On third-and-11 from Duke’s 23-yard line four minutes into the contest, Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book’s pass hit the grass, setting up a long field goal attempt. Or so it seemed.
Blue Devil defensive end Drew Jordan was flagged for an offsides penalty, gifting the Fighting Irish another chance at converting. On the ensuing play, Book found wide receiver Chris Finke in the end zone, putting the Fighting Irish up 7-0.
The early penalty would be all the help No. 15 Notre Dame would need from the Blue Devils, with the visiting Fighting Irish taking care of Duke 38-7 at a packed Wallace Wade Stadium Saturday night. Notre Dame utterly dominated the home team, out-gaining Duke 469-197 and forcing the Blue Devils to have more punts (eight) than points (seven) in a completely one-sided affair that left Duke feeling frustrated after its third straight loss.
"We always have to keep calm, cool and collected. I think sometimes we lose sight of that a little bit, [when] things just aren't going our way," Blue Devil linebacker Koby Quansah said. "You get mad and try to point the finger, but we need to point the thumb: 'What can I do better to get stuff going?'"
Duke (4-5) did not advance into Fighting Irish territory until more than an hour into the evening, only sniffing the opponents’ side of the field after a shanked punt with three minutes left in the second quarter, already trailing 21-0.
After conservative playcalling and poor execution plagued the Blue Devil offense for the majority of the first half, Duke awoke from its slumber in its fortuitous field position. Blue Devil quarterback Quentin Harris let it fly along the left sideline, finding senior wide receiver Aaron Young for Duke’s first points of the day, cutting the Notre Dame lead to 14.
The following possession, Book made a rare mistake, throwing a ball up for grabs with Blue Devil linebacker Shaka Heyward coming down with the interception, giving the Duke offense ideal field position once again. Head-scratching time management in the waning moments of the second quarter set up a 44-yard A.J. Reed field goal attempt. The Blue Devil senior kicker pushed the kick right, his first missed field goal of the season, forcing Duke to head to the locker room still trailing by double-digits.
"[With us] getting the ball back at halftime, too, I think what Coach [Cutcliffe] was looking for there was just to get points on the board and get the ball back at half, and if we come out and score that first drive in the second half, then it's a 17-21 game," Harris said. "So I think he was just playing that game and his head and that's what he was hunting there."
Though Duke seemed to carry its momentum into the second half, Notre Dame quickly regained control of the contest for good. After a defensive holding on a fake punt kept the Blue Devils’ third quarter-opening drive alive, Harris threw the ball directly to Fighting Irish cornerback Troy Pride Jr., as intended target Scott Bracey never came back for the ball. Book would throw his third touchdown pass of the game 10 plays later, giving Notre Dame (6-2) a 21-point advantage once again.
"First-and-10 opportunity, we were going down the field with the ball and a miscommunication [occured]—[that] can't happen," Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. "That was the spark [we were] looking for."
Not typically a prolific runner, Book could not be stopped on the ground Saturday, picking up a career-high 139 rushing yards, including scrambles of 45 and 53 yards. The Fighting Irish running game as a whole impressed, tallying 288 yards.
"He's just fast and a heck of a football player," Cutcliffe said. "Schematically...all of those are read quarterback runs. He did a great job with his ball-handling—he kept the ball in the backs' hands and bellies for a long time....He's a heck of an athlete behind a big offensive line. He's not a very big guy, so he gets lost on those cutback runs and then gets blocks. They're executing what they're trying to do."
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The Blue Devils are now fighting to become bowl-eligible, needing victories in two of their three remaining regular season games to secure a spot in a bowl. Duke’s next test will come next Saturday, when a hapless Syracuse team will come to Durham.