As Duke’s season outlook has rapidly turned from ACC Coastal Division title aspirations to a fight for bowl eligibility, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the season is lost.
And with a historic program coming to town for a primetime showdown, David Cutcliffe and his squad may have the perfect ingredients to turn the 2019 campaign around.
Many eyes will be on Durham Saturday as the Blue Devils take on No. 15 Notre Dame at 7:30 p.m. in Wallace Wade Stadium, looking to end their recent slide. The matchup will mark Duke’s first home game against a top-15 opponent since losing 31-6 to No. 14 Miami in 2017. The Blue Devils’ last win against a team ranked that high came in 2016 against No. 15 North Carolina.
“We’re really excited,” Duke quarterback Quentin Harris said. “The atmosphere we know we’ll have here and playing a great opponent in Notre Dame, I think it’s going to be electric here at Wallace Wade. We’re looking forward to the challenge, looking forward to the home atmosphere and just feeding off the energy of the fans.”
Notre Dame (6-2) came into 2019 with national title hopes, but a blowout 45-14 loss to Michigan two weeks ago sealed its fate, rendering a College Football Playoff berth all but impossible. Then last week, the Fighting Irish barely escaped Virginia Tech with a one-point home win, a Hokie team that Duke beat handily in Blacksburg, Va., 45-10.
“Very talented group,” Harris emphasized about Notre Dame. “It doesn’t seem like they’re doing a whole lot of different things. They really trust their guys, trust their athleticism, as they should. But they’re a group that’s going to make plays. Very sticky guys in coverage, athletic linebackers, a disruptive front. They’re going to be a really talented bunch, and we’re going to have to be really on top of our game plan in order to come out on top.”
Saturday's matchup may very well come down to creating and limiting explosive plays, something that on paper seems to be in Notre Dame's favor. The Fighting Irish, led by senior quarterback Ian Book and his 17 passing touchdowns, average over 13 yards per pass play, while the Blue Devils come in at No. 118 nationally in that department. After not allowing a 20-plus-yard touchdown from scrimmage against Georgia Tech and Virginia, Duke gave up passing touchdowns of 29 and 47 yards in the loss to North Carolina.
“First of all, you’ve got to find some way to generate pass rush," Cutcliffe said on how to limit big plays. "You’ve got to make the quarterback uncomfortable by holding the ball. Secondly, we’ve got mixed coverages, we’ve got to put ourselves in good positions to avoid giving up explosive plays. One of the best ways to do that is keep our offense on the field and make some explosives of their own.”
After a crushing loss in Chapel Hill to the Tar Heels two weeks ago, the Blue Devils (4-4) got a chance to recuperate during their bye week. Duke’s last open week came after its Week 3 win over Middle Tennessee and it had played five straight games up until its most recent time off.
“It’s a little bit of both,” Blue Devil cornerback Leonard Johnson said on if the team was eager or relaxed during the bye. “We got an extra week to watch film, see what they like to do on offense, but also just being able to relax. Get some extra treatment, get the little bumps and bruises off.”
Duke is expected to have a sellout crowd in Wallace Wade Saturday night, but a raucous crowd during primetime still won’t overshadow the pedigree of the Notre Dame program, from the iconic gold helmets to the fourth-most national championships in college football. However, come game time, it’s less about the program and more about the team.
“When [the team] looks at film, I don’t think you have to put [Notre Dame] on a pedestal, but I do think that you face a reality” Cutcliffe said. “Notre Dame football tradition is as rich and as deep, if not deeper than all of college football. But that’s not on social media, so they don’t know about that, right?”
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The last meeting between the two teams came in 2016, with the Blue Devils traveling to South Bend as 21-point underdogs, only to upset the Fighting Irish 38-35. Then-redshirt-freshman quarterback Daniel Jones led Duke with 309 total yards and three touchdowns, while then-freshman kicker A.J. Reed, who is perfect on field goals this season, kicked the game-winner with just over a minute to play. The Blue Devils won their only home game against Notre Dame 37-13 in 1961.
Three losses in four games may have derailed the team’s chances at an ACC Championship Game berth, but with four games remaining and two of them against ranked opponents, the Blue Devils simply can’t afford to roll over Saturday if they want to appear in a bowl game for the third consecutive year.