Garrett Leadmon’s foot was in the crease for Duke’s overtime winner. Will Helm looked less than convincing. First half aside, Duke’s attacking trio was held quiet while Penn State’s TJ Malone exploded for eight points by himself. In another world, Leadmon’s goal gets chalked off, Helm is made to pay for his mistakes in cage and Malone’s monumental day culminates in a first-ever trip to the national title game for the Nittany Lions.
Fortunately for the Blue Devils, that other world is entirely hypothetical. If they’re not careful against Notre Dame Monday, however, it might transcend into reality.
Despite No. 1-seed Duke’s eventual 16-15 overtime triumph against a Nittany Lions team that came to play and came to win Saturday afternoon, few could reasonably assess the Blue Devils’ performance as comprehensive or convincing. The attack scored enough goals — and enough goals at the important moments — to escape Penn State’s late onslaught on the right side of history and the defense held firm with a crucial man-down shutdown in the game’s dying breaths. Many of Duke’s late, game-sealing goals came from its midfielders, including Leadmon’s controversial game-winner.
And yet, there was this fog of disjointedness and nervousness that loomed over the Blue Devil sideline as head coach John Danowski paced frantically while the Nittany Lions schemed a man-up play to potentially steal the game at the death. They were nervous as Helm let in almost three times as many goals as he made saves, a truth made exceptionally painful by the colossal performance of Jack Fracyon in net across the field. They were nervous as Duke failed to capitalize on an ill-timed offsides call from Penn State that gave the Blue Devils the ball and nearly a minute of clock to burn, only to instead set up that antsy man-down stand.
“While you're looking at the game from both ways, both sides, I don't know if it was our best game defensively, or that Penn State just played lights out,” Danowski said. “Offensively, we did enough. I thought we left a couple of opportunities on the field, but we did enough to be successful.”
“There was so much to learn from [Saturday],” he added. “We have to be overly critical of ourselves, we want to get better, for one thing, and to recognize some of the things that we weren't good at today and why we weren't good at them.”
Put on rose-tinted glasses and you’d justifiably say that a win is a win, that Duke has more time to rest than Notre Dame, that Jake Naso was amazing at faceoff and that, most importantly, the team is playing for a fourth national title. Mishaps, mistakes and missteps aside, the Blue Devils got over the line.
At the same time, travel back a month or so to Duke and Notre Dame’s last meeting, a commanding 17-12 win by the Fighting Irish in which many of the same problems were illuminated. Failing to capitalize on penalties, a shaky goalie performance juxtaposed with the excellence of his counterpart, an absence of attacking fluidity throughout the middle stretches of the game and a day-for-the-ages by the opponent’s offensive main man. The difference was the personnel — substitute Fracyon for Liam Entenmann and Malone for either Pat or Chris Kavanagh.
For what it’s worth, history favors the Blue Devils. Duke has won five straight against Notre Dame in the postseason since 2010, including a pair of national championships. But the Fighting Irish are a different animal this year and are perhaps the most complete team in college lacrosse, fresh off an incredibly disciplined and gutsy come-from-behind win against Virginia.
On the bottom line, plaudits must be given to the Blue Devils for their ability to turn their anxious performance into fuel for the title game, just like they did against Michigan after barely escaping Delaware in the opening round. But, on that same line, brows must be furrowed at the fact that it all came so agonizingly close to crashing down, and that in another world their all-important overtime winner gets called back.
Penn State could not make Duke pay definitively for its errors, nor capitalize sufficiently on its shakiness to take control and book a place in its first-ever title game. Notre Dame certainly will.
The Blue Devils know their winning recipe by heart, and are the top seed and national championship bound because of it. A little spice here and a little salt there, a better goaltending performance and more control in the middle of the game will be the difference between hurrahs and heartbreak Monday.
“I think it's just an unbelievable opportunity,” Leadmon said. “This is just the most cohesive team that I've ever been on, and just another opportunity to spend a couple more nights in a hotel with these guys to just continue this run. That’s what means the most to me.”
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Andrew Long is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.