With No. 15 Notre Dame rolling into the Bull City, Duke will need to play its best game of the season to get within one win of bowl eligibility. The Fighting Irish, coming off a 21-20 home victory over Virginia Tech, are led by senior quarterback Ian Book.
Book operates a passing game that relies on play-action and vertical routes. While the senior has tossed 17 touchdowns on the season, his quarterback rating ranks at just No. 50 nationally. However, the Fighting Irish still showcase tendencies of an efficient offense.
A staple of head coach Brian Kelly’s attack is the run-pass-option (RPO). This is where the offensive line blocks for a run play, but the quarterback has the option to pass if he sees that the defenders are stacking the box. The RPO at the college level was developed by former Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer and current Florida head coach Dan Mullen, who were former Notre Dame assistants together in the late 1990s.
The Fighting Irish often have a tight end line up in the backfield, which matches that player up with a linebacker. The threat of a run to the strong side of the formation with the tight end as the lead blocker puts significant strain on opposing linebackers. With Notre Dame's receivers spreading the field, the middle is wide open. Book simply has to sell the fake to the running back, and the tight end is in the clear on a seam route. This is a play-design that can give opposing defenses fits in the red zone.
In the run game, the Fighting Irish feature sophomore Jafar Armstrong. They use vast amounts of pre-snap motion to shift the eyes of the defense at the second level, and a fake jet sweep to a receiver keeps the linebackers honest, opening up a hole on the strong side of the offensive line. The tight end also lines up in the backfield on these off-tackle run plays, similar to the red zone touchdown shown above. This constant usage of a tight end as an extra blocker sets up the play-action, and Book gets the Fighting Irish into the proper blocking scheme for a nice run.
In terms of total defense, Notre Dame ranks No. 33 nationally, and its defenders are fast, physical and aggressive. The Fighting Irish show blitz often and sometimes back out of it, which can disrupt the timing of short crossing and angle routes. In the secondary, Notre Dame is disciplined in man coverage, and defensive backs do not give up chunk plays very often. In order for Duke to move the ball consistently, Deon Jackson will likely have to have a standout performance.
Duke has an opportunity to completely alter the outlook of its season with a win against one of college football's blue-blood programs. Quarterback Quentin Harris will have to be decisive and efficient, and the Blue Devils’ linebackers and safeties must be disciplined when it comes to defending Notre Dame’s RPOs.
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Max Rego is a Trinity senior and an associate sports editor for The Chronicle's 118th volume. He was previously sports managing editor for Volume 117.