In front of a sold-out crowd Saturday night at Wallace Wade Stadium, No. 17 Duke has struggled to put up early points against visiting No. 11 Notre Dame. After 30 minutes of play, the Blue Devils trail 10-0.
Shorthanded: Duke marched into battle without one of its very best Saturday. Standout left tackle Graham Barton, a First-Team All-ACC selection in 2022, was ruled out shortly before kickoff, with redshirt freshman Brian Parker II receiving the nod instead. Graduate cornerback Myles Jones, who missed the Blue Devils’ win at UConn, is also sidelined for the heavyweight tilt with the Fighting Irish. Duke still managed to keep junior quarterback Riley Leonard upright for the most part, but the offense found little success in a first half without its unsung star.
Leonard’s first mistake: For the first time in what has so far been a special season for Duke’s quarterback, a Leonard pass wound up in the arms of the wrong team. The critical error came on second down from his own 14-yard line as senior safety Xavier Watts jumped Nicky Dalmolin’s route over the middle of the field.
While Duke’s defense held up — a third-down sack by graduate defensive tackle Ja’Mion Franklin forced a 35-yard field goal — Leonard’s first interception of the season (and first since a November 2022 loss at Pittsburgh) was emblematic of a tough half for the rising star under center. The Fairhope, Ala., product heads to the locker room with 93 yards on 8-for-17 passing and only found success with his legs on a 21-yard carry at the tail end of the half.
Hartman’s return: For the third time in his career, Notre Dame quarterback and former Wake Forest signal-caller Sam Hartman is up against the Blue Devils. He nearly willed the Demon Deacons to a win in Durham in November 2022, accounting for 372 total yards and three passing touchdowns but falling 34-31 as a late-game interception sealed the deal.
Now with the Fighting Irish for his sixth season of college football, the veteran Hartman continued to show command of one of the most explosive offenses in the sport. He displayed an early rapport with junior tight end Mitchell Evans (four receptions, 99 yards) and has Notre Dame in control with 30 minutes on the clock. He might not need to replicate his gaudy numbers from past outings against the Blue Devils, but his 132 yards on 9-for-16 passing have been enough so far.
Running in place: For all of Leonard’s success as a passer, the heartbeat of Duke’s offense has been its vaunted rushing attack, which averaged 200.5 yards on the ground in its 4-0 start. That ground attack was stopped in its tracks early Saturday, with the Blue Devils totaling just two rushing yards in the first frame and 38 in total before heading to the locker room.
Kicking woes: Chalk it up to the rowdiest crowd Wallace Wade has seen in a long while, but both teams had trouble putting the ball through the uprights early Saturday, specifically on the north side of the field. An impressive first drive for the Blue Devils ended with a 38-yard miss by sophomore Todd Pelino, and Notre Dame kicker Spencer Shrader returned the favor with a 37-yard miss midway through the second quarter. Pelino ended the half with another miss from 25 yards out, keeping the Blue Devils scoreless through 30 minutes at home.
For Duke, it was the cherry on top of an uneven special teams half — the Fighting Irish converted a fake punt and were later the beneficiaries of a mishit punt by Porter Wilson.
By the numbers:
20 rushing yards for Estime: Up against one of college football’s most impressive running backs of the young 2023 season in junior Audric Estimé, the Blue Devils gave no quarter. Estimé entered Saturday’s contest fourth in the NCAA with 7.7 yards per carry, but the Blue Devils held him to a respectable 2.2 rate on nine carries in the first 30 minutes.
10 points: Through their first four games, the Blue Devils gave up 8.8 points per game and only allowed more than seven in a 38-14 win against Northwestern. Although the Fighting Irish had to work hard on offense and only found paydirt on the opening drive, this opponent has proven to be cut from a different cloth.
Seven penalties for Notre Dame: In a half where the time of possession favored the visiting side, Duke benefitted from a slew of flags called against the Fighting Irish. The discrepancy (40 yards to zero yards) has the Blue Devils hanging on as the second half approaches in Durham.
A play that mattered:
Just when it looked as if the Blue Devil defense had held up on the opening drive, Notre Dame pulled its first trick out of the hat: a fake punt. On fourth-and-4 at Duke’s 47-yard line, freshman running back Jeremiyah Love took the direct snap 34 yards up the right side, setting up Estime’s six-yard score just two plays later. That touchdown, and the play that made it possible, made all the difference in a first half with little offense to go around.
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Jonathan Levitan is a Trinity senior and was previously sports editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.