Entering the game as a heavy underdog and with David Cutcliffe calling the plays, it was expected that Duke would be the one taking risks on the offensive end.
While flashes of that new-look Duke offense certainly were apparent, it would be Notre Dame’s offensive aggression that ended up making the difference.
In front of 15,000 socially-distanced fans, the 10th-ranked Fighting Irish defeated the Blue Devils 27-13 Saturday afternoon at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Ind. Notre Dame finished 7-of-16 on third-downs, but it was two key fourth-down conversions that gave Ian Book and the offense enough opportunity for a comfortable Fighting Irish victory.
Still, Duke beat the final 21.5-point spread by more than a touchdown, an impressive showing on the road against a perennial College Football Playoff contender.
"I like the fight that we had," redshirt junior defensive end Chris Rumph II said. "If you can fight for four quarters, no matter who you're playing against, you're going to be in the game. And we had a lot of young guys who stepped up today."
Nevertheless, football is a sport that often comes down to just one or two plays made by the winning side.
Nursing a 10-6 lead in the middle of the third quarter and facing a crucial fourth-and-1 at the Duke 26-yard-line, Notre Dame opted to keep the offense on the field. Sophomore running back Kyren Williams promptly took the handoff, juked outside and took it 26 yards to the house, stretching the Fighting Irsh advantage to 17-6.
But that wasn’t the first time Brian Kelly and company took a risk on fourth down.
Notre Dame (1-0, 1-0 in the ACC) struggled offensively through the first quarter, totaling a mere seven yards of offense through 15 minutes. It initially seemed like the home team’s offensive struggles would continue into the second quarter as well, until Kelly struck some life into his squad in the form of a fake punt on the team’s own 21-yard-line.
Sophomore punter Jay Bramblett took the snap on fourth-and-8 and scrambled his way through the Blue Devil defense and past the first-down marker, gifting Book an extra set of downs. The redshirt senior quarterback made sure to take advantage.
Book immediately connected with true freshman tight end Michael Mayer for a 17-yard gain into Duke territory, with an 11-yard Williams run and a Blue Devil facemask promptly bringing the ball all the way to the Duke 22-yard line.
Four plays later, Williams punched it in for the first touchdown of the afternoon, putting the Fighting Irish ahead 7-3.
Williams finished with 112 yards and two scores for the home squad, with Book providing 263 yards and a score through the air.
"It's hard for any defense—when [the offense converts] a fourth down, certainly with a fake punt, it's hard to go back on the field with the same energy," Cutcliffe said. "So I would say the biggest part of it is I think our defense got tired through that period."
Duke (0-1, 0-1 in the ACC) showed some fight near the end of the third quarter, though.
After pinning the Fighting Irish at their own six-yard-line, the Blue Devil defense forced a three-and-out and the team’s offense took control at the Notre Dame 39.
Six plays later, Chase Brice scrambled it in from two yards out and Duke crept within four points at 17-13.
Brice finished with 259 yards through the air on 20-of-37 passing and 16 yards rushing for the Blue Devils, with Deon Jackson adding another 52 yards on the ground.
"I'm going to go look back at this film," Brice said. "There's tons of things that I can work on to get better at.... We didn't make enough plays. We left some out there, I left some out there. In critical situations and downs, we didn't make those plays."
Just a few minutes of game play after Brice's score, Duke’s defense appeared to be handing the ball right back to its offense as well. On third-and-7 from his own 45, Book completed a short bullet to Mayer, who was quickly wrapped up by Blue Devil cornerback Josh Blackwell.
But after a few seconds of tugging, Mayer broke the tackle and converted on the first down.
Notre Dame quickly drove down the rest of the way, and a 17-yard lob from Book to senior wideout Avery Davis gave the Fighting Irish a 24-13 advantage, a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
Similar to last year's opener against Alabama, Duke's defense impressed over the first 15 minutes, forcing three Notre Dame three-and-outs to begin the contest and holding the Fighting Irish scoreless at the end of the first quarter.
Meanwhile, the Blue Devil offense showed improvement, totaling 334 yards of offense compared to the 197 the team totaled last year against Notre Dame. But Brice and company struggled to finish off their drives, settling for early field goals.
"We've got to score touchdowns when we get the chance," Cutcliffe said. "That's something I can help a great deal with. And then we got to play better in the second half."
Looking forward, Duke will return to Durham looking to get in the win column in its home opener against Boston College next Saturday at 12 p.m.
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