*wakes up still crying and hoarse, sadly meandering down the hallway to my office in order to take this stupid call about this stupid sport that I hate but also love with everything inside me*
Woof, okay pull yourself together, Pat. We need to focus on the rest of this season, despite how crushed we all are.
*clicks “Join Call” button*
Goooood morning everyone! How are you all doing — all things considered?
Yeah, me too — definitely still exhausted and drained from Saturday, but still glad I made the trip. It was a great game and an electric atmosphere, rough ending or not.
Okay, I think this is everyone we’ll have today — I count 10 of us, and...oh, right, Jim should be here too. Well, let’s just start the meeting without him, I can’t imagine we actually need all of us to run this meeting, right?
So, Jim should have sent you the deck ahead of time...oh, he didn’t? Damnit, Jim. This is why we need all of us working together on this. Okay, I’ll follow up with him.
Anyway, I’m sharing my screen now — can you all see it?
Okay, so I’m sure you can all see that the title slide is a little different than usual. Don’t worry, the rest of this deck should still be the same basic format and agenda as always, but I just felt this was a way more fitting image to start with, considering how this program has just consistently made us believe and then ripped our hearts out in brutal fashion again and again and again and again over the last 25+ years.
We are all truly Charlie Brown, constantly being tricked by Lucy to try to kick that football of believing in this team, only to have the football yanked away again. Oof.
Anyway, let’s move past that — same agenda as always, as you can see...
And I don’t think I need to refresh you on what this project is all about, so let’s skip these next two slides.
Okay cool, so now let’s start with taking a tough look at last week’s results so we can understand what went wrong, what was still positive, and how to pick up the pieces of our hearts and move forward toward another big game this coming weekend.
Alright y’all, this is going to be painful, so I will try to keep it as concise as possible — we don’t need to dwell on the end of that game more than we already have over the last 36 hours. We’re making ourselves miserable enough as it is.
Let’s begin with the positives, because despite how things ended, there are obviously still some really good things that happened on Saturday. It’s a pretty hollow feeling when we’re always talking about moral victories and never about real ones after these big games, but the Irish went toe-to-toe with a legitimately very good team, outplayed them for much of the game (especially most of the second half), and still alllllllmost managed to win the game on the goal line with 10 people vs. OSU’s 11.
Let’s start with the defense, who, yes, crumbled on the final drive and couldn’t figure out how to substitute even coming out of a timeout, but who also held a Buckeye offense with NFL skill talent all over the place to just 17 points (including just 3 in the first half), limiting Kyle McCord to just 21-of-37 passing and 0 passing touchdowns while also limiting Ohio State to just 126 rushing yards. Nearly half of those came on the one long run by TreVeyon Henderson for a score, which was no-doubt something you can’t actually remove from the equation and a really rough play by the defense. But besides that one play, they essentially shut down this Buckeyes offense for a solid 56 minutes of game time.*
*Unfortunately, as we all know, these games last 60 minutes. But let’s not minimize the effort and toughness and solid execution from Al Golden’s group for just about the entire game. Javontae Jean-Baptiste was an absolute WARRIOR against his former team, having J.D. Bertrand back made things much better for the entire unit (8 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 PD), as did having Gabriel Rubio back up front. And guys like Howard Cross (6 tackles), Benjamin Morrison (1 tackle, 2 PD), Jordan Botelho (4 tackles, 1 sack), Thomas Harper (5 tackles), and D.J. Brown (3 tackles, 2 PD) made several really nice plays to really limit what guys like Marvin Harrison Jr., Emeka Egbuka, etc. could do.
Javonte Jean-Baptiste:— Greg Flammang (@greg2126) September 24, 2023
Tied for team lead in tackles with 8, led the team in defensive stops (failures for the offense) with 5, two quarterback hits, another quarterback hurry, zero missed tackles.
He showed out. https://t.co/8bn82kQ8ZF
Offensively, the line needs a shout-out, because they really played a good game and especially did some great things in the second half. They kept Sam Hartman from being sacked even once by a talented OSU defensive line, and only allowed 2 total tackles for loss on the evening, putting Irish ball carriers in a position to at least get back to the line of scrimmage, if not come away with a positive gain.
And they usually came away with a very positive gain, running for 4.5 YPC and 176 total on the ground. Joe Alt and co. were dealing, y’all — and the play of the interior guys was especially encouraging considering all the question marks around if they could hack it on the big stage.
