Gameday in Durham brought it all and then some.
A ton was on the line for the Blue Devils Saturday night: a first 5-0 start in 29 seasons, a pair of top-15 wins and a stamp on the college football world marking “We. Are. Here.” Both Duke and visiting Notre Dame played a physical game and dug deep in their respective bags of tricks to find ways to punch holes in the staunch opposing defenses, which combined to concede just 12 touchdowns in nine games entering Saturday.
But it was No. 11 Notre Dame who came out on top, 21-14, at a raucous Wallace Wade Stadium.
For the Fighting Irish, the first punch was a fake punt-turned dash into the red zone while No. 17 Duke took all of 27 minutes before unleashing the legs of quarterback Riley Leonard, who went 12-for-27 with 134 passing yards. A trio of missed field goals between the two teams, punts back and forth and no scores in two first-half red zone trips by the home offense defined the game’s early going. But the Blue Devils found their flow in the second half, clawing back while relying on a potent rushing attack and chunk yardage. The Irish then assembled a magnificent final drive to take down the Blue Devils in the final minute.
"It hurts for these kids, they put a lot into this," head coach Mike Elko said. "We've got a really good football team. We just got some things that we got to clean up."
Early in the fourth quarter, Leonard connected with a spinning Jordan Moore for 26 yards before taking it himself down the right sideline for 33. A targeting call on Notre Dame’s Jordan Botelho added 15 more ahead of Moore’s wide open 3-yard touchdown snag to put the Blue Devils (4-1, 1-0 in the ACC) ahead 14-13. Duke ran some clock by punching the ball up the middle, with Leonard, Jordan Waters and Jaquez Moore sharing the duties of running the time under three minutes.
A Leonard pooch punt pinned the Fighting Irish (5-1) against their goal line with Notre Dame needing just a field goal to win.
Hartman and Notre Dame’s offense drove to the Duke 40-yard line with catches from Mitchell Evans and Rico Flores Jr. before getting bumped back on an offensive pass interference penalty. First, second and third downs gone, it came to a final effort on a fourth-and-16 at the Duke 47-yard line — and Hartman’s timely scramble gave the Fighting Irish one last gasp for air.
"You have a hard time believing that a kid can scramble for 16 yards," Elko said. "You drop eight in that long-yardage situation because you think the scramble is out of play and you just try to flood the coverage. And I'd say in hindsight we should have just kept pressure, I don't know."
Fighting Irish star running back Audric Estime bolted 30 yards to silence the Blue Devil crowd and go ahead 21-14 with 31 seconds to go. Leonard fumbled on the Duke last-chance drive before being helped off the field and Notre Dame ran out the rest of the clock.
After trying to stuff Estime early in the evening, Notre Dame fought through with a fake punt rush by Jeremiyah Love to extend the game’s opening drive and brought Notre Dame into the red zone. Estimé subsequently punched it in for a short touchdown four minutes into the game to hand Duke its first deficit in more than 200 minutes of football. While the Blue Devil run defense held tight, the pass defense was more porous than head coach Mike Elko would have liked to see.
To add to the early score, quarterback Sam Hartman looked downfield all night, exploiting a Blue Devil secondary which had not seen much of a downfield passing attack in its previous three games. He and his tight end Evans connected six times for 134 yards. The junior Evans was doing it all, corralling everything close and collecting huge gains after the catch, but was kept quiet by the Duke defense for over 20 minutes.
The Blue Devils, short First Team All-ACC left tackle Graham Barton (injury), went to the air early and often. The first Duke drive featured six pass plays and just three on the ground, with the runs going for a net zero yards. On the edge of the red zone, sophomore kicker Todd Pelino missed a 38-yard field goal try to get the Blue Devils on the board. Luckily for Duke, Notre Dame’s kicker missed a try on the same end of the field from 37 yards away to keep the score 10-0 later in the first half.
Struggles on the ground led Riley Leonard and the Blue Devils into a rushed first-quarter throw backed up in their own territory that resulted in his first interception of the season. The Fighting Irish punished Duke by building a two-score lead with a chip-shot field goal. Missed throws and slips did not help the Blue Devils when it came to driving down the field, making the job easy for the talented Notre Dame defense into the final minutes of the second quarter.
"We were just out of sync a little bit in the first half... we had to get out there [after halftime], we had to find ways to establish the run. I thought we were able to do that a lot better in the second half," Elko said.
On Duke’s final drive before the halftime break, Leonard ran for 37 yards and made a couple of smart reads to collect first downs with his arm. A 63-yard drive stalled within the Notre Dame 10-yard line as Leonard nearly lost Duke possession with a fumble.
The Fighting Irish got to take another deep breath as Pelino’s second kick attempt of the night just missed the right upright from 24 yards out as time expired. The miss sent Pelino to 1-for-3 on field goal attempts within 30 yards on the season, well within his kicking range. With a crushing end to the half, the Blue Devils looked to keep their offense hot coming out of the break, but it was stopped and turned into three more points for Notre Dame, handing the visitors a 13-0 lead.
Duke’s ground game caught fire further into the third, when bullish runs up the middle from Jordan Waters and a 34-yard run by Jaquez Moore led the Blue Devils toward the red zone, where a leaping fourth-down-converting snag by Sahmir Hagans set up Duke for a Waters touchdown push at the goal line. His eighth touchdown marked his fifth-straight game with a score, electrified the Blue Devil crowd and put pressure on a suddenly wobbly Notre Dame offense.
A near-interception and a third-down sack of Hartman by Tre Freeman and Aeneas Peebles led to a quick change of possession and gave Duke its first chance to take the lead. While the Blue Devils failed to advance past midfield on that drive, the ensuing Duke drive brought all the fireworks and put Duke on top until the final seconds of a thriller in Durham.
The Blue Devils get to recover from Saturday’s dogfight before squaring off against in-state foe N.C. State Oct. 14.
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Micah Hurewitz is a Trinity senior and was previously a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.