In its last outing, Duke proved that its early season successes are portable, as the Blue Devils traveled up to East Hartford, Conn., for their first road test of the season, promptly decimating UConn 41-7 to improve to 4-0 on the season. Head coach Mike Elko’s squad continues to garner national media attention, as Duke slots in at No. 17 in this week’s AP poll. On Saturday, the Blue Devils will be faced with their toughest test yet, as College GameDay will come to town to watch them host No. 11 Notre Dame.
Let’s take a look at what problems Notre Dame could present.
Five weeks into the season, Notre Dame largely looks the part of a national title contender. However, the Fighting Irish are coming off their first loss of the season, dropping one to then-No. 6 Ohio State on a last-second touchdown that gave the Buckeyes a 17-14 victory. Before the misstep, head coach Marcus Freeman’s group had dominated all of its opponents, scoring 40 or more points in every game. This included a 45-24 domination of ACC opponent N.C. State, a team that Duke will face in its first game post-Irish. While a loss would not hurt the Blue Devils in terms of the ACC title race, a win against Freeman’s team would stamp Duke as a contender going forward.
After largely struggling to manufacture points last season, Notre Dame went searching for a big-time signal caller to anchor its offense in the transfer portal. Enter Sam Hartman — the sixth-year transfer from Wake Forest who has been lights-out through his first five games in South Bend, Ind., completing his passes at a 70.4 clip and slinging for 1,236 yards and 14 touchdowns, the 10th- and third-best marks in the nation, respectively. Most importantly, Hartman has not thrown an interception yet this season, something Duke will likely have to change if it wants to emerge from Wallace Wade Stadium with a win. The gunslinger also likes to share the wealth, as the Fighting Irish have seven different pass-catchers who have eclipsed the 100-yard mark this season, with senior wideout Chris Tyree leading the pack. Tyree is the deep threat for Freeman’s offense, only having nine receptions but already amassing 241 yards and two touchdowns.
“[Hartman has] got a ton of college football experience.” Elko said at his weekly press conference. “I don't know how many games he started. But I imagine it's got to be close to 50 something, you know, and so there's not a lot you can throw at him that he hasn't seen before.” Elko said.
Despite Hartman’s excellence, Notre Dame’s greatest offensive strength is arguably its potent rushing attack, paced by junior back Audric Estime and an outstanding offensive line. The Fighting Irish have rushed for 198.8 yards per game so far this season, the 29th-best total in the country. Estime has scampered for 591 yards through his first five contests, a mark that paces the nation. The Nyack, N.Y., native, has a unique combination of size and speed that is hard to replicate, one that could provide difficulty for Duke’s usually stout defense.
The name to know besides Estime in terms of the ground game is offensive tackle Joe Alt, who is widely regarded as one of, if not the best tackle in the nation, and almost certainly will be a first-round pick in the upcoming NFL Draft. The entire offensive line unit is extremely talented and likely the best Duke will face all season, providing a challenge for a Blue Devil defensive line that is veteran-laden.
Much like Elko, Freeman has a background as a defensive coordinator, serving in the role for the Fighting Irish until his promotion in 2022. And again, just like Duke, defense is the calling card for Notre Dame. Through five games, Freeman’s defensive unit has allowed just 260.6 yards per game, the seventh-lowest mark in FBS, one spot ahead of Clemson, who is by far the best defense Duke has faced to this point. Notre Dame is arguably coming off its most impressive performance on defense to date, limiting a high-octane Ohio State offense headlined by Biletnikoff Award favorite Marvin Harrison Jr. to just 17 points. If the Blue Devils want to prove themselves offensively, they must be able to win consistently across the Fighting Irish front seven and find a way to get receivers open out wide.
“I think they have a very firm grasp of what they're trying to do,” Elko said. “I think they they're able to execute their system at a high level, you don't see a lot of busts, you don't see a lot of bad leverage plays, you don't look at the formation cut ups and see a lot of things that you can attack because they have great leverage and how they set edges and set formations.”
The strength of the Notre Dame defense lies in its secondary, which allows a measly 149.4 yards per game through the air even after facing the dangerous Buckeyes, the sixth-best mark in the nation and two spots lower than the Blue Devils. The top dog on the back end for Freeman’s defense is Benjamin Morrison, the sophomore standout cornerback. In his debut campaign for the Fighting Irish, Morrison did not disappoint, leading the team with six interceptions and being named a Freshman All-American by multiple media outlets. So far this year, Morrison has been similarly dominant, already hauling in a pick against N.C. State. Duke wideout Jalon Calhoun will likely be the assignment for the Phoenix native, creating a matchup between two highly touted players that could be the difference maker Saturday.
The Notre Dame defensive line is no slouch either, allowing 111.2 rushing yards per game. However, running the ball has been Duke’s strength this season, so we can expect the Blue Devils to try and take advantage of this potential matchup advantage, electing to pound the rock with the Jordan Waters-Jaquez Moore-Jaylen Coleman trio while letting quarterback Riley Leonard keep the defense honest through the air and with his legs.
If Duke wants to build on its national hype, they are going to have to find a way to claw one out against a very complete Notre Dame team. If the Blue Devils can find a way to contain Estime while excelling on the ground themselves, they may find themselves 5-0 and with serious hype as a dark horse for the College Football Playoff.
“They don't give you anything, you have to earn everything,” Elko said. “And so we're gonna have to come out and have a really complete performance on Saturday night.”
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