Notre Dame is yet to win a night game on the road this year and they will be faced with their third try at this task come Saturday as the 15th ranked Fighting Irish travel to North Carolina to take on the Duke Blue Devils. After escaping with a bounce back one point win against Virginia Tech, ball security and the turnover margin look to be a key factor in deciding the outcome of Saturday’s contest. With Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book coming off a multiple turnover game and the Blue Devils’ offense being relatively turnover prone, the team that can better take care of the ball will have a significant advantage in this matchup.
The Irish, as noted by Brian Kelly, “have not executed at the highest of levels” recently and are going to need to improve upon that. With everyone being down on the Irish (especially offensively) recently, I think it is important that Book and the offense use the momentum and confidence gained on the last two drives against Virginia Tech to jumpstart their performance on Saturday. Notre Dame showed resilience, being able to withstand some blows from the Hokies and still come out with a victory. They were able to overcome the three turnovers (two Book interceptions and the Armstrong fumble near the goal line) and march 91 and 87 yards respectively in their final two drives. With a lot of the recent criticism being thrown at Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book and offensive coordinator Chip Long, Brian Kelly addressed both of their recent performances. On Long, Kelly said “calling plays is an art and there’s a science to it. When you look at it through that lens, there’s a number of times where we have some plays called that were perfect fits that we didn’t execute to the level we needed […] I’m pleased with what Chip (Long) has done with the play calling; now it’s a matter of executing at a higher level. In this instance, I do agree that one of, if not the main culprit is Notre Dame’s execution. There are multiple plays where Book seems to leave the pocket too early, not go through his full read progression, or simply miss receivers that are open downfield. There are instances where it looks as though he has made up his mind as to who the ball will be going to before the play has begun and this, in my opinion, is due to Book’s lack of confidence in himself.
When asked about Book, Kelly also commented on Book’s confidence and his ability to cancel out the outside noise that comes with playing quarterback at Notre Dame. He touched on the fact that throughout the recruiting process, the coaching staff felt that Book could handle all of these associated pressures. Yes, that may have been true but now more than ever he needs to prove his ability to do that. The Irish need the Ian Book that lead the team last year. From the limited playing time that I have seen from backup quarterback Phil Jurkovec, it is clear that he can enhance the passing game down the field but it is unclear as to whether he can manage the offense and take care of the ball. This has left Irish fans in a pickle for the last couple weeks debating on who should be playing at quarterback. If you want my opinion: I still don’t know. I think that Jurkovec needs to get some meaningful snaps – the Irish could incorporate him into the last series of the first half and the first series of the second half, some sort of rotation to show his skillset and to prove to Book that if his play doesn’t step up, there is competition behind him.
As Book and/or Jurkovec will be playing behind a reconstructed offensive live likely for the remainder of the season, this should be the first time since the Louisville game that both Tony Jones Jr. and Jafar Armstrong will be healthy and used in the Irish backfield. As it was planned throughout the offseason, I think that having both backs working together throughout the game will help the Irish better establish the run, therefore opening up the passing game. As the Duke defense has been their strongest unit thus far, the Irish will need to take care of the ball and not give the Blue Devils’ offense a short field to work with.
The Blue Devils are lead by head coach David Cutcliffe and have typically played a similar defensive setup to the Irish, normally lining up in a 4-2-5 set. With eight returning starters on this side of the ball, Duke’s defense won’t consistently be throwing blitzes towards the Irish, however they do bring a lot of experience and range in the secondary. With dropping at least five if not more, in coverage Notre Dame will need to get the running game going early so that Book will be able to pass against the more crowded secondary. As this has proven to be a struggle up to this point in the season, this is another reason as to why the turnover game will be such a big factor in Saturday’s matchup.
Offensively, Duke has had to go through the revamp process after losing a relatively significant amount of offensive starters to graduation or the NFL. Most notably, fifth year senior Quentin Harris is replacing now New York Giant Daniel Jones at the quarterback position. Harris, who had backed up Jones for the previous three seasons is not as big or strong as his counterpart was, however he offers a lot more versatility in the run game. As a true dual threat quarterback who has shown that he can hurt opposing teams with his running abilities, Harris is Duke’s second leading rusher behind starting running back Deon Jackson – another Blue Devil that the Irish will need to keep an eye on. Deon Jackson is a quick and explosive back that has seen success catching the ball out of the backfield and has contributed five touchdowns through Duke’s first eight games. To pair with Jackson, the Blue Devil wide receiving core has been lead by Scott Bracey, Jalon Calhoun, and Jake Bobo. Although Duke does have talent at all of these key positions, they are not a team that has shown to be able to win shootouts this season. Unfortunately, neither have the Irish, so as has been mentioned both teams will be looking to force turnovers and shorten the field of play.
As the Irish are currently sitting at eight point favorites, recency bias has me very hesitant going into this game. Yes, on paper the Irish have the more talented team but I am yet to see where this team’s head really is at. Have they shaken off the pressure from the nagging but deserving criticism or will the team still come out tight and make uncharacteristic errors? As has been the case recently, the Irish defense has been winning the games and that trend will need to continue. Forcing turnovers against Harris and the Blue Devils’ offense will be crucial. With that being said, I will predict a 24-17 Notre Dame victory; another game that will be way closer than what it should be. Let’s hope that the Irish come out aggressive and looking to take control of this game. Go Irish. Beat Blue Devils.
A Look at Notre Dame’s Opponents:
Louisville: 5-3 overall, coming off bye week
New Mexico: 2-7 overall, lost to Nevada 21-10
Georgia: 7-1 overall, currently ranked #6, beat Florida 24-17
Virginia: 6-3 overall, beat North Carolina 38-31
Bowling Green: 3-6 overall, beat Akron 35-6
USC: 5-4 overall, lost to Oregon 56-24
Michigan: 7-2 overall, currently ranked #14, beat Maryland 38-7
Virginia Tech: 5-3 overall, lost to Notre Dame 21-20
Duke: 4-4 overall, coming off bye week
Navy: 7-1 overall, currently ranked #25, beat UCONN 56-10
Boston College: 5-4 overall, beat Syracuse 58-27
Stanford: 4-4 overall, coming off bye week