They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. To many Irish fans, Notre Dame’s last-minute win over Virginia Tech last Saturday was not very pretty. Coming off the blowout loss to Michigan, the Irish were not at their best against what many believe is a mediocre Hokie team. But head coach Brian Kelly saw things differently. In the postgame, he lauded his players for their resiliency and admired how they were able to overcome their mistakes.
This week, Notre Dame will head down to Durham, North Carolina, to battle Duke. The Devils have had their share of ups and downs this year, and at 4-4 they need a couple more wins to become bowl eligible. David Cutcliffe’s group had last week off after losing three of its last four games.
Notre Dame holds a 3-2 series lead, but Duke won the most recent matchup (2016) and also the only other meeting at Wallace Wade Stadium, which occurred in 1961.
Notre Dame at Duke
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 9 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: ACC Network
Spread: Notre Dame -8
When Notre Dame Has the Ball
Offensively, there hasn’t been anything that Notre Dame has been able to rely upon consistently this year. At times, the nation’s No. 42 passing offense has been fine, and at other times it has struggled. The running game that went for 230 yards in the opener at Louisville and 308 in the win over USC has accumulated just 153 yards in the past two weeks.
The reason Notre Dame got out to its 5-1 start had to do with the fact that the Irish rarely turned the ball over, and they converted in the red zone. But during the past two games, Notre Dame gave the ball away five times and had problems scoring touchdowns against Virginia Tech. Duke is 26th in defensive red zone touchdown percentage, so pushing the ball over the goal line could be tough this week as well. Also, Notre Dame will have to take extra measures to maintain possessions, because Duke has forced 14 turnovers this season.
Notre Dame needs a big effort from its banged-up offensive line to protect quarterback Ian Book and to open holes for a running game that should be bolstered by the expected return of running back Tony Jones, who missed the Virginia Tech game with a rib injury. Duke defensive end Victor Dimukeje has developed into a good pass rusher, and the Devils linebacking corps has been strengthened by the emergence of freshman Shaka Heyward.
When Duke Has the Ball
If Notre Dame wants to get back to its ball-hawking ways, the Irish are playing the right team this week. Duke’s 19 turnovers rank 119th in the nation, and they do it both ways, with nine fumbles and 10 interceptions. Starting quarterback Quentin Harris was better versus North Carolina but has had problems with interceptions when facing quality defenses this season.
Much like the offense, the Notre Dame defense has been painfully inconsistent this season. Three teams have rushed for over 200 yards on the Irish, and USC had 171. The Irish pass defense numbers are solid, but they haven’t faced many good throwing teams, and the three quarterbacks on the schedule who are capable passers — Georgia’s Jake Fromm, Virginia’s Bryce Perkins, and USC’s Kedon Slovis — combined to complete 71 percent of their passes for an average of 259 yards per game with five touchdowns.
Duke’s offensive success is most dependent on the running game. In their four wins, the Devils have averaged 217 yards per game on the ground. In their four losses, their per-game average is 116 yards. The line will need to do its part to allow running back Deon Jackson to chew up yardage. If the Irish stymie the Duke ground game and can tee off on Harris, it will be a fun trip to Durham for the Irish.
Four weeks ago, Notre Dame played a USC team that had been turning the ball over like crazy. But that day, the Trojans didn’t give it away once. At fumble-prone Michigan, in a driving rainstorm, Notre Dame was unable to force any Wolverine turnovers. Last week, another team that continuously gives the ball away — Virginia Tech — did cough it up twice, but the Irish gave it back three times. Now it’s Duke and its 19 turnovers. Can the Irish force the Blue Devils into mistakes? My guess is that they will. I’m not convinced that Notre Dame will fire on all cylinders, and this is a Duke team that beat Virginia Tech by 35 points. But the Devils also lost 48-14 to a Virginia squad that Notre Dame pulled away from in the second half. Notre Dame will play better and will have its most comfortable win since the rout of Bowling Green.
Prediction: Notre Dame 35, Duke 24
— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.