After all the recaps and reviews of last season, it is finally time for some Notre Dame Fighting Irish football in 2020. Tomorrow, the Irish will begin life in the ACC by welcoming the Duke Blue Devils to South Bend, a matchup that did not play out well the last time the Blue Devils were in town in 2016 and saw the firing of Brian VanGorder following the game. But last November the Irish travelled to Duke as eight point favorites and exited with a 38-7 win. Instead of a more traditional preview, this will focus on the advanced statistics of both teams’ returning players and their respective performances in 2019. For a primer on the metrics that will be used, please follow this link to our One Foot Down debut article.
Notre Dame Offense vs. Duke Defense
The defense was the strength of Duke’s team last season, ranking above average both against the pass (-0.03 EPA/Play, 47th) and the run (0.01 EPA/Play, 47th). Their best defensive players are Redshirt Junior Chris Rumph II, a projected First Round draft pick, and senior defensive end Victor Dimukeje, a fearsome pass rusher but not as much of a force in the run game. With two skilled edge rushers looking to put pressure on Book early and often (Book averaged -0.21 EPA and 3.6 yards per play under pressure last season), Tommy Rees might rely on the play action game a lot in this one in order to disrupt the timing and get off of the two pass rushers.
Notre Dame Passing
Book will also be forced to throw without his three favorite targets from last year in Cole Kmet, Chase Claypool, and Chris Finke, with 62.5% of Book’s 2019 completions going to the trio. Interestingly, four of the five returning players from last year with the most receptions (McKinley being the exception) are currently listed as backups or worse on the depth chart. It will be extremely interesting to see how these “backups” get utilized, as I imagine Irish fans will see heavy doses of Tommy Tremble and Braden Lenzy on Saturday despite their depth chart status. Both players were very efficient in their limited opportunities in 2019, averaging 1.54 and 1.77 EPA per catch, respectively.
Notre Dame Rushing
With Duke faring pretty similarly against the pass and run, Brian Kelly preferring a pretty balanced attack (49.7% pass rate, 63rd in the country), expect a heavy dose of the run game. Book averaged 0.41 EPA on 11 carries against a very similar Duke defense last year. Book was also an extremely efficient scrambler last season, producing 0.36 EPA and 7.7 yards per play, so expect to see him show off his legs on Saturday. We don’t know much yet about Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree aside from their pedigree. But given the ineffective play last year from Jahmir Smith, C’Bo Flemister, and Jafar Armstrong, who all averaged negative EPA per carry, tells us the coaching staff clearly sees them as an upgrade to last year’s group.
Shifting over to Duke’s offense, it’s impossible to not begin with Clemson transfer quarterback, Chase Brice. Brice was unable to beat out Trevor Lawrence for the Clemson job (get it together Chase it’s not like he’s that good) and now unites with Duke head coach and quarterback whisperer David Cutcliffe for his Redshirt Junior season. Brice mostly played in mop up duty for the Tigers, as he started the 2018 season third on the depth chart behind Lawrence and Kelly Bryant and served as Clemson’s backup last year.
Most people know Brice for replacing the injured Lawrence against Syracuse in 2018, coming back from a 16-7 deficit and pulling out a win. While the result was impressive, Brice was actually quite bad in relief. He gained just four yards per pass and actually averaged negative EPA per play. The Tigers leaned heavily on running back Travis Etienne in the second half, averaging an absurd 0.37 EPA and 7 yards per play on 20 carries. In his other appearances for the Tigers he was fine but did not put up the level of performance expectedof someone with his recruiting ranking playing with the type of weapons Clemson has. While the label “former Clemson Quarterback” does make Brice a bit scarier than the traditional graduate transfer, there isn’t much to be concerned about given what we’ve seen so far from his limited sample size.
Duke Offense vs. Notre Dame Defense
The Blue Devils offense was a nuclear wasteland last season, and that is putting it lightly. They averaged a paltry 4 yards per pass attempt and NEGATIVE 0.31 EPA/pass, finishing only above Vanderbilt and Maryland among Power 5 teams. Duke fared slightly better running the ball, averaging 4.2 yards per carry and only losing -0.11 EPA/attempt. Deon Jackson leads the attack on the ground for Duke, averaging 3.7 yards and -0.12 EPA/attempt last season. Although he ran for 5.3 yards per carry in 2018 and earned Second Team All-ACC honors in the process, his advanced metrics were nearly identical to his 2019 numbers, running for -0.13 EPA/play, a 32.1% Success Rate, and 22.1% First Down Rate. The lofty 2018 yards per carry number is misleading and he actually hurt the Blue Devils chances of scoring when he had the ball in his hands. He might be featured prominently on Saturday, but Duke’s chances rest in Chase Brice’s hands.
Likely future NFL Draft choice tight end Noah Gray is an excellent athlete the Irish will have to account for defensively. He had the most EPA receiving for the Blue Devils last season, and was the second most efficient EPA receiver on the team who had more than ten catches. Jalon Calhoun is also a threat, as he led the Blue Devils in receptions last year as a freshman, but was only able to haul in three passes for eleven yards in last year’s matchup with the Irish. He will likely draw NC State transfer cornerback Nick McCloud in coverage, so keep an eye on who the Irish line up against the young star.
Clark Lea’s unit had another elite performance in 2019, finishing only behind Clemson and Ohio State in EPA/pass and fielding an above average run defense. Similar to last year, the Irish lost many key contributors to the NFL and graduation. A step back from last year’s performance, especially against the pass, is to be expected. But there is an abundance of talent, albeit unproven, on the defensive line, and some guy is apparently taking over at safety that’s supposed to be pretty good. Jokes aside, this unit should be still be very formidable and will get to work out the kinks against a likely overmatched Blue Devils offense tomorrow.
This game shouldn’t be close. While Duke had an above average defense last year, their offense shouldn’t be able to keep up with the Ian Book and co. in this one. Bill Connelly’s SP+ metric, that factors in returning production, recent history, and recruiting, doesn’t see the Blue Devils improving much on the offensive side of the ball either despite the addition of Chase Brice, rating them 115th. And despite the Irish losing several key contributors on offense, they are currently projected to have the 10th best offense as well as the 20th best defense, according to the same metric. Notre Dame should win in a blowout and expect to see a lot of freshmen and young players get some reps in the second half.