The biggest positive takeaway from this game is the offensive line was phenomenal considering the opponent. Zero sacks allowed and only two tackles for loss for OSU up front.— Greg Flammang (@greg2126) September 24, 2023
That rushing attack was of course led by Audric Estime, who probably could have used a few more attempts (just 14 carries on the evening) but who still managed to pick up 70 yards and average 5 yards a-pop.
Jeremiyah Love did a great job with the handful of carries he was given, running for 57 yards on 7.1 yards per carry, with his speed being a clear difference-maker between a loss or gain of nothing and a gain of 5-10 yards. Jadarian Price also probably could have used more touches, but he was productive in the 3 carries he got, averaging 7.3 YPC. Gi’Bran Payne didn’t have a great YPC average on the night, but did score a critical rushing touchdown out of a goal line wildcat formation that broke the seal for the Irish to get them on the scoreboard and begin their 14-0 run that gave them the lead late.
Hartman didn’t have a monstrously productive game throwing the ball (17-of-25 for 175 yards and 1 TD while averaging 7 yards per attempt), but he still made several key throws throughout the game to move the chains that ND QBs of the last 5+ years absolutely could not have made (and might not have even tried). He also kept his interception-less streak going.
When he connected with his receivers, it was nearly half the time to TE Mitchell Evans, who had a helluva game after being out with an injury previously. He reeled in 7 passes for 75 yards on the night, including going UP to get a key 1st down grab on the last scoring drive for the Irish, and also making an absolutely bananas one-handed catch on another pass.
Besides Evans, Jaden Greathouse had a couple catches for 40 yards, Chris Tyree had a nice 25-yard reception, and then Rico Flores Jr. made one of the bigger catches of the evening for the Irish, snagging a 2-yard touchdown with 8:22 to play to give the Irish the lead. That catch was the finishing touch on a masterful, awesome 96-yard drive that Hartman led with multiple 25+ yard passes and multiple nice runs from Love and Estime to set up the score.
Other high-level positives on the evening included the Irish fighting back after getting down 10-0 in the 3rd quarter, when plenty of teams might have folded or panicked.
Also, the crowd and atmosphere in the stadium were fantastic (and the weather all day leading up to the game was pretty perfect, too). The Ohio State fans were certainly NOT 40% of the crowd, and they also seemed to be scattered a good amount outside of the OSU section in that top corner where the opposing teams’ ticket allotments always are. Add in the green-out to unify the look of Irish fans and the light-up LED wristbands (which looked pretty darn cool, might I add), and just the look and feel of the ND fans was something you definitely don’t get for run-of-the-mill opponents.
Add in just the energy and desire to win that the fans brought (we were standing for most, if not all, plays in our second-to-last row in the stadium), and it was LOUD for the entire game, but especially in the 4th quarter. That was an awesome experience, even if the ending was so devastatingly familiar.
Also also, I need to say that I’m sure OSU fans have earned their reputation, but my buddy Prison Mike and I lucked out with our seats, as the two guys to our left were an ND guy and an OSU guy who were friends and came together, and the OSU guy was super nice, fun to chat with, super knowledgeable about his team, ND’s team, and football in general, and even thanked us for being great hosts. And yeah, I know we really shouldn’t want opposing teams’ fans to think we’re great hosts and that the stadium should be more intimidating and hostile if we want a real home field advantage, but it’s still nice to hear from a nice opposing fan that they had an awesome time making the trip to our beloved campus.
And when I say this guy knew his shit about his team and football, I mean it — he was pointing things out that were exactly right but I hadn’t thought about, and even before a key OSU drive said, “Ryan Day loves starting these kinds of drives with screen passes, just wait.” And sure enough, play #1 was a screen pass. Wherever you are, OSU guy, thanks for not being an asshole.
Finally, I need to once again give a shout-out to Miller High Life for giving us these beautiful 32-oz. cans that I can barely grip in one hand, and also to Hamm’s for the tallboy I found under my couch when moving last year and decided it would be “christened” at a big game. Love me some comically large and comically old/questionably consumable beers!!!
Okay, now for the negatives. Again, I don’t think I need to spend TOO much time on most of these, because literally every beat writer will first, and because I’m sure you’re all probably sick of rehashing this garbage on Twitter basically since the game ended on Saturday night.
