Hummingbirds are some of the planet’s most unique animals: green and pink feathers, wings that flutter 50 times per second, long, toothpick-like beaks. Outside of their biology, most people know and love the birds for their regular forays into suburban backyards and the resulting pit stops at nectar-stocked bird feeders.
In many ways, No. 3 Duke was a hummingbird in its 2-0 win against Notre Dame Friday evening at Koskinen Stadium: It was fast, it was frantic and it was fascinating. Instead of nectar in a feeder, however, the sweet substance the Blue Devils tasted was revenge—against the team that broke their heart just under a year ago in the ACC tournament final, no less.
“It’s just another bit of confidence to continue what we're doing,” head coach John Kerr said after the game. “We're trying to take every game as it comes and focus on that game and get the job done.”
Despite the end result, it took a while for the Blue Devil train to get rolling. For large stretches of the first half, Duke (9-0-3, 4-0-2 in the ACC) struggled to crack Notre Dame and routinely found itself dispossessed a half step from an open look. Junior defender Amir Daley and midfielder Nick Pariano peppered the Fighting Irish’s box with inviting crosses throughout the opening 25 minutes to middling effect, but their work soon paid off and brought the Blue Devils the lead.
The breakthrough came via sophomore sensation Shakur Mohammed, who connected on a charging run through midfield with Daley from the right flank for a looping ball in and finished with a confident header off the underside of the bar, giving Duke a 1-0 lead.
Mohammed continued to impress in the laborious second half, and with just under 10 minutes to play, he added another goal to his tally with a sliding finish into the bottom-right corner following a skillful run into the box by substitute Luke Thomas.
“I'm one of the people, just like everyone else, who's taking more responsibilities,” Mohammed said. “The whole team has stepped up and taken care of responsibilities because [we] had a few guys [that] left. So we needed to fill in those spaces.”
Elsewhere, graduate goalkeeper Eliot Hamill and the defense once again locked up shop with their eighth clean sheet of the season and a series of important blocks when Notre Dame (5-6-1, 2-4-0) threatened to turn the tie on its head. As the Fighting Irish started to pick up steam before the break and began to bombard the Blue Devil goal with shots and crosses of its own, Duke’s defensive trio of junior Antino Lopez and freshmen Axel Gudbjornsson and Kamran Acito stepped up big to hold the slim 1-0 advantage.
Lopez was the star of the defensive show, with a clutch lunging effort to cut out a near-certain equalizer inches before the ball reached its man in the first half and a shot-saving tackle in the second on a one-on-one. Hamill’s audacious out-rushing to punt and punch every corner and through-ball away was instrumental throughout as well.
For as fluid as the offense was and as resolute as the defense was, the key cog in Duke’s machine was once again the dynamic duo of captain Peter Stroud and freshman Kenan Hot. The former’s relentless pressing and tireless running sapped the Fighting Irish’s energy from the first minute to the last while the latter’s larger frame proved a worthy asset in heading Notre Dame’s long passes back where they came from and out-muscling attackers.
“When they play that way, you have to deal with it,” Kerr said. “You've got to try to win the first header and then you got to pick up the second ball, and they were up for it.”
For all its robustness and chemistry in the first half, the second 45 minutes forced the Blue Devils to dig deep and grind for the result. Their understanding of positioning and the synchronicity between attack, midfield and defense largely remained, but Notre Dame started to find some fluidity of its own. What resulted was a punch-for-punch second half in which both teams matched each other to a T—for every precise pass was an equally precise toe-poke and for every successful skill move was an equally physical tackle.
Much of the early momentum that carried Duke to its opening goal waned into comfortable, but slower, periods of play. Where Mohammed, Pariano and sophomore forward Jai Bean controlled much of the tempo in the opening half, the responsibility fell upon the likes of Lopez, Acito and Gudbjornsson to hold the game steady in the closing half.
It was a task the trio performed to great effect—albeit not without speed bumps and a few nervy moments—and yet another example that this team can score and shut up shop when either or both are required. The upgrade in Notre Dame’s system from halves one to two forced the Blue Devils to adapt from an offensive game to a largely defensive one. Because of their ability to do so, the team remains undefeated, atop the ACC and firmly on track for a top seed in November's conference tournament.
It has been a season to remember for Duke and Kerr—currently in the midst of his best-ever season—and just three more regular-season games separate these high-flying Blue Devils from further milestones and an eye on the top prize.
“The numbers don't lie,” Mohammed said. “We're doing really well, [but] the job is not finished.”
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Andrew Long is a Trinity sophomore and Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.