The opportunity was there for the Blue Devils to come away with an upset victory in Saturday afternoon's 27-13 loss to No. 10 Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.
Heading into the fourth quarter, Duke found itself trailing by four, despite the oddsmakers pegging the Fighting Irish as a three-touchdown favorite.
One of the major reasons for that was the performance of transfer quarterback Chase Brice. In his first collegiate start, Brice threw for 259 yards, displaying a rapport with his weapons on the perimeter.
Despite a limited amount of practice time in the preseason, the Georgia native appeared comfortable throughout Saturday’s contest. Head coach David Cutcliffe had a sound gameplan to get Brice’s feet wet in the early going, with a litany of roll outs and screens in the first few possessions. This included the first play of the entire season for Duke, as Brice found reliable tight end Noah Gray off play-action, with Gray taking advantage of some space in the open field to pick up 22 yards.
However, the play that seemed to truly get the offense into a groove was Eli Pancol’s catch-and-run for 55 yards four minutes into the contest. Pancol’s long scamper set up a Blue Devil field goal to put Duke ahead 3-0, and Brice was subsequently dialed in with his receiving core. As the afternoon wore on, Cutcliffe gave his redshirt junior quarterback the opportunity to air it out down the middle much more often, building on the camaraderie that Brice was developing with his pass catchers.
“Throughout the game, I started getting a better feel for [the Notre Dame] defense because that defense was pretty new. They lost a lot of starters from last year,” Brice said. “So a lot of it was the same but a lot was also different and how they played us, and so we had to adjust. But overall, I thought there were some miscues obviously, but our chemistry will only get better from this game.”
There was even a sequence that made Brice look like he had been learning this system for his entire college career late in the second quarter. A five-play stretch that saw Brice connect with Jake Bobo, Jalon Calhoun and Pancol, each time resulting in a first down, put the Notre Dame secondary on its heels.
When given time to scan the field and find his experienced targets, Brice showed many encouraging signs of how the rest of the season will fare. Furthermore, the Fighting Irish likely feature more defensive talent than every other team on Duke’s schedule, so the Blue Devil receiving core will likely be able to obtain even more separation down the field in the weeks ahead.
Despite the positives, Cutcliffe was still looking for improvement in the aftermath of the loss, in tune with the overall message that reduced preparation this season will force continued growth on game day.
“We got to take a real good look at what we want to be, now that you've evaluated your quarterback under game conditions,” Cutcliffe said. “We’ve looked at the people we’ve got. I think we can be really good up front on offense, but I’m going to take a good hard look, and I think what you do is do what your personnel does best. When you do that, you will get in a rhythm.”
While Brice’s performance was far from perfect, his afternoon in the shadow of Touchdown Jesus was a clear indication that Duke is on the right track toward finding its rhythm through the air.
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