With just a quarter remaining in Saturday's matchup, the Blue Devils found themselves right in the thick of it in South Bend, Indiana. However, Notre Dame sealed the deal with some momentum-grabbing plays late. The Blue Zone gives you three takeaways, stats and a look to the future for Duke:
Three key takeaways:
1. Cutcliffe’s new-look offense has potential
Both teams looked rusty throughout the first football game of the season, understandable considering a shortened preseason and the unprecedented conditions surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. However, with head coach David Cutcliffe calling the plays this season, Duke’s offense laid the framework for a team that could have a successful season. Though far from perfect, the Blue Devils managed to put up 334 yards of total offense, massively improving on the measly 197 yards put up in their game against the Fighting Irish last season.
Duke went toe-to-toe with Notre Dame when it came to passing yards—259 vs. 263, respectively—thanks to admirable performances from Eli Pancol, Noah Gray, and Jalon Calhoun. The rushing attack left a lot to be desired, though, with the Blue Devils trailing the Irish by over 100 yards. It’s no secret that offense was not the squad’s strong suit last season, but Duke’s new, more aggressive style with quarterback Chase Brice and Cutcliffe calling the plays has the potential to turn a weird season into a successful one.
2. Notre Dame shut down for much of the first half
The Blue Devils took an early lead off a 29 yard field goal from Charlie Ham nearly eight minutes into the first quarter, and it stayed that way until Notre Dame scored a touchdown with about 10 minutes left in the first half. That touchdown changed the momentum of the game, and it was pretty much Notre Dame’s contest from then on, but for much of the first half Duke’s defense shut down anything the Irish tried.
Notre Dame gained only seven yards throughout the entire first quarter, and Duke’s tight defensive play forced them to play a riskier passing game rather than the rushing game they normally play. There was a lot of hype for the Blue Devils’ defensive line, led by stars Chris Rumph II and Victor Dimujeke, coming into the season. While it remains to be seen whether they live up to that hype, shutting down the No. 10 ranked team in the country for almost the entire first half is not nothing, and improving on that throughout the year will give the offense some breathing room to grow and win some games.
3. Maintaining momentum through the second half is critical
The score was 10-6 Notre Dame going into halftime, and while the Irish scored an early touchdown in the third quarter, Duke quickly scrambled back with their own on a run from Brice. While the Irish controlled the game for the most part in the second half, Duke was within 4 for a while and all hope was not lost. But the momentum the Blue Devils had generated in the first half quickly dissipated, and Notre Dame generated two touchdowns in the second half to decisively defeat Duke.
The sparks of offense the Blue Devils showed at the beginning of the game were extinguished, and the team managed just 82 yards in the second half compared to 246 at halftime. While part of it was Notre Dame shedding some of their rust and playing more cohesively, a large part of it was that Duke looked tired and discouraged throughout most of the second half. In game clinching moments, the Irish rose to the occasion and made the plays while the Blue Devils didn’t. In order to win games this season, Duke has to figure out how to play the whole 60 minutes and be the same team in the second half as they were in the first half.
Three key stats:
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1. Three redzone possessions, one touchdown
Duke had three redzone possessions throughout the game and three first-and-goal situations. However, the Blue Devils failed to convert the first two into touchdowns, instead settling for field goals. While field goals are great, it’s hard, nigh impossible, to win games on field goals alone, and it’s hard not to ponder the what-ifs had Duke managed to close the deal on the first two redzone possessions. Would that have kicked the team into a higher gear? Would it have led to a win? Who knows. But what we do know is that two more touchdowns would have put the Blue Devils within spitting distance of Notre Dame’s 27 points. While Duke looked great in the first half getting to the end of the field, the offense will need to figure out how to capitalize on those opportunities to have a chance at beating some of the tougher teams on the schedule this season.
2. Chase Brice throws for 259 yards in first start
Yesterday was Brice’s first career start and first game ever as a Blue Devil after transferring from Clemson. The redshirt junior threw for 259 yards on 20-of-37 pass attempts and scored a touchdown on a short rush. Cutcliffe went with some straightforward plays to start the game and allowed Brice the time and space to get acclimated to not just Duke’s system but the game as a whole. The approach paid off, and Brice threw some great passes, including one to Eli Pancol that resulted in a 55-yard gain . The one odd moment was a Notre Dame sack that almost drew an intentional grounding call. Brice could be the key to making this season’s offense the best Duke has seen in years so long as the offensive line can make sure he has the room to make the smart play.
3. 112 rushing yards for Fighting Irish’s Kyren Williams
While the first half left a lot to be desired for Notre Dame fans, Kyren Williams’ touchdown a few plays after a fake punt in the second quarter changed the game. Williams led his team in rushing yards by a huge margin, tallying another touchdown along the way. Clearly, Williams is a talented player who made a huge contribution to his team’s decisive win against the Blue Devils. However, he’s not the only talented player that Duke is going to encounter this season, and the team should learn from his performance and figure out how to keep talent like his in check.
This loss is not the end of the world, and while losses are never ideal, there’s a lot the Blue Devils can work with and learn from this game. It’s only the first game of the seasons, and they play Boston College next Saturday. If Duke can build on the flashes of good football they showed yesterday and dust themselves off a bit from a long offseason, they have a good chance of beating the Eagles.