But, here at Project W.I.N. (and at sub-project L.U.C.Y.) we always make a point to acknowledge areas of opportunity so we can learn from them and improve our standard processes going forward. So, let’s do this.
Let’s start with the obvious — the coaching staff, basically across then board, completely failed in the final ~4 minutes of this game. The Irish got an absolutely bonkers 4th down stop on a COWARDLY jet sweep play-call by Ryan Day, and then picked up two quick first downs on a pass to Flores and a run by Estime, forcing OSU to call a timeout with 2:28 remaining and the Irish sitting at 1st and 10. From there, the play-calling went haywire. What looked like some sort of run-pass option left Hartman with a choice of letting his RB get lit up or keeping it to get lit up himself, choosing to keep it probably out of fear of a fumble on the transfer. Loss of 5 yards.
Then, Parker called a screen pass to Price, which we all know would have probably gone for a touchdown if Hartman had managed to get the ball over the defender’s hand. But, he didn’t. It’s a high-risk call in a situation when bleeding the clock as much as possible matters, and yeah if it works, Parker is a gutsy genius. But it didn’t work, and thus it was an absolutely horrible call — full stop. That’s how this goes, you guys.
Was probably curtains if Tuimoloau didn't bat this down pic.twitter.com/QMcc182dpB— Colton Denning (@Dubsco) September 24, 2023
So, with the clock stopped and now looking at 3rd and 15, the Irish have no choice but to not pass and make sure they can at least run some more clock before punting it away, and so they do so. After a false start (good Lord, y’all, right now???), ND punts it away to the Buckeyes 35 yard line with 1:26 to go.
So, just so we’re clear — Notre Dame had 1st and 10 and all then momentum of that 4th down stop followed by two straight 1st down plays, and managed to not only then be forced into a punt, but they only ran 1:02 of game clock while doing so, giving a very dangerous offense plenty of time to drive 65 yards for a game-winning score. Woof.
Then, we have the defensive series for the final 1:26 of the game, which was a mix of “holy shit they’re gonna pull this off” and “NO NO NO NO” plays over and over again, with the Irish defense refusing to make the plays that mattered. They had it at 3rd and 10 right out of the gate to start the drive, only to give up an easy 23-yard completion. Then, they managed to string together 3 nice plays to get the Buckeyes on a potential game-ending 4th-and-7, only for OSU to pick up the first down again.
Of course, the Irish proceeded to get the Buckeyes into a 3rd and 19 at the 22 yard line, only to allow Egbuka to reel in a catch at the 1 yard line and set up the game winner. And I won’t spend more than two sentences on the multiple plays in a row with 10 guys on the field, including coming out of a timeout and allowing the game-winning score. That’s inexcusable and it’s absolutely astonishing that the reason they didn’t try to sub someone in was a penalty — just flawed logic and showed us where Marcus Freeman is still very much learning how to do the job (I still believe in the guy and think he can keep getting better and learning, but that was a rookie-head-coach, deer-in-the-headlights mistake, y’all).
I don’t want to drag D.J. Brown for simply not managing to make that pick — yeah, he’s gotta hold onto that, but as Lee Corso used to say as one of his handful of soundbites in the old NCAA Football video games, “That’s why he’s playing defense, and not playing offense.” Brutal to look back on that now, but Brown played a decent game and put himself beautifully into position to make that pick. He just didn’t finish the play.
Other obvious negatives:
- Being shut out in the first half and only scoring 14 points in total. Gerad Parker, you took your first real test and did not do very well with it, especially seeing how many times your offense stalled out at the end of drives and going 0-for-2 on 4th down conversions. Gotta be better going forward.
- Sounds like Jayden Thomas got hurt, which is not ideal and could be pretty costly for this offense, not having a big-bodied veteran wideout. The tight ends will have to keep stepping up in his stead.
- Giving up that 61-yard touchdown run was rough — they otherwise tackled pretty well and bottled guys up, but that gave OSU momentum and gave us all PTSD remembering Ted Ginn and Ezekiel Elliott running wild on the Irish
- Spencer Shrader missing that field goal, some points that would have been nice to have!
- Not taking basically any shots downfield, even just to test the OSU DBs and/or to try to soften the defense a bit to run the ball more effectively. Hartman is a great deep-ball passer and for some reason ND is treating him a bit like he’s Ian Book in that regard
- I know they have a schedule of what they want to get recognized/promoted during each media timeout and need to make sure they get through them all, but when Marvin Harrison Jr. was limping off the field with help, ND deciding that was the right time to honor a faculty member was a weird move to me. Maybe don’t recognize so many people each game, or find a way to just recognize two people at the next timeout if a situation like that happens. Anyway, glad to see Harrison returned, as it looked pretty bad initially.
- Ryan Day being a complete weird, insecure, thin-skinned, unprofessional weirdo and fixating on Lou Holtz’s pregame comments and calling him out after the game. Just told us everything we ever need to know about that small, sad excuse for a football coach.
There’s no better feeling than being mad at an elderly person https://t.co/iJGrd83wHz— Zach Harper (@talkhoops) September 24, 2023
Ryan Day has gotten chesty for the first time in his career with an 86 year old stroke victim lmao— B1G_Ryan (@B1G_Ryan) September 24, 2023
Lou Holtz should keep going on McAfee and just go at Ryan Day every single Friday. Let's make this the best rivalry in sports. Day is rattled. Big Lou has him on the ropes and can absolutely keep it going.— Kevin Clark (@bykevinclark) September 24, 2023
Okay y’all, I think I speak for all of us when I say we need to just move on and/or try not to think about that game and the heartbreak it caused us — it’s not healthy and there’s still 7 games left in this regular season with several really strong opponents still remaining.
With that said, I’m canceling the Fun with Charts and Graphs section of the deck for this week — it will return when we’ve all earned it instead of crumbled under the pressure, and also because the less we can focus on this past week and the more we can just look ahead and keep our feet moving, the better.
So, with that said, we’re gonna quickly recognize our Team Members of the Week — because even in the tough times, it’s important to keep company morale up and celebrate the little, moral victories, even if it hurts more and more to do so in situations such as this.
Big-time shout-outs are in order for Javontae, Mitchell, Rico, Gi’Bran, Audric, Jeremiyah, J.D., Howard, Benjamin, Cam, Xavier, Jordan, Thomas, D.J., Sam, and the offensive line — hats off to all of you for showing up and making some really big plays on the biggest stage of the season. You all should have Belmont Beverage gift cards in your inboxes following this meeting, so enjoy those on us and thank you for all you do to make this company so successful!!!
Alrighty, one final thing before we turn the page and forget about Saturday night’s feeling of misery — it’s time to quickly take a look at Pat Rick’s Live Journal, which for the second week in a row is comin’ atcha from a live, in-person vantage point!!!
I’ll let you all read through that in full detail, but a few quick call-outs:
- I was so impressed with my prep work I did to pack that 2-year-old Hamm’s tallboy in multiple Ziploc bags with plenty of ice and no access to a cooler, as the beer was still pretty cold when we drank it just before heading into the stadium
- I love 32 oz. High Life cans so much, they’re so girthy
- Sometimes I forget because I go to games and only tailgate sometimes, but walking around campus before a game and just taking in the sights, sounds, beauty, electricity in the air, etc. is so freaking awesome
- My vocal cords were absolutely shredded after that game, we did some YELLIN’ in section 125, folks. Hot damn.
- Walking back to our car with the rest of the herd of fans leaving all at the same time, I had a flabbergasting and hilarious run-in with an honest-to-God, real-life “Karen.” With literally thousands of people in a huge, endless mob walking down the street toward Eddy Street Commons, some SUV felt it would be able to try and pull out of one of those little parking lots right there by the stadium and just drive out. A woman literally got out of the car and tried to stand out in front of the mob of people and block us from walking by so the car could pull out. Several of us just continued to walk past her because, well, absolutely not — and this woman proceeded to PUSH and GRAB several strangers, including yours truly, to get us not to walk across in front of this car. Setting aside that’s literally battery, where were they planning to drive??? Anyone who’s been to an ND game that wasn’t a blowout knows that the next 30 minutes are going to include that street just completely full of pedestrians — unless they planned on committing 1000+ counts of vehicular manslaughter on their rush to beat people to the toll road, they were just gonna be sitting in the middle of a crowd walking past them for the next half-hour anyway. Truly an unhinged person and I hope she never got out of there, TBH
- Driving back to Chicago after midnight is a pretty pleasant experience once you get out of gameday traffic in South Bend — traffic is my least favorite thing, and living in Chicago makes that tough to avoid. But early morning and late night driving are super pleasant and efficient.
Now, with that all said, let’s move forward — there’s still a lot of good football to be played against some very good teams, y’all. Here’s a quick look at the current Project Timeline, just as a reminder:
As you can see, the Irish are traveling to Durham, NC to take on the surprisingly good Duke Blue Devils this weekend — and College Gameday loved covering the Irish so much this past weekend that they’ve once again chosen to go where the Irish are, with Duke hosting the show on Saturday morning.
So, considering ESPN clearly considers this a big enough game to warrant having ND involved two weeks in a row, what do we need to know about Duke University and its Blue Devils football team???
Let’s start with an overview.
I’ll allow you all to commit the information on this slide to memory on your own time — but for now, here are the key highlights I want to mention:
- Duke’s motto being “Knowledge and Faith” feels like stolen valor when they play a Catholic school like the Irish — let’s take that personally and make them pay for that
- Duke’s endowment of $12.7 BILLION is the second-highest endowment of the schools on Notre Dame’s schedule (not counting Navy, who is funded by the federal government). I will keep the highest one secret, but I’m pretty sure you can guess which one it is — and DAMN if it isn’t about 3 times the size of Duke’s, which is nuts.
- Can’t decide if naming your Blue Devil mascot just “Blue Devil” is hilarious and awesome or unimaginative and boring
- You may recognize the name of Duke’s head coach, considering he’s responsible for turning ND into a defense-first program over the last 7 seasons but also left Notre Dame after one year to go work for a guy named Jimbo. So not sure how to feel about him, TBH
- Like all ND’s opponents, Duke has some funny opponents they’ve never beaten like Georgia Navy Pre-Flight, but it’s even funnier that they are 0-21 against Florida State. I knew they would not have a good record against them, but it’s wild they have a conference foe they have just simply never beaten
- An opponent like Duke with such a strong academic reputation leads to a really long list of notable alumni. I like to cut through all the boring ones, though, to find the good stuff — my favorites are on the slide, but my favorites of those favorites are definitely:
- a guy named Zephyr Teachout
- a Russian chess grandmaster
- the fact that Wikipedia included the last surviving brother of Richard Nixon as a notable alumnus
- Ron Paul
- the founder of 1-800-FLOWERS (whose name is Granville Semmes?!?)
- the inventor of CAPCHA
- Martin Kratt of Zaboomafoo
- convicted murderer Michael Peterson
- Tucker Max and Mike Posner
- Retta (Donna from Parks and Rec)
- a guy named Dick Groat
- the winner of the 1996 National Spelling Bee
- a Japanese equestrian rider who rode in the Olympics for like 50 straight years
- Bruce Springsteen’s daughter who’s also a well-known equestrian for some reason
- the guy whose name inspired the main character in Bull Durham
- Rob Lowe’s character in The West Wing.
Just an all-star lineup right there.
Oh, and I am going to mention Jabari Parker as well, just so I can post this video of Pat Connaughton posterizing him.
Hell, let’s mention Tyus Jones and Jahlil Okafor too so we can all enjoy this little number:
Okay, now let’s get to the good stuff — what are the best names on this Duke football roster?!?
There you have it, folks — you’ve got one of the best in the country in Memorable Factor, some super fun ones to say like Placide Djungu-Sungu and Moussa Kane, guys named Aeneas, Quran, and Jontavis, my guy Reagan McCranie, a name that couldn’t sound more lacrosse (Grayson Loftis), a guy named River, and of course, our main man Charlie Ham.
Honorable Mention #1: Names that are the same as famous people/characters, i.e. DeWayne Carter, DT (basically the full name of Lil’ Wayne, off by just one letter); Brandon Johnson, DB (mayor of Chicago); Jake Taylor, WR (main character in Major League and Major League II)
Honorable Mention #2: staff members with awesome names, i.e. Lyle Hemphill (Co-Defensive Coordinator/Safeties), Trooper Taylor (Associate Head Coach/Running Backs), Ishmael Aristide (Assistant Coach/Cornerbacks), Harland Bower (Assistant Coach/Defensive Ends), and Lexy Granata (Director of Internal Operations)
Okey dokey, now let’s take it another level down and dive into the key competitive insights we should know about this Duke Blue Devils team.
The Blue Devils, as we know from them hosting College Gameday this week, are having an absolutely un-Duke-like football season. They kicked off the year by shocking the Clemson Tigers with a 28-7 beatdown in Durham, and have then proceeded to blow the doors off some patsies in Lafayette, Northwestern, and UConn, outscoring opponents 149-35 through their first 4 games.
All that’s managed to get Mike Elko’s squad is a #17 ranking in the latest AP Poll, a 24th-best rating overall in SP+ (28th on offense, 24th on defense, 52nd on special teams), and a date with another top-flight opponent as the Irish come to town hot off their thriller against the Buckeyes.
Despite their comical scoring margin through four contests, the first thing to really know about this Duke team is that their offense is efficient and productive, but absolutely not dynamic or a threat to make a lot of home run plays. They’re T-28th in the country in scoring (37.3 PPG) and 28th in yards per play (6.76), but are just 49th in total offense (424.5 YPG) and are T-45th in scrimmage plays of 20+ yards, T-89th in plays of 30+ yards and T-104th in plays of 40+ yards. They are NOT a big-play squad like the Buckeyes threatened to be last weekend with all their speed and blue chip skill talent.
Instead, offensive coordinator Kevin Johns’ unit is a group that does most of their damage on the ground and picks up lots of first downs on methodical scoring drives. They’re 28th in the country in rushing offense (200.5 YPG) and a very strong 15th in YPC (5.65 yards per carry), and are tied for 2nd in rushing touchdowns with 15 through four games — all while not even running the ball THAT much (T-66th in rushing attempts per game at 35.5).
That rushing attack is led by a trio of players, including two running backs who have over 180 yards rushing on the season and average more than 5 yards per carry. Jordan Waters is RB1, having run for 258 yards and 7 scores on 6.6 yards per carry so far this season, and his running mate in the backfield is no schlub either — Jaquez Moore has 184 yards and 2 TDs while running for 5.3 yards per carry.
But the most dangerous player in the backfield, and most likely to give the Irish defense some issues, is QB Riley Leonard. The junior has run for 238 yards on 8.2 YPC so far this year, scoring 4 times and oftentimes using his legs to extend plays and drives and even make some really big plays, such as his electric TD run against Clemson.
Leonard is basically a better version of NC State’s Brennan Armstrong, whom the Irish completely shut down on the ground and forced to throw the ball to beat them (he could not). However, Leonard also has better receivers to throw to. Not only are his running backs adept at pass catching out of the backfield (7 receptions for 122 yards combined), but he’s got a couple really good wideouts he likes to toss the ball to — Jalon Calhoun (20 catches, 258 yards, 1 TD) and Jordan Moore (20 catches, 246 yards, 2 TD) — plus a solid tight end in Nicky Dalmolin (9 catches, 108 yards) and another solid player in Sahmir Hagans (11 catches, 101 yards).
Having those guys to toss it to has allowed Leonard to throw for 778 yards, 68% completion, 7.9 yards per attempt, and 2 TDs while throwing no interceptions to-date. Those obviously aren’t wildly impressive numbers (Duke is 87th in the nation in passing offense, 47th in yards per attempt, 99th in pass attempts per game, 48th in QB rating, and 28th in completion %), but do remember that the Blue Devils have blown out all their opponents, meaning they’ve been running a lot and resting starters late in games.
Add in Leonard’s legs and I feel safe in saying he’s the best QB the Irish will have faced to-date, and will probably be the 2nd best at the end of the regular season next to Caleb Williams. Kyle McCord flashed why he certainly could end up better than Leonard when his career is said and done, but Leonard is an experienced vet who can beat you multiple ways — containing him is going to be a tall task for Al Golden’s defense.
The Duke offensive line is also pretty darn solid — they won the day against a talented Clemson defensive front, and have done a great job preventing losses (T-4th in the country in sacks allowed at 0.5 per game and T-16th in TFL allowed at 3.75 per game, while being 1st in TFL yards with just 31) while enabling the offense to move the chains (T-34th in the nation in first downs per game) and stay clean from a turnover perspective (T-10th in turnover margin and T-14th in turnovers lost with just 3 this year).
One area the Blue Devils have struggled some, though, is on 3rd down conversion (T-49th at 44.4%) and in the red zone (68th in red zone score % at 84.21%). Part of that certainly comes from fewer opportunities since they’ve mostly been playing easy opponents that probably haven’t put them in many 3rd down situations, but it’s clear that the Irish defense can definitely find some success if they force the Blue Devils into some not-super-manageable 3rd down situations, and can probably save some drives by forcing field goals or even turnovers by stalling Duke out in the red zone.
On the other side of the ball, of course, is where Mike Elko has built the bedrock of his career and reputation. The former Wake Forest, ND, and Texas A&M defensive coordinator has wasted no time erecting a really good, fundamental defense that especially prides itself on shutting down opponents’ passing games. The Blue Devils are #4 in the country in total passing defense (143.3 YPG allowed) and #1 in yards per attempt allowed (a ridiculously low 4.4), while also sitting 4th in QB rating allowed, 23rd in completion % allowed (55%), T-10th in passes defended, T-15th in passing TDs allowed (just 3 total), and T-43rd in interceptions.
Yes, you could argue many of those stats are propped up against the fact they played Lafayette, Northwestern, and UConn, who are three bad teams that aren’t really known for high octane passing attacks. And you could point out that even the good team they played, Clemson, has struggled throwing the ball with new starter Cade Klubnik. But there’s no denying this Duke secondary is at the very least GOOD, likely better than a tough NC State group earlier this month and potentially on par with the Buckeyes DBs with whom Hartman and his receivers had to deal with last Saturday.
The group is led by a few corners who all have a penchant for making plays around the ball, with Chandler Rivers leading the team in tackles (25) and having 1 PD so far this year, and CBs Al Blades Jr. (9 tackles, 2 PD) and Myles Jones (6 tackles, 2 PD, 2 INT) showing some nice play-making skills as well. Add in a trio of productive safeties — Jaylen Stinson (24 tackles, 3 PD, 1 FR), Jeremiah Lewis (12 tackles, 1 PD, 1 FR), and Terry Moore (10 tackles) — and it won’t be an easy day for the Irish wideouts to get separation or for Hartman to find easy and open windows to fire the ball into.
That pass defense has been the main driver behind Duke currently being ranked T-4th in scoring defense (8.8 PPG), 5th in yards per play allowed (4.11), and 16th in total defense (276.3 YPG). That’s especially clear when you look at their rushing defense stats, which are much more mediocre. The Blue Devils are T-70th in rushing defense (133 YPG) and T-64th in yards per carry allowed (3.8), despite blowing out their opponents and thus making them need to throw the ball more to try to come back. Duke is T-10th in rushing touchdowns allowed, just giving up 2 so far this season. But that seems likely to change this Saturday, assuming the Irish can get into some goal-to-go situations.
The Blue Devils struggle up front a bit on defense, considering they’re just T-77th in sacks per game (2) and T-51st in TFL per game (6.25), meaning the Irish should be able to find success with lots of chunk gains on the ground, and Hartman should be able to find time in the pocket. The guys coming after him in the pass rush will likely be a mix of edge players like Ryan Smith and R.J. Oben (14 tackles and 2.5 sacks combined), DTs like DeWayne Carter (12 tackles, 2 PD, 1 FR TD), Aeneas Peebles (12 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 PD), and Aaron Hall (9 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 PD, 1 FF), and nose tackle Brandon Johnson, who’s had a really nice season so far from the middle with 19 tackles, 1 sack, and 3 passes defended.
Names to know at LB who will be trying to corral Estime, Price, and Love include Tre Freeman (21 tackles, 1 PD), Dorian Mausi (21 tackles, 1 PD, 1 INT), and Nick Morris Jr. (18 tackles, 1 FR). None of them are elite players at the position, but definitely capable of making some plays in the middle of the defense.
Duke is also not great at getting off the field, either on 3rd down (T-98th in the nation on 3rd down conversion % allowed at 43.1%) or in general (T-67th in first downs allowed). Considering Notre Dame is 13th in 3rd down conversion offensively (convert on 47.16% of 3rd down attempts), that could be an issue for Duke — especially in 3rd-and-short situations.
