Duke, Notre Dame both improved in ACC debut for Irish

The Blue Devils look to spring an upset in South Bend

Michael Carter II and the Duke defense will need to slow quarterback Ian Book and the Notre Dame offense to have a chance at pulling off an upset Saturday in South Bend. (Gerry Broome / AP Photo)

Duke hosted Notre Dame at Wallace Wade Stadium last November in a microcosm of the Blue Devils’ season.

The Duke offense was unable to move the ball consistently or stay on the field, converting just 3-of-16 third-down attempts. The defense, while game, wore down, allowing Irish quarterback Ian Book to throw for four touchdowns and rush for 139 yards in a 38-7 win.

Duke has taken steps to fix the issues that plagued the Blue Devils in 2019. The offense has undergone a makeover. Coach David Cutcliffe decided to take over the play-calling, serving as his own offensive coordinator and taking a more hands-on role with the quarterbacks. The Blue Devils also brought in Clemson graduate transfer Chase Brice, who was named the starter six days before opening kickoff.

“He got great arm talent,” Cutcliffe said of Brice. “He’s a natural thrower. His accuracy level is really high. Great football IQ.”

Duke has also reorganized its offensive line, bringing in Stanford graduate transfer Devery Hamilton to play right tackle, shuffling positions of several of last year’s holdovers.

Having an offense that can keep the Blue Devils in games should help to amplify the Duke defense, which is expected to be the strength of the team.

“Possibly the best tandem of corners maybe that we could see all year,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said of the Blue Devils. “Certainly, off the edge. You may not find as good a pass-rushing combination that we’re going to see with this group. They’re very dynamic off the edges. They have corners that can be extremely disruptive. … We’ve got our hands full with Duke.”

The corners include just about every significant contributor from last year, including returning starters Leonard Johnson and Josh Blackwell, as well as Jeremiah Lewis, who played significant time due to injuries. Duke also gets back former All-ACC player Mark Gilbert, who returned to the Blue Devils’ depth chart for the first time since Sept. 2018 when he was listed as the starter for the opener. He’s been battling a hip injury for two years and, by all accounts, is back to his pre-injury form.

The deep, experienced secondary is made more lethal by a pass rush featuring senior Victor Dimukeje and junior Chris Rumph II, considered Duke’s best NFL Draft prospect.

“We definitely have some guys that have some real juice off the edges,” Duke co-defensive coordinator Matt Guerrieri said. “We have to take advantage of those guys, whether it’s separate, on opposite sides or on the same side. We have to game plan to take advantage of those guys. We’ve got a lot of guys that have played a bunch of snaps. Obviously, we have depth in back, right? Guys that are proven, guys that have proven to be good cover players in the back. Blending those together, no doubt there’s the risk/reward of playing tight coverage and rushing the passer. I think you’ll see a number of packages that try to exploit those things, highlighting our defensive strengths.”

While the outlook seems to be improved for Duke, the same may not be said for the opener. As good as Notre Dame looked last year in the blowout, en route to an 11-2 season, Brian Kelly said at year’s end that the Irish may be even better this season.

Notre Dame brings back Book at quarterback, as well as the entire offensive line and much of the defensive front.

“There are a lot of things to like about the team,” Kelly said when asked if his December prediction still held up. “They run the football. They have a quarterback back. Certainly, from a defensive structure, your system is in place. I feel like you have the ability to stop the run. The perimeter, I think we’re better than we were last year. Coming into the season with special teams, we felt really good about where we are, but you’ve got to go play the games…. The basic tenets of having a really good football team, maybe a great football team are in place. Now we have to go prove it.”

For the first time, they’ll be proving it as a full-fledged member of a conference. The Duke game will be Notre Dame’s first-ever conference game, as they join the ACC in a one-year move necessitated by scheduling issues created by the pandemic.

It’s worth noting that Notre Dame’s first ACC game in basketball was also in South Bend against Duke. The Irish pulled a monumental upset over Coach K’s Blue Devils. Duke will look to flip the script and knock off a blue-blood program in Notre Dame’s ACC football lid-lifter.