But few could have predicted the beatdown that occurred Saturday afternoon in South Bend, Ind., as No. 1 Duke trailed for the entire second half before eventually falling 13-8 to No. 4 Notre Dame, ending the Blue Devils' perfect season.
Now, there's not too much shame in a five-goal loss on the road to the fourth-ranked team in the country, but it's how Duke lost that was most alarming. The Blue Devils won 16-of-23 faceoffs yet were somehow outshot 44-36, in large part thanks to a dreadful clearing game. Head coach John Danowski's squad finished 21-of-29 on clears, amassing 22 turnovers compared to the Fighting Irish's 12.
"I think we were scared," Danowski said. "I think we played scared.... I think overall we were timid and afraid to make plays and afraid to fail. And I think that was part of it. And also part of it was Notre Dame—part of it's your opponent.
"But for us, I think that we were just a little bit timid with the ball and making decisions and wanting to make the perfect pass and wanting to make the perfect play instead of just throwing it with confidence and running the ball out with confidence."
This was always a concern with this year's Blue Devils. It's hard to play with fire when you're the undefeated No. 1 team in the country, one that entered the season among the most hyped teams in recent memory. As much as Danowski and his players say they don't pay attention to the rankings, that kind of pressure undoubtedly makes its way into the locker room.
On the other hand, Notre Dame entered the year as an afterthought. The Fighting Irish have been a top-10 team all season, but were ranked last in the Preseason ACC Coaches Poll. When the ACC made up the entire top four of Inside Lacrosse's national rankings after the first week of the season, Notre Dame sat back at a distant seventh. The Fighting Irish proved themselves with a statement 18-11 win against then-No. 4 Syracuse April 3, but still headed into their home stadium this past weekend as underdogs.
It's clear now that Notre Dame would have none of that.
"We talked a little bit about being fundamentally sound, which I don't believe we were," Danowski said of what he told his team after the contest. "We talked about playing to win, and not playing not to lose."
But Saturday's outcome wasn't just the result of a difference in fire. Like Danowski said, part of it is the performance of your opponent, too, and Notre Dame entered the game as the No. 4 team in the country for a reason. The Fighting Irish boast the second-ranked defense in all of college lacrosse, and that defense showed up against the Blue Devils.
Star transfer Michael Sowers finished with just one assist and no goals, and Duke's offense struggled to create separation for all 60 minutes.
"We couldn't beat anybody," Danowski said. "Not just Michael—Notre Dame locked us down.... Notre Dame did a terrific job, one-on-one defense. All over the field, they did a terrific job. We had some opportunities. I don't think we shot as smart as we could have. But you know, got to tip your cap to your opponent."
On the other end of the field, the Blue Devil defense actually performed well in their own right. Sophomore Kenny Brower somewhat surprisingly received the matchup against the Fighting Irish's Pat Kavanagh, limiting the sophomore star to just one assist and one goal (a highlight-reel behind-the-back snipe early in the first quarter).
It was this defensive performance that kept Duke (10-1, 2-1 in the ACC) in the game for so long. The visitors trailed just 7-6 with five minutes remaining in the third period, just a couple of pinpoint Sowers passes and Brennan O'Neill flamethrowers from regaining the lead.
But it was the Blue Devils' continued struggles in transition and defending everyone not named Kavanagh that put the game to bed. Notre Dame (6-1, 2-1) rattled off three straight scores to end the third, including a Wheaton Jackoboice rifle just 0.6 seconds before the buzzer. The Fighting Irish then opened with the first two goals of the fourth quarter as well, and the limited capacity crowd at Alumni Stadium was buzzing.
"We felt overall in the box, it was a solid performance, but we gave up goals in other ways," Danowski said. "And certainly, because we were so poor in the clearing game, with our fundamentals and our decision-making, that we gave the ball back way too many times. And when you give the ball back, the other team has more chances to play offense and you have less."
Of course, one loss doesn't end Duke's national title chances, especially under a head coach in Danowski whose goal is always to have his teams playing their best lacrosse in May. During the Blue Devils' first national championship run in 2010, the team started off the season 2-3. When they won their second national championship three years later, they started 2-4.
But Duke will have to respond to this defeat with a fire, something that was clearly missing this past weekend. It'll get its first shot to do that this Thursday at No. 6 Virginia.
"It's gonna be interesting. I have no idea how we're going to respond," Danowski said. "All I know is that Virginia beat Notre Dame here a couple weeks ago. So based on the transitive property, we'll have our work cut out for us Thursday night."
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