Head to Head: Duke
Observer Sports Staff | Friday, November 8, 2019
Notre Dame Passing
After an abysmal performance at Michigan — including but not limited to a 32% completion rate from Irish quarterback Ian Book — it seemed like Notre Dame would use the Virginia Tech game to reestablish their game through the air, reenergizing a struggling receiving corps. The Irish certainly drew up the passing game, with Book connecting for 336 yards, his second highest of the season. But to go with his two passing touchdowns were two interceptions from senior QB1, resulting in his second-lowest rating of the year at 59.2.
At this point, Book’s most reliable weapons are the tight ends, with junior Cole Kmet leading the Notre Dame offense with five receiving scores. In order to have success in Durham this week, however, Book might need to get out of his comfort zone and throw some longer balls. With a pass defense that’s 40th in FBS, Duke will have trouble shutting Notre Dame down if the Irish show up in the way they’re capable.
EDGE: Notre Dame
Notre Dame Rushing
The fact of the matter is that injuries can be a cruel mistress in college football, and that’s the case here. Head coach Brian Kelly said the coaches “expect” senior Tony Jones Jr. to return from a rib injury against Duke; while that certainly helps the run game, the loss of lineman Robert Hainsey for the year, in addition to losing lineman Tommy Kraemer for at least the remainder of the regular season, severely hinders the Irish rushing attack. Notre Dame rushed for 106 yards on 38 carries against Virginia Tech, good for only 2.8 yards per carry against a defense that gives up 3.9 yards per rush. The absence of Jones didn’t help. While Jafar Armstrong showed some of the receiving ability many hoped from him out of the backfield, he showed he really was a converted wide receiver by being the first Irish running back to lose a fumble since 2015. The Blue Devils give up 3.8 yards per carry, comparable to the Hokies, while the Irish have struggled on the ground against decent run defenses. It’s a perfect storm for the Blue Devils ground defense in this one.
Notre Dame Offensive Coaching
While blame among the Notre Dame offense has fluctuated predominantly between Ian Book and Chip Long, it seems to be evening out after Book’s game-winning drive against Virginia Tech. Book has his shortcomings as a quarterback, decision-making not among the least of them. Long has done a decent enough job of getting receivers open if Book will wait long enough, as they were against Michigan, but that may not be an option anymore with two starting O-linemen out for the season. Long has to step up his game on the sideline to get the most he can out of an offense with an inconsistent and injury-plagued run game. The Blue Devils have given up 33 points to Pittsburgh and 48 points to Virginia, and they allow 206.6 passing yards per game, but with the weakened Irish ground game they may simply drop back and let a good defensive line fight it out in the trenches. Still, Long has fresh confidence in his unit and enough talent at his disposal that they should edge out the Blue Devils defense, even in Durham.
EDGE: Notre Dame
Notre Dame Offensive Special Teams
Notre Dame’s offensive special teams has shown signs of promise this season, and kicker Jonathan Doerer has come up in some big spots. Notre Dame is No. 102 in the nation in special teams efficiency, which is nothing special. But Duke’s defensive special teams is nothing to write home about either. Plus, now that Jafar Armstrong is back for the Irish, Notre Dame has another weapon on the kick return, as Armstrong has shown he can surprise. It’s reasonable to say Armstrong being back, along with Doerer’s improvement on the season, gives the Irish the edge here.
EDGE: Notre Dame
The Blue Devils have had five quarterbacks appear in eight games. A lot of that has to do with their offensive scheme, but Duke’s go-to guy is Quentin Harris. Harris has thrown for 1,500 yards on the season, but he’s also thrown seven picks. For the Blue Devils, Harris hasn’t been of the caliber of Daniel Jones, who the Blue Devils surely wish they had back. Ultimately, Notre Dame’s defensive pass rush has put on solid performances against quarterbacks far better than Harris, including Georgia’s Jake Fromm, so the Irish should be able to maintain Duke’s air attack.
EDGE: Notre Dame
Unlike most other opponents who have one dominant running back that the Irish have to target, the Blue Devils have two threatening targets — running back Deon Jackson and quarterback Quentin Harris. With Jackson in the backfield, the Notre Dame defense will have to be aware of both of their abilities to create on the ground, each having recorded over 400 rushing yards so far. Although not horrible, Notre Dame’s defensive line has struggled against the pass rush and might face some troubles in the versatility of Harris.
Duke Offensive Coaching
For a program that has long overachieved in developing playmakers, particularly at the quarterback position, they haven’t shown many signs of that potential thus far. The Blue Devils current sit just above FBS average in terms of points per game. They do, however, manage to hold on to the ball for a respectable 30 minutes on average and are capitalizing on their opportunities averaging just under five yards per play thus far. A lot of their offensive instability can be contributed to still trying to find their chemistry following the departure of Daniel Jones. Offensive coordinator Zac Roper is currently in his fourth year with the Blue Devils and should be expected to have a few tricks up his sleeve, but this one still belongs to the experienced Irish.
EDGE: Notre Dame
Duke Offensive Special Teams
As far as kickoff and punt returns go, the Blue Devils don’t stand out as exceptional. They have one touchdown off of a blocked punt but average only 19.21 yards on kickoff returns. They do average 12.25 return yards on punts, but the strength of Duke’s special teams is redshirt junior kicker A.J. Reed. Reed has not only gone 9-9 for the season on field goals and converted all 27 of his PATs, but he has also successfully executed 2-2 onside kicks for the Blue Devils this season. Onside kicks can be fluky plays, but regardless, Reed is a consistent kicker with five field goals made between 30 and 40 yards and a season-long of 50. Duke will be virtually automatic if they get within Notre Dame’s 35-yard line.