The Irish advanced to 7-2 overall with a commanding 38-7 victory over the Duke Blue Devils on Saturday night. Notre Dame’s defense rose back to its former game-controlling self, while quarterback Ian Book and the Irish offense finally hit the ground running. The Irish will need to continue build upon this performance as they enter the final stretch of the regular season, but the game did leave Irish faithful with more confidence about the team than what has been felt over the previous two weeks.
Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book finished the game completing 18 of his 32 pass attempts for 181 yards in the air and four touchdowns. Although Book did throw two interceptions (one of them was a fluke), he seemed to finally revert back to the confident quarterback that was on display during last season. Book also finished the game as the Irish’s leading rusher averaging nearly 12 yards on his 12 carries. Although Book was able to rack up this yardage with his legs, this also speaks to the lack of production seen by the Notre Dame running backs. Behind Book’s 139 total yards on the ground, the next leading rusher was Jahmir Smith who took his eight carries for a mere 58 yards. Luckily this was not a game in which the Irish needed to establish the run in order to open up the passing game, but the Irish backs will need to show more consistency and play a bigger role in games when passing the ball isn’t coming as easily. As has not been the case for the majority of the season, Notre Dame was able to get out to a fast start offensively, scoring three of the game’s first four touchdowns which built up a 14-0 lead after just one quarter. I’m not sure if this “offensive explosion” (relative to the starts that we have seen from the Irish previously this season) was due to Book’s gained confidence, more effective play calling and execution, or less talent than what was expected out of Duke’s defense. I would like to chalk it up to the first two factors rather than the third, but we will see how the Irish come out against Navy in the upcoming game.
The more confident looking Book was able to find two of his senior captains in the pass game, Chase Claypool and Chris Finke, for five receptions each. Claypool tallied 97 yards in the air and one touchdown while Finke’s five catches went for 49 yards and two more Irish scores. As was noted throughout the broadcast and in Coach Kelly’s postgame comments, Finke, unknown to many, has been battling through a list of nagging injuries throughout the entirety of the season. With his health back on the rise, Kelly was confident he was going to have a “breakout” game and he most certainly got himself back on track. Claypool’s size and playmaking ability, yet again, proved to be a key component going up against smaller defensive backs. I think that this is a game plan that the Irish will need to exploit in the upcoming matchup against Navy as well. With Claypool’s ability to go up and make plays on the ball at its highest point, there is no reason (short of a significant injury) that his production should dwindle in the upcoming weeks.
Defensively, the Irish were in control of the game nearly from the opening kickoff. The Notre Dame defense gave up less than 100 yards on the ground and only 102 yards through the air. This is the defense that Irish fans have been expecting to see throughout the season. With Notre Dame cornerback Troy Pride Jr. coming up with the lone interception for the Irish, it was the Notre Dame linebacking unit that once again stole the show. Drew White led the Irish with five tackles and one sack and, as this was the most questioned position coming into the season, the linebackers again out performed their expectations. Notre Dame’s defense was able to hold Duke quarterback Quentin Harris to only 16 of 28 completions and one interception; there never seemed to be a moment where the Blue Devil offense really got up and going. Duke’s leading rusher, Deon Jackson, took 14 carries for only 52 yards. As was shown that if you are able to get pressure to Harris, he was incapable of making proper reads or finding any playmakers down field. Undoubtedly, the biggest loss of the night came when Notre Dame’s senior defensive end Julian Okwara went down with a season ending and collegiate career ending broken fibula. Although Okwara’s numbers throughout the first part of the season weren’t necessarily mind-boggling, his leadership and ability to cause opposing offenses fits, both in the run and pass game, will definitely be missed. As defensive end is a position that Notre Dame has relatively significant depth at, a rotation of Irish players will get in the mix in Okwara’s absence.
After improving to 7-2 on the year, the Irish dropped in the rankings, falling one spot from number 15 to number 16 in the AP poll. This was in large part due to Minnesota’s win over fourth ranked Penn State. If the Irish are able to play to this level for the remainder of the season, and come out victorious in the final three regular season games, I would expect Notre Dame to finish ranked somewhere near tenth, but again that will have a lot to do with any other shakeups that could come down the stretch. Notre Dame is now onto it’s next opponent, the Midshipmen of Navy who will come in with a 7-1 record. As Navy’s triple option offense is always a source of problems, the Irish will focus their preparation on the new challenge at hand.