeji and Jamir Jones (combined 32 tackles, 4 sacks, 3 FF, 1 FR TD) and linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (4 sacks) — can put frequent heat on Harris and make sure he’s bottled up and taken to the turf often, the Irish will really be in business, considering how one-dimensional that kind of effort will make the Blue Devils.

Duke’s got an okay running game, and Notre Dame’s rush defense definitely leaves something to be desired (72nd in total rushing defense, 61st in yards allowed per rush at 4.03), so this would be where the Blue Devils could do some damage if the defense isn’t able to take away the pass and focus heavily on stopping the run.

Deon Jackson leads Duke in rushing with 487 yards and 5 touchdowns while averaging a decent 3.9 yards per carry, and his backup Mataeo Durant is solid as well with 248 yards, 3.8 yards per carry, and a rushing touchdown of his own.

Add in Harris and his 408 yards and 6 rushing touchdowns while averaging 3.9 yards per scramble, and Duke would have the weapons necessary to gash the Irish on the ground if they’re having to invest too much in preventing big passing plays.

The most important guys in containing Jackson, Harris, and Durant will be the Irish linebackers. The trio of Asmar Bilal (51 tackles), Drew White (48 tackles, 1 sack), and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (45 tackles, 1 FF, 1 FR) have had their ups and downs this year, but if they can pick the right gaps to shoot and be as sure-tackling as we’ve seen them be, Duke will struggle to move the ball, considering their limitations through the air.

NCAA Football: New Mexico at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

It will also be important that Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa (16 tackles, 1 FR), Kurt Hinish (13 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 FF), and Jayson Ademilola (16 tackles) continue to get a good push in the middle and clog things up, giving the linebackers time to read the run and make plays.

Offensive Blue Devil to Watch

QB Quentin Harris

If Harris can find just an iota of success through the air tomorrow, it will go a long way in terms of keeping the Irish defense honest and giving the Blue Devils running game some room to work. That plus some big scrambles to keep the chains moving will allow the Dukies to hang around in this one, and with the game played in Durham, who knows what could happen if Duke’s still there at the end of the line.

NCAA Football: Duke at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive Irish to Watch

DE Julian Okwara

The man was a preseason All-American and projected first round pick, but he’s been incredibly quiet for much of the year. Some of it can be chalked up to teams keying on him and double-teaming him and getting the ball out quick so he’s less effective, but he’s also seemed to disappear at times. With the team still struggling quite a bit, an explosive, loud game from the senior captain would go a long way toward energizing the team and potentially spurring a blowout road win.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 14 New Mexico at Notre Dame

Halftime Funtime

Best Names in the Game

  1. Notre Dame RB C’Borius Flemister
  2. Notre Dame LS Axel Raarup
  3. Notre Dame S Litchfield Ajavon
  4. Duke PK Charlie Ham
  5. Duke S Lummie Young IV
  6. Notre Dame TE Tommy Tremble
  7. Duke OT Peace Addo
  8. Duke LB Koby Quansah
  9. Notre Dame DL Hunter Spears
  10. Duke LS Lee Rodio
  11. Notre Dame LB Ovie Oghoufo
  12. Duke WR Damond Philyaw-Johnson
  13. Notre Dame DE Nana Osafo-Mensah
  14. Duke RB Brittain Brown
  15. Duke G Rakavius Chambers
  16. Notre Dame CB Temitope Agoro
  17. Notre Dame DE Adetokunbo Ogundeji
  18. Duke QB Gunnar Holmberg
  19. Notre Dame RB Jafar Armstrong
  20. Duke LB Sayyid Stevens

Devil Power Rankings, No Context or Explanation Given

  1. Devil’s Food Cake
  2. A “devil may care” attitude
  3. Tasmanian Devil (cartoon character)
  4. Tasmanian Devil (animal)
  5. “Speak of the devil”
  6. Playing Devil’s advocate
  7. “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” by The Charlie Daniels Band
  8. The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
  9. “The devil is in the details”
  10. Devil (2010), which has the following description on IMDB: “A group of people are trapped in an elevator and the Devil is mysteriously amongst them”
  11. Geographical features named after the Devil
  12. Arizona State Sun Devils
  13. Deviled eggs
  14. Lucifer/Satan (like, just the actual Devil)
  15. “Devil in Disguise” by Elvis Presley
  16. Make a deal with the devil/sell your soul to the devil
  17. New Jersey Devils
  18. Duke Blue Devils

Notre Dame Offense vs. Duke Defense

Whereas the Notre Dame defense appears to have a lot of advantages over the Duke offense, what should be much more interesting is the matchup between the ND offense and the Blue Devil defense.

