If its Week 1 win against then-No. 9 Clemson was the official start of the ‘Elko Era’ in Durham, Saturday’s matchup against No. 11 Notre Dame has the potential to be Duke’s declaration as a national contender. However, to be a contender they have to beat a contender, and the Fighting Irish will challenge the Blue Devils in every facet of the game.
As No. 17 Duke looks to win its second ranked game of the season, it will need to play elite football. Minute mistakes will be amplified tenfold, and while the Blue Devils do not need to be perfect, they need to come close to pull off the upset. In particular, here are five key aspects Duke needs to control:
Saturday is the biggest stage for the Blue Devils’ football team in recent memory. ESPN’s College GameDay is coming to Durham for the first time ever, and Duke is getting talked about as a pick for the ACC championship. While the Blue Devils had little to lose in the season opener, they now — for better or worse — have the nation’s attention.
Obviously, such media coverage adds a layer of pressure that the team has not faced until this point. However, Duke has shown time and again that it can perform in high-intensity moments. In last year’s Military Bowl win, both the Blue Devils’ first trip to a bowl and their first postseason win since 2018, they showed the poise of a team that expects, not hopes, to win.
“We're getting a lot of congratulations for GameDay coming here,” head coach Mike Elko said at his weekly press conference. “I'd rather wait and get some congratulations for how we play a football game Saturday night.”
Junior quarterback Riley Leonard and the team is now 13-4 across the last two seasons, and those losses amount to just 16 points total. He showed the ability to make big plays on the ground both against Clemson and in last year’s loss to North Carolina, breaking off for 44-yard and 74-yard touchdowns, respectively. If his resume is any indication, Leonard will keep Duke within striking distance Saturday.
Water(s) them down
As important as Leonard is to the Blue Devils’ success, their identity under Elko has been and will continue to be rushing the football. Graduate running back Jordan Waters has led the charge so far this year with a team-high seven touchdowns, but Duke operates with a running back-by-committee approach. Waters is joined by junior Jaquez Moore and now-active graduate student Jaylen Coleman. Coleman, who saw his first snaps of the year last weekend against UConn, rushed for 480 yards last season.
All of the Blue Devils’ legs will be necessary to handle Notre Dame, as they will be key to Duke’s management of the clock. The time of possession comparison between the Blue Devils and the Fighting Irish will reveal which team drives the game’s pace; if Duke has its way, it will sustain long drives that chew clock, but Notre Dame may prefer driving up the scoreboard. If Waters, Moore and Coleman can combine for an efficient, high-volume output, the Blue Devils will spend less time trying to stop the Fighting Irish’s own offense.
Break the line
Every football game is decided on the line, and Saturday will be no different. Notre Dame boasts both one of the best offensive lines and the best running backs in the nation. Junior running back Audric Estime will surely be the focus of Duke’s defense, as he leads the country with 591 rushing yards. Blocking for him is an O-line unit led by junior offensive lineman and 2022 AP All-American Joe Alt.
It will be up to the Blue Devils’ defensive front to keep Estime in check, including redshirt senior defensive tackle DeWayne Carter — who scored last week on a fumble recovery — and senior defensive tackle Aeneas Peebles — who had 1.5 sacks last week against the Huskies. The battle will be physical and taxing, and after Notre Dame’s close Week 4 win over Ohio State, Duke may have an advantage if the Fighting Irish come out tired.
Extra special teams
Possibly the Blue Devils’ best player, based on statistics, is graduate student punter Porter Wilson. That’s right, the 6-foot-5, 231 pound Wilson has led Duke to the best net punting mark in the nation. Wilson, along with sophomore kicker Todd Pelino, will be essential in pulling off the upset.
“[Special teams] is certainly something that we practice at a really high level. I think coach [Patrick] Dougherty does a phenomenal job preparing and organizing our special teams, and then we've got great buy in,” Elko said.
Pelino nailed a career-high 50-yard field goal against UConn, and a Leonard-led drive at the end of the first half was punctuated perfectly with a 40-yarder from Pelino. While that make did not mean much against the Huskies, it could mean everything against Notre Dame.
Should the Blue Devils keep the game close, small differences in special teams could make the ultimate difference. The Fighting Irish need to look no further than last week to realize this, as kicker Spencer Shrader missed a 47-yard field goal and they lost by three to Ohio State.
Entering his sixth year of college football, Notre Dame quarterback Sam Hartman likely has some tough memories from his last visit to Wallace Wade Stadium. Last season, when Hartman was still playing for Wake Forest, he lost to Duke 34-31. While Hartman had an exceptional game, throwing for three touchdowns and 347 yards, a costly interception with less than two minutes left in the fourth quarter sealed the loss for the Demon Deacons.
The Blue Devils will look to get the best of Hartman again, although it will be no easy task. He is surrounded by the aforementioned offensive line and boasts a 70.4% completion percentage on the season. Furthermore, just as Duke is familiar with the Fighting Irish’s quarterback, Hartman has seen the Blue Devils before.
“I wish we were playing a true freshman quarterback making his first start, but that's not what we have. And so, we've got to do some different things to try to make him uncomfortable, challenge him and not allow him to have success as often as he would like,” Elko said. “Then, we've got to attack the football, like we always do.”
Elko has a background in defense, and Duke boasts the fourth-best pass defense in the nation. However, the secondary has not faced a signal caller with the talent and experience of Hartman before. Even if the Blue Devils succeed in every other aspect of the game, a victory will come down to beating Hartman and forcing him into mistakes.
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Dom Fenoglio is a Trinity sophomore and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.