Where the Duke defense does thrive, though, is as a bend-don’t-break unit. They’re absolutely elite at preventing big plays (T-25th in plays of 10+ yards allowed, 2nd in plays of 20+ yards allowed, 1st in plays of 30+ yards allowed, T-6th in plays of 40+ yards allowed), and they’re T-2nd in red zone score %, allowing opponents to score at all on just half of their red zone trips (5-of-10, all on touchdowns). Add that they’re T-21st in turnovers gained with 8 so far this season, and it might not be easy for the Irish to do some of the things they liked doing offensively through the pre-Ohio State stretch of games.
Finally, on special teams the Blue Devils have some talent to watch out for. Punter Porter Wilson is currently 1st in the country in punting average at 52.9 yards per punt. He’s only had to punt 10 times this year, so he’s not established that average over a lot of use, but he has a long of 70 on the season and can definitely flip the field.
Todd Pelino is a very solid kicker for Duke, having hit all 18 of his extra points this year and making 5 of his 7 field goal attempts, including a long of 50. However, he’s also missed one from between 20-29 yards, so he’s not automatic by any means.
Finally, Jalon Calhoun returns punts for the Blue Devils, and he’s 11th in the country in punt return average (14.57 yards per return). He hasn’t broken one yet this year, but he’s clearly got some ability to make a man or two miss, so the punt coverage unit will need to make sure they wrap up and don’t let him get out into space to help set up great starting field position for Riley Leonard and co.
Okay folks, we’ve almost at time — let’s talk about What’s Important Now as we head into yet another really big game for the Irish.
I’ll let you read these in more detail in your own time, but here are the quick-hitting highlights:
1. Run the damn ball, early and often. Duke isn’t great against the run and can be beaten with methodical, physical drives. Clemson found a decent amount of success when they actually gave the ball to Will Shipley, but they got too cute in the passing game and had a couple devastating fumbles that killed promising drives. Parker should be able to soften that Blue Devil defense up with a healthy dosage of Estime and Price and Love., which should then open up some opportunities for Sam Hartman to make some big throws.
2. Use play-action to take some deep shots — this is a good secondary but mostly untested. Hartman is easily the best QB the Blue Devils have faced this season — by a wide margin. So I think there will be nice gains to be had through the air. But Parker needs to be smart about it and not lean completely on the pass — the big advantage for ND is still in the trenches and with the running backs. With that said, Hartman needs to be allowed to throw it deep to guys like Merriweather, Greathouse, and Tyree — or even Staes up the seam. Let those athletes run and let Hartman do what he does really freakin’ well.
3. Contain Leonard just like you did with Armstrong. Leonard is better and has better weapons to throw to, so he might make some plays with his arm throughout the game. But he’s most valuable as a mobile QB who can extend plays or tuck it and run. If the Irish can contain him like they did Armstrong in the NC State game, it will limit their offense substantially and likely lead to some opportunities for interceptions when Leonard is forced to try some things with his arm that he doesn’t normally.
4. Make tackles and shut down the run — make them beat you through the air. Slightly redundant here, but Duke is at its best offensively when able to methodically run for 5-7 yards per carry and/or having Leonard scramble for 5-15 yards. If you take away those medium-length runs and tackle well, they will struggle to string together enough positive plays to move the chains and score enough points to keep up with the Irish offense.
5. Time to start executing on forcing turnovers — takeaways are much needed. The defense played pretty damn well last weekend, but still couldn’t manage to get takeaways in a game when they could have used the momentum and extra possessions. Duke has taken care of the ball to-date, but that doesn’t mean a really good defense can’t change that. It’s time for the pass rush to actually get to the QB and for the DBs to feast on whatever spoils are tossed up in their direction.
6. Shake off last week and get ready — Duke is a good football team and beating them on the road will not be easy — can’t bring mental mistakes/penalties with ya to this one. Whether it’s penalties or missed tackles or not having 11 people on defense, this team has had some issues with some mental mistakes all season. Duke is fundamental and well coached, so the Irish need to tighten it up and out-execute Elko’s squad this weekend in order to win on the road.
Folks, that’s all we have for this week. Do you have any questions?!?
I figured not, and we need to hop off this call anyway — thank you all for joining, and be sure to look out for this deck, as I’ll be sending out the link right after we hang up. Have a great week everybody!!
*clicks “End Call” button*
Ooookay, time to go back to bed and cry out the emotions still lingering from Saturday night. I need to move on and focus on Duke, starting on Tuesday. Let’s do this.
*closes bedroom door and immediately you can hear loud sobbing noises and unholy wailing as I curse my family for making me an ND fan for life*