Both are ranked 37th in the SP+, and although the Irish are 39th in scoring offense while Duke is just 55th in scoring defense, Duke’s defense does a pretty good job of limiting offensive production overall (40th in total defense) while the Irish struggle a bit in producing great raw offensive output (58th in total offense).

Thus, it should be fun to see if offensive coordinator Chip Long is able to change up his game plan a bit after a horrid performance in the rain at Michigan and a mostly bad follow-up against a Virginia Tech defense that rates lower than Duke’s.

NCAA Football: Wake Forest at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

The key, no doubt, will be QB Ian Book and his continued search for redemption after some disappointing games earlier in the season. Book has been fairly productive overall with 1,828 yards and 17 touchdowns this season, and has done a great job in limiting turnovers, throwing just 4 interceptions.

However, his accuracy (58% completion) has dipped substantially — roughly 10 percentage points — since last season, and persistent issues with abandoning the pocket early and not being able/willing to toss deep balls to a nice array of deep threats has left the offense an incomplete mess that really has trouble driving down the field and scoring against competent defenses.

Duke’s pass defense is its strength on that side of the ball, as the Blue Devils are 43rd in the country in passing defense and 27th in yards allowed per passing attempt (6.75). Their secondary includes a number of guys with a penchant for making plays on the ball, like safeties Marquis Waters (43 tackles, 5 PD, 2 INT) and Michael Carter II (37 tackles, 3 PD) and corners Leonard Johnson (33 tackles, 5 PD, 2 INT, 1 FF, 1 FR) and Josh Blackwell (18 tackles, 4 PD).

NCAA Football: Duke at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Add in Dylan Singleton, who is 2nd on the team in tackles with 55 (plus 2 FF and 1 FR), and Jalen Alexander, who has 2 picks himself in 2019, and it’s obvious that Duke’s secondary is entirely capable of making some big plays, especially if Ian Book manages to make some big mistakes and throw the ball into risky spots like he did against Georgia and Virginia Tech.

Book will especially be interesting to watch due to Duke’s solid pass rush they’ll send his way — the Blue Devils are tied with Notre Dame for 35th in the country in team sacks, and have multiple guys who really know how to get to the QB and wreak havoc. DE Victor Dimukeje is the guy to watch in that regard, as he’s already got 6.5 sacks on the season and will surely have been told by his coaching staff that his ability to put pressure on Book will force him to ditch his progressions, scramble, and hopefully do much less damage than what could be done by standing in and patiently finding open receivers downfield.

Alongside Dimukeje, look for defensive ends Chris Rumph II (30 tackles, 3 sacks, 3 PD) and Tre Hornbuckle (24 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 2 FF) to be causing some issues — especially considering the recent injury to starting right tackle Robert Hainsey, as he is done for the season with a broken ankle.

NCAA Football: Alabama vs Duke Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive tackles Trevon McSwain and Edgar Cerenord (combined 36 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 2 FF, 1 INT) provide some decent heft in the middle and could cause issues as well, what with RG Tommy Kraemer out with a sprained MCL. How Duke attacks that weakened right side of the ND offensive line, and how reserves Trevor Ruhland and Josh Lugg hold up, will be critical for how much time Book even has to pass tomorrow.

If Book does find himself with decent protection, he will of course first look to his two go-to targets, Chase Claypool and Cole Kmet. Claypool was once again fantastic and critical to the team’s success in the 21-20 win over the Hokies last weekend, as he reeled in 8 passes for 118 yards, including multiple HUGE, clutch catches on the final scoring drive for the Irish. On the season, Claypool has amassed a stat line of 37 catches for 554 yards and 4 touchdowns.

Kmet has probably not been targeted in this offensive game plan as much as fans would like, but he’s still a major mismatch whenever he’s out there running routes, and in 6 games has been able to snare 27 balls for 318 yards and 5 touchdowns, which is pretty damn good considering the roller coaster ride this offense has been on this year.

