The Blue Devils are traveling to Indiana to play against an enigma of a team Friday.
On one hand, the opponent is a top-10 RPI-ranked team that hasn’t lost a game in nonconference matchups. On the other hand, it is unranked in the United Soccer Coaches Poll and hasn’t scored a conference goal since its opening ACC game against Clemson. Notre Dame provides an interesting matchup for No. 21 Duke, as it isn’t clear which version of the Fighting Irish will show up.
“[The Fighting Irish] are 0-4 in the league, but that’s misguided,” Duke head coach John Kerr commented on the “dual personality” of Notre Dame. “They played some good games and they are dangerous. So we have to go in there with our eyes wide open and make sure we don’t take anything for granted.”
The Fighting Irish (6-4-1, 0-4-0 in the ACC) are desperate right now. The team hasn’t produced a score in nearly the past 300 minutes of conference play while conceding a total of nine goals in the four ACC games it has played. The team was outshot by all its previous ACC opponents except for Virginia, in which the best conference performance from the Fighting Irish still fell short after the Cavaliers capitalized on a second half penalty kick.
But Notre Dame might have a glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel. In its midweek home game against Purdue Fort Wayne last Tuesday, the Fighting Irish were firing on all cylinders as they knocked out the Mastodons with a memorable 8-0 triumph, their largest winning margin since 1995. Six Fighting Irish found the back of the net in the game and their smothering defense allowed only four shots from the opponent.
The most efficient weapon of Notre Dame is its impeccable set piece execution. In the 2018 matchup against Duke, the Fighting Irish penetrated the Blue Devil defense with a header off a corner kick. Even though both the corner taker and the finisher graduated last year, the team still has one of the best freekick specialists in the nation. Graduate student Felicien Dumas of the Irish defensive line has the gift to "bend it like Beckham". He has tallied three goals and three assists this season. All three of his goals were direct freekicks that accurately curled around the keeper.
“We were working a lot on [figuring out] their set-pieces,” Kerr said. “They got a great left-footed server who can put the ball where he wants to put it. We are very aware of that. We know that’s one of their key focuses.”
On Duke’s side, things have brightened up after a turbulent three-game losing streak in the middle of September. The 21st-ranked Blue Devils (6-3-1, 2-2-0) captured two major victories against North Carolina and Syracuse in their past three games. The away win against North Carolina was the first in 20 years, while the four-goal margin against the Orange was the largest since 2015.
Senior Daniele Proch continues to be the most reliable attacker on the squad as he now leads the team with eight goals, adding three assists as well. But what really sparked Duke’s offense into life were the collective efforts of players from all over the field to create threats in the final third. Forward Daniel Wright, defensive midfielders Max Moser and Brandon Williamson and defender Ian Murphy all notched their opening goals during the last three contests.
“Obviously, Daniele Proch is our key guy,” Kerr said. “Guys on the other teams are focusing on his movement and try to shut him down, which opens up opportunities for others because they can’t cover everybody. So I think some guys are stepping up and adding to our offense, which is nice because obviously, we can’t just depend on Daniele.”
Duke’s defense can still be a little shaky, but Kerr seemed to find his best combinations on the backline as the Blue Devils shut out Syracuse in their first clean sheet since Sept. 8. The current lineup features Aeden Stanley together with Matthias Frick in the middle, and Ian Murphy manning the sides with Hassan Pinto. Graduate transfer Sergi Nus fell out of the rotation in the last game and it's likely to stay that way for the moment being.
Durham is finally cooling down in the second week of October, but the Blue Devils surely want to keep their hard-earned hot streak going on the road. They must stay focused because nobody knows which Fighting Irish will appear on the field till the whistle blows.
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