SOUTH BEND, Ind.—The Blue Devils entered Saturday’s game at one of the nation’s most storied programs as 20-point underdogs coming off two double-digit losses.
They left with one of the biggest regular-season wins in program history.
Duke fought back from an early 14-0 hole and a 35-28 fourth-quarter deficit to stun Notre Dame 38-35 at Notre Dame Stadium Saturday afternoon. After the Fighting Irish went ahead 35-28 with 7:46 left in the game, redshirt freshman quarterback Daniel Jones found Anthony Nash for a 64-yard touchdown to tie the game.
The Blue Devil defense fed off the momentum, stuffing the Fighting Irish on two straight plays and then intercepting Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer to set up the offense with good field position.
After reaching Fighting Irish territory in its first four possessions of the second half, Duke capitalized with a go-ahead field goal on a 10-play, 44-yard drive. On 4th-and-goal from the Notre Dame one-yard line, true freshman kicker A.J. Reed made the first field goal of his career with 1:24 left in the game, then the Blue Devils stopped the Fighting Irish on the ensuing possession to escape with the win.
“We were just able to keep going. [Head coach David Cutcliffe] preached to us, ‘We can beat them,’” said senior cornerback Breon Borders, who had five tackles, three pass breakups and a forced fumble. “We just stayed positive, stayed locked in, stayed focused and made a play when we had to.”
The Blue Devils (2-2) showed how far they have come after double-digit losses against Wake Forest and Northwestern, with the offense finally showing the consistency it lacked early in the season.
Duke finished Saturday’s game with 498 total yards, including 208 on the ground and 24 first downs to keep Notre Dame’s lethal offense off the field. Redshirt senior running back Jela Duncan had a career-high 121 yards on 21 carries, including an 18-yard touchdown run to tie the game at 14 late in the first quarter.
Perhaps more importantly, Duncan’s partner in crime also finally got going Saturday.
After energizing the Blue Devils with a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown when Duke was down 14-0, junior Shaun Wilson topped his combined rushing total from the Blue Devils’ first three games with 66 yards on the ground against the Fighting Irish (1-3).
For the first time in three weeks, Duke’s running backs had holes to run through thanks to an offensive line that stayed connected for four quarters. After averaging more than seven penalties through three games, the Blue Devils had just one in front of 80,000 fans.
“Any time you play good offense, it starts with the offensive line,” Cutcliffe said. “I couldn’t have been more proud of a group. They’ve answered the bell and hopefully we can continue to grow in that area.”
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With Duke’s offensive front settled in, Jones had his best game of the season, finishing 24-of-32 for 290 yards. Although the Blue Devils squandered their first four drives of the second half on the Notre Dame side of the field—including when Jones threw an interception in the end zone and the Fighting Irish stopped Duke on 4th-and-1—the Charlotte native made the biggest play of his young career with the pass to Nash.
A redshirt senior, Nash caught a 32-yard touchdown on a deep post late in the second quarter before breaking free down the left sideline for the Blue Devils’ first second-half points and the game-tying score.
“We saw a look from their secondary that made us think that was a possibility,” Jones said. “We tested it out and it worked out for us, and no doubt that was a huge play.”
With Duke’s offense able to sustain drives, the Blue Devil defense finished the game strong despite losing redshirt senior safety and captain DeVon Edwards to a knee injury in the first quarter.
Although the Blue Devil defense gave up 534 yards to Kizer and company, it forced three turnovers and came up big when it had to after allowing two quick touchdowns to start the game. Notre Dame missed a field goal in the first half and was unable to convert nine of its final 12 drives into points.
Seven Duke players had at least five tackles, led by redshirt freshman safety Jordan Hayes’ seven. Hayes made his first career start for senior Deondre Singleton, who was ejected from last week’s Northwestern game for targeting and forced to sit out the first half. Like the Blue Devils’ other veterans, Singleton made his mark on the game by picking off Kizer to set up Duke’s game-winning drive.
Following its momentum-building win, Duke will take on Virginia next weekend at Wallace Wade Stadium in search of its first ACC victory.
The Blue Devils started the week as a reeling team searching for an identity.
They will end it victorious on the road against a preseason top-10 team.
“We found out a little bit more about ourselves today and what our personality is and has to be to win,” Cutcliffe said. “Not all that complicated, we did the things we had to do to give ourselves a chance to win on the road and then found a way to win it in the fourth quarter.”