Coming off two tough, but very different losses—a blowout at the hands of Virginia and a last-second loss thanks to a failed trick play against rival North Carolina—the Blue Devils were gifted a much-needed bye week to sort things out.
Now, Duke will embark on a four-game stretch through November that will require the team to win two games in order to comfortably secure bowl eligibility for the third straight year. The final quartet of contests begins with perhaps the biggest test of them all: a home primetime showdown against No. 15 Notre Dame Saturday night.
"It is a very storied program with a lot of history behind it, but I think it is similar to all the teams we have played so far. We are fortunate to play in the ACC where we play a lot of schools that are rich in tradition and history," Blue Devil quarterback Quentin Harris said.
Here are five key questions as Duke hopes to pull off the unlikely upset in Durham.
Can Duke's defense compete?
Although the Blue Devils' last premier opponent, No. 2 Alabama, came out on top 42-3 in the teams' season-opening meeting, Duke did an impressive job in the first half against the Crimson Tide. The Blue Devils held quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and company scoreless for the first 15 minutes, recording a sack on the first possession and recovering a fumble on the next. At the break, the Crimson Tide had just two touchdowns and Duke had largely avoided ceding big plays—the largest gain was a 39-yard reception.
"I think playing teams of that caliber definitely elevates your own game. The defense played really well," Harris said. "I think it was valuable for them to go up against guys of that caliber and hang in there and play really well. That gives the whole group a lot of confidence going in, knowing we can play to their level."
Luckily for the Blue Devils, they will not have to go up against another Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback against Notre Dame, but will be tasked instead with slowing down Ian Book. The senior is completing just 58.2 percent of his passes—a career-low—and has struggled in marquee games, throwing three touchdowns and two interceptions over his three contests against ranked opponents this season.
Despite Book's struggles, he has a slew of offensive weapons to choose from. Wide receiver Javon McKinley stretches the field vertically, recording all 11 of his receptions in the past three games for a healthy 24.4 yards-per-catch average. Meanwhile, the Fighting Irish have a big red zone target in tight end Cole Kmet, who leads the team with five touchdown receptions.
"Our defense sees big, strong receivers in practice every day," Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. "It is the best way we can mimic what we are going to see."
'Why is Notre Dame good?'
As much as the Blue Devils hope to treat this game like any other, there's something different about taking on Notre Dame's storied football tradition. Although the Fighting Irish started the season with hopes of returning to the College Football Playoff, barring absolute chaos, losses to Georgia and Michigan and shaky wins against Virginia Tech and Southern California have likely closed the door for them. Nevertheless, the proud program is still playing for its third straight 10-win season and a shot a New Year's Six bowl.
"This was another team that was in the College Football Playoff a year ago for a reason. Why is Notre Dame good? They are very typical of the better Notre Dame teams I’ve seen," Cutcliffe said. "Brian Kelly has been one of better innovators in college football on the offense for a long time now. They are consistent, good and solid at every little thing they do."
The Fighting Irish are looking to notch its third straight season with double-digit wins for the first time since 1993. The last two games for Notre Dame have been uncharacteristic of the historic standards, getting shellacked 45-14 by Michigan and narrowly escaping an inconsistent Virginia Tech team 21-20. With the Fighting Irish hoping to reach 10-plus wins, the Blue Devils should expect a fired-up squad looking to gain momentum heading into a top-25 matchup against Navy next week.
Will Duke rebound offensively?
The Blue Devils will need to bounce back, especially on offense, a unit that has been highly inconsistent. Against North Carolina A&T, Middle Tennessee and Virginia Tech, the Duke offense looked like a well-oiled machine with aggressive play-calling and a degree of comfort from Harris under center. Then, in the first half in the loss against Pittsburgh, the Blue Devil offense was listless in the first half, before coming alive in the second and carrying that momentum into a blowout win over Georgia Tech.
However, the inconsistency crept back in a putrid performance against Virginia while the viral failed trick play against North Carolina highlighted Duke's inability to make big plays on aggressive play calls. What offense shows up Saturday night under the lights will go a long way in determining the game and possibly the rest of the season.
Can Duke step it up in November?
Following the emotional loss to North Carolina, Blue Devils coaches and players were preaching the importance of November football and responding to the heartbreak in Chapel Hill. With a bye week to rest up, get healthy and prepare for Notre Dame, Duke sounds ready to set the tone for the rest of the month.
"Coach Cutcliffe has always said that they remember what you do in November," Duke cornerback Leonard Johnson said. "This last stretch, these four games, we can definitely win. Take care of the next game and get this going."
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