After what seemed like an eternity, college football is ready to roll.
With an offseason mired in uncertainty behind them, the Blue Devils now embark upon the 13th year of the David Cutcliffe era. On the docket first is a trip to South Bend, Ind., to take on No. 10 Notre Dame Saturday at 2:30 p.m., a rematch of last year’s 38-7 Duke loss on a blustery November night at Wallace Wade Stadium.
The Fighting Irish had about as quiet of an 11-2 record that a program of their stature could possibly have last season. While Notre Dame finished with an unsurprising 33-9 victory in the Camping World Bowl against Iowa State, road defeats to Georgia and Michigan added fuel to the proverbial fire regarding whether the Fighting Irish are capable of breaking through in the spotlight. Nevertheless, another highly-rated recruiting class predictably followed for head coach Brian Kelly's squad.
“They’re a very talented team. They’re always going to be in the top ranks of the recruiting classes every year,” Duke starting quarterback Chase Brice said. “They get the southeastern kids, guys that I’ve played with growing up.”
Can Duke prevent the explosive plays?
One of the main reasons why Duke found itself in a hole right out of the gate last year against Notre Dame was its inability to prevent the Fighting Irish from breaking loose for large chunks of yardage. This time around, the Blue Devils will try to set the tone defensively right from the first snap.
“I think that we weren’t as aggressive as we should’ve been, especially in the tackling phase of the game,” senior safety Michael Carter II said regarding Duke’s performance last year against Notre Dame. "So I think that’s definitely what we’re coming out to do on Saturday, just establish that dominance and that physicality, just try to tackle better and put the running back on the ground, put the quarterback on the ground, whoever’s got the ball. Just limit the yards by those guys who are really explosive on that team.”
Lining up at quarterback for the Fighting Irish is redshirt senior Ian Book, who has amassed a 20-3 record as a starter. Last year, Book substantially increased his output in the touchdown passes column compared to the previous season from 19 to 34 but saw a noticeable decline in completion percentage from 68.2 to 60.2.
Making Book uncomfortable in the pocket will be a major key for Duke if it expects to give Notre Dame a scare Saturday afternoon. Defensive ends Chris Rumph II and Victor Dimukeje will need to explode off the edge on a consistent basis, no small feat against a Fighting Irish offensive line that features five returning starters, including preseason All-ACC guard Aaron Banks.
Who will help out Brice?
If you haven’t heard by now, Brice will be making his highly-anticipated debut in a Duke uniform Saturday after transferring from Clemson this past offseason. The Georgia native will need some assistance from his running game, however, in order to successfully attack a Notre Dame defense that gave up only 17.9 points per game last season, 12th nationally. While Brice is obviously talented, it would be preferable for Duke if he does not have to drop back to pass on third-and-long every few plays, so the performances of running backs Deon Jackson, Mataeo Durant and anyone else who receives carries will be immensely important.
The Fighting Irish struggled at times last season to stop the run, especially against Michigan and to a lesser extent against Georgia. While Duke does not quite boast the raw blue-chip talent on the offensive line that those two programs possess, the Blue Devils have vast amounts of experience and depth up front.
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Look for redshirt junior Will Taylor, starting at center for the injured Jack Wohlabaugh, to provide a calming presence for Brice, as the two played together at Grayson High School. Despite Wohlabaugh’s unfortunate absence, the Blue Devils are confident that their “next man up” mentality will serve the offensive line well.
“We've got a freshman, Graham Barton, who is doing a tremendous job—true freshman that's played tackle and center,” Cutcliffe said. “I cannot say enough about him. Elijah Wroten, who is a redshirt freshman, is another candidate in there. Those two are the two obvious backups behind Will Taylor. And Will is playing the best football he's played since he's been here. Thank goodness—it's timely.”
Will special teams be special?
Special teams—more specifically, kick returner Damond Philyaw-Johnson—will have a huge imprint on this contest throughout. If Philyaw-Johnson gets even a tiny crease, you might as well wave goodbye to him on his sprint to the end zone.
Giving Notre Dame poor field position will also be a major goal, and the fact that Duke will send out a new punter and kicker makes this area one that the coaching staff will observe with even closer eyes. If Porter Wilson and Charlie Ham can provide distance and direction with their punts and kickoffs, respectively, then the Fighting Irish will have to put together multiple lengthy drives in order to put the Blue Devils away.
Ultimately, Duke will need a few bounces to go its way this Saturday in order to emerge victorious. The upset isn't impossible, but the Blue Devils are a clear underdog and will need to empty the basket of their hot air balloon in order to have the ballgame come down to the last few possessions.