Along with Claypool and Kmet, look for Book to hopefully sprinkle in passes to guys like Javon McKinley (11 rec, 268 yds, 4 TD), Chris Finke (20 rec, 233 yds, 1 TD), and Tommy Tremble (11 rec, 145 yds, 3 TD). Avery Davis and Braden Lenzy (17 rec, 232 yds, 3 TD combined) could also add a spark or two if given the chance, considering their speed and cutting ability.

If Duke is successful in pressuring Book and taking him out of his game through the air, the Irish will HAVE to be running the ball successfully to have a shot at winning this game. Rush defense is not really a strong suit for this Duke defense (54th in rushing defense, 53rd in yards per rush allowed), but unfortunately for us Irish fans, the ND rushing offense has not exactly been dominant this year (72nd in the country in total rushing, 63rd in yards per rush). Considering 40% of the starting offensive line is out, it might be a long day for Tony Jones Jr. and Jafar Armstrong in trying to get things going on the ground.

Virginia Tech v Notre Dame Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

Jones Jr. has been very good this season, having run for 571 yards and 4 touchdowns while averaging 6.5 yards per carry. He sat out the Virginia Tech game after injuring his ribs against Michigan, but will supposedly be good to go tomorrow in Durham. The Irish could certainly use him back, considering his powerful, agile running style and consistent ability to move the chains if given just a sliver of room to work with by his offensive line.

Jafar Armstrong, meanwhile, has been hurt for much of the season, and since returning from injury has really done nothing of note, running for just 46 yards and averaging a paltry 1.8 yards per carry. Jahmir Smith has actually been the second-best back for the Irish, running for 4.5 yards per carry while accumulating 122 yards and 2 touchdowns this year.

Of course, I’d be remiss in talking about the ND rushing offense if I left out Ian Book and his 251 yards and 4 touchdowns on the ground, including the game winner against VaTech last weekend. For all the flaws Book has, he’s still a very good runner for a QB, and definitely uses his legs pretty well when necessary to turn losses into gains, move the chains, and give defenses fits.

On Saturday, there will be a trio of linebackers tasked with running him down and making sure Irish ball carriers can’t find any space in the second level in general. Koby Quansah is the leader of that group, considering his 72 tackles (plus 1.5 sacks, 2 PD, 1 FR), and along with Brandon Hill (50 tackles, 1 sack, 3 PD) and Shaka Heyward (33 tackles, 1 sack, 2 FR), they definitely have the skill and aggression necessary to bottle up the ND run game if the offensive line struggles to get a good push up front.

Georgia Tech v Duke Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Defensive Blue Devil to Watch

DE Victor Dimukeje

We know at this point that getting into Ian Book’s face, like with many other QBs, is the best way to force him to make mistakes, abandon plays early, etc. Dimukeje is an excellent pass rusher, and with junior captain Robert Hainsey out for the rest of the year, Dimukeje may have free reign at times in getting to the ND QB. If that’s indeed the case — watch out, folks.

NCAA Football: Duke at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Offensive Irish to Watch

QB Ian Book

Guess who! Book played a bit better last week, but the offense still struggled mightily and Book made some near-critical mistakes that he simply shouldn’t be making at this point. Duke’s got a solid defense, and with the right side of the o-line out, Book will need to elevate his game and make some dazzling passes and runs to ensure the Irish come away from North Carolina with a W.

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams???

Duke’s kicker, AJ Reed, has not missed a kick this season. He is 27-for-27 on extra points and 9-for-9 on field goals. Folks, it’s time for that to change, amiright???

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 19 Duke at Virginia Photo by Lee Coleman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Meanwhile, ND’s Jonathan Doerer has been pretty damn good himself, making all 32 of his PAT tries while also hitting 6 of his 8 field goals.

Duke is rated a bit better in special teams than the Notre Dame — the Blue Devils are 31st in SP+ vs. 44th for the Irish — but I don’t anticipate special teams playing too huge of a role in this one (and of course, in saying that, I have all but ensured that Duke will run back a kickoff or ND will block a field goal or something).

Alright, Let’s Predict the Result of This One

Notre Dame 33, Duke 20

Duke is better than Virginia Tech for sure, so this won’t be an easier match-up than last weekend, especially on the road and with some injuries taking their toll. But with that said, I think the Irish are going to once again improve their play week-over-week, we’ll see some big turnovers from the defense, and Ian Book and his squad will be just good enough to make this a comfortable final score despite a decently close game happening throughout. Sorry, David Cutcliffe!