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Five observations and more from Duke football's first half against Notre Dame

<p>Duke's offense struggled in the first half.</p>

Duke's offense struggled in the first half.

Following a much-needed bye week, Duke hosted Notre Dame for the first time since 1961. The Blue Devils will have to really fight back if they want to replicate that victory 58 years ago, however, as the team heads into the locker room down 21-7.

Five observations:

1. Rowdy crowd

It was a packed house at Wallace Wade Stadium Saturday night, as Duke welcomed a top-15 opponent to Durham for the first time since 2017. The student section was completely full, a rare sight on a typical football Saturday. The extra energy from the crowd didn’t do much to alleviate the talent separation on the field, however, as the Fighting Irish dominated.

2. Third-down struggles

Duke’s defense started out strong, forcing a three-and-out on Notre Dame’s first drive and nearly doing the same on the Fighting Irish’s second possession. But Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book found Chris Finke for a 14-yard gain on that third-and-4 play, beginning a series of third-down meltdowns for the Blue Devil defense. 

Later in that same drive, Book found Finke again for a 14-yard completion on third-and-10 and a Duke offsides gifted Notre Dame another chance to score on third down two plays later. The Fighting Irish did just that, as one more connection between Book and Finke—this time for 18 yards—put Notre Dame up 7-0 just seven minutes into the contest.

Overall, Notre Dame’s offense was 5-for-9 on third-down conversions, a number Duke head coach David Cutcliffe can’t be happy with.

3. Keeping it simple

Cutcliffe has emphasized keeping the offense simple this season. In the first half, the Blue Devils stayed true to his word, mostly relying on screens, draw runs and the occasional forward pass. Eventually, Duke’s offense started to get more aggressive, but the over-simplicity at the start put Duke in a hole it struggled to recover from. The Blue Devils managed just 36 total yards and one first down in the opening quarter.

4. Book gets out of the pocket

Book isn’t a particularly mobile quarterback, totaling 251 rushing yards this season entering the contest. But the senior was extremely successful at using his legs Saturday, rushing for 86 yards in the first half on six attempts, passing his career high of 81 yards he set last year against Louisville.

5. Momentum shifting

While Duke—both offensively and defensively—looked lost for the vast majority of the half, things started to change over the final few minutes of the second quarter. A 29-yard touchdown reception from Aaron Young with three minutes remaining put the Blue Devils on the board, with a Shaka Heyward interception on Notre Dame's ensuing possession providing even more momentum in Duke's favor, though it would not translate to points.

By the numbers:

  • 3.97 yards/play for Duke: Duke’s offense struggled to get anything going early on in the primetime matchup, totaling just 123 yards over 31 plays throughout the first half. 
  • 21.5 yards/rush for Jahmir Smith: Ian Book wasn’t the only one running all over the Duke defense. Fighting Irish ophomore running back Jahmir Smith provided yet another spark for the Notre Dame offense, garnering only two touches, but totaling 43 yards on those attempts, including a 40-yard run in the first quarter.
  • 8 penalties for Duke, 3 for Notre Dame: The Blue Devils couldn’t make costly mistakes if they wanted to come out of this game with an upset win. Yet costly mistakes they made, with Duke totaling eight penalties for 63 yards.

A moment that mattered:

Duke’s defense is certainly this team’s biggest strength. And early in the first quarter, it looked like it was ready to step up against the Blue Devils’ most illustrious home opponent in years, forcing Notre Dame into a three-and-out on the contest’s opening possession.

Even after the Fighting Irish’s series of third-down conversions on their following possession, Duke had a chance to limit its opponent to just a field goal, a crucial stop the team really needed.

But on third-and-11, an offsides penalty on the Blue Devils’ Drew Jordan gave Notre Dame another chance on what was initially an incomplete pass. Notre Dame scored on the extra opportunity to go up 7-0.

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