The Note Dame Fighting Irish don’t have much time to breathe a sigh of relief for their last-second win over Virginia Tech as they head to Durham to face the 4-4 Duke Blue Devils. What could have been a much more comfortable victory against Tech got bogged down with a combination of turnovers and penalties, though the win does keep the Irish in the hunt for a major bowl matchup.
The last time Duke and Notre Dame faced each other was three years ago when the Irish were jolted by the Blue Devils, 38-35, with a late field goal serving as the key to victory. This season, the Blue Devils have had a rollercoaster season by starting with three wins in their first four games, followed by a trio of losses in their next four contests.
Below are some of the matchups that will be worth watching:
QB Ian Book vs. Duke Defense
Without Book last Saturday, Notre Dame would have dropped their second consecutive game and third of the season. He connected on 29 of his 53 passes for 341 yards and also led the weal rushing attack with 50 yards on 13 carries. He led the Irish on a dramatic 87-yard drive to win it, completing clutch passes, including two fourth-down tosses. He then won it with 29 seconds left on a seven-yard scoring run.
Nothing stands out one way or the other when it comes to either Duke’s pass defense or their defense against the run. However, one oddity stands out in the fact that in the Blue Devils’ four losses, they’ve been able to force ten turnovers, compared to just four in their wins. Book has the opportunity to exploit some of Duke’s flaws but has to avoid committing his own errors.
Notre Dame Defense vs. QB Quentin Harris
Despite allowing just 240 total yards and one touchdown against Virginia Tech, Notre Dame’s defensive effort might have been wasted without the late heroics. Aggressive Irish defenders came up with five pass deflections in that contest and helped change a stretch that saw them give up over 400 yards in each of the previous two games, as well as a total of 72 points. A continuation of the Tech effort would enhance the Irish’s chance at victory.
After having been used in a reserve capacity the past three seasons, Harris is getting his chance to start. His results largely mirror his team’s with 10 of his 13 touchdown passes coming in the Blue Devils’ four victories and all seven of his interceptions being thrown in Duke’s quartet of losses. Over 70 percent of his rushing yards on the year came in the team’s first three victories, so shutting down that part of his game would help to make winning easier.
RB Tony Jones Jr. vs. MLB Koby Quansah
After sitting out the Virginia Tech contest with a rib injury, the presumed return of Jones is badly needed. Against the Hokies, the Irish running game was virtually non-existent by gaining less than three yards per carry on the afternoon. Jones left the Michigan game early after having put together three consecutive performances of breaking the 100-yard barrier.
Quansah enters this game as Duke’s leading tackler with 72 stops and has managed to get at least one tackle-for-loss in six of the Blue Devils’ eight games. Those numbers indicate that his name figures to be regularly heard on Saturday night, a scenario that puts the onus on Jones to win this battle. That victor may not determine which team walks off the field with a victory, but a big night by Jones would get the Irish running game back on track.
OT Liam Eichenberg vs. DE Victor Dimukeje
Given the shaky state of the injury-battered Notre Dame offensive line, Eichenberg’s performance on Book’s blindside against the top member of Duke’s defensive front will be important. Robert Hainsey’s season-ending injury, coupled with the extended absence of Tommy Kraemer, makes the right side of the line vulnerable, so neutralizing one key part of the Blue Devil lineup would provide a huge boost.
Dimukeje has already nearly doubled his sack total from last year, collecting his 6.5 takedowns in a three-week stretch. He followed that with a relatively quiet week in Duke’s loss to North Carolina, with just one tackle to his credit. However, his athleticism resulted in a pass deflection that helped set up a Blue Devil go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter.