Notre Dame won a football game on Saturday in convincing fashion against a Power 5 opponent for the first time in over a month. Saturday was a pretty good day. The Irish traveled down to Durham, North Carolina, and shut down the Duke Blue Devils to the tune of 38-7. It was a night in which there was finally a lot to like and not a lot to not like. It’s been a little while since I’ve had that luxury in writing this column.
Ian Book running the ball down Duke’s throat
Even when Ian Book is not at the top of his game passing, he can impact a game with his legs and never was that more apparent than Saturday night when Book ran for 139 yards on just 12 carries. Book ran the zone-read better than we’ve seen him in a long time, which wasn’t necessarily too hard because that wasn’t a big part of the office for much of the season. It was on Saturday night, and it was extremely effective.
Book wasn’t perfect passing the football against Duke, but he was better than we’ve seen, which was encouraging. His running can be a significant asset when his passing isn’t exactly perfect, and Notre Dame had gotten away from using him much in the running game ever since his injury last year against Northwestern. Book had 10+ carries in just two games this year before the previous two weeks. He had 25 carries combined for 189 yards against Virginia Tech and Duke.
The trials and tribulations of Ian Book have been well documented this year, but the kid keeps coming out and competing. Saturday night was another encouraging sign that he might be able to turn this around just yet and finish the year strong.
Chase Claypool continuing to dominate the sideline routes
Part of the reason Book might end the year strong is because of Chase Claypool. The senior wide receiver is displaying elite ball skills every week, and Saturday night was no different. Claypool hauled in five receptions for 97 yards and a touchdown. Most of those yards weren’t that easy either. As he’s been doing all season, Claypool was a monster on sideline routes displaying excellent footwork and making textbook catches.
Duke had no answer for Claypool on Saturday and knew it. After Claypool hauled down multiple long passes, Duke resorted to interfering with him since they couldn’t stop him. There is only one defensive back left on the schedule – old friend Paulson Adebo – who can matchup with Claypool and give him any problems. If Book keeps trusting Claypool and just putting the ball up for him to go and get, Claypool will and the Irish offense will look more like what we saw Saturday night in Durham than the offense we saw throughout October.
The return of Chris Finke
The return of Chris Finke is another reason that Ian Book is starting to look like his old self again. Finke was never meant to be a focal point of the offense this year, but he was supposed to be that annoying little guy that opposing defenses had to account for, or he’d shred them. That didn’t happen early in the season. Finke was rendered ineffective for the first half of the season. Brian Kelly’s hinted Finke wasn’t 100%, so that could account for some of the drop-off but not all of it.
In the last two weeks we see that annoying little receiver who can cause a lot of havoc. Had it not been for a borderline holding penalty on Trevor Ruhland, Finke would have had a career-high 127 yards to go along with his two touchdowns. The penalty wiped out a 78-yard pass that also would have been Notre Dame’s longest play of the year.
What was the most encouraging with Finke’s performance on Saturday night was his clutch 3rd down receptions. Early in the year, Finke made some crucial errors on 3rd down – specifically against Georgia that cost Notre Dame dearly. Against Duke, he converted three straight third downs at one point and was the safety blanket for Book we all expected to see from week one.
This weekend could be another chance for Notre Dame to get Finke going. With massive receivers like Claypool and Javon McKinley on the edge against Navy’s smaller defenders, maybe this is the week the wide receiver screen game finally works.
Notre Dame’s defense getting back to dominating an offense they should dominate
That Michigan game is looking more and more just like a bad night for a defense whose offense did them no favors throughout most of the game. Since that terrible night in Ann Arbor, the Notre Dame defense has been stifling against a pair of ACC opponents. Neither Virginia Tech last week or Duke this past weekend could get any offense going against the Notre Dame defense. Duke’s only points came after a shanked punt and a stumble in coverage by Donte Vaughn. Outside of that, Duke couldn’t do a damn thing.
Notre Dame’s linebackers are back to playing at the level that we saw in September that shocked us all as well – Jeremiah Owusu Koramoah specifically. JOK looked like a heat-syncing missile throughout September before playing just OKAY for much of October. He was disruptive all night long on Saturday and looked like the guy who had everyone thinking he was headed for stardom. Drew White was his normal, reliable self with a team-leading seven tackles.
Notre Dame only got one sack on the night, but they did generate pressure and make things uncomfortable for the Duke passing game, so mission accomplished there. This weekend is a very different test for them against Navy. Still, if the defense we’ve seen the last two weeks is what Notre Dame shows to Boston College and Stanford, the Midshipmen might be the biggest obstacle in the way of another 10-win regular-season for Notre Dame.
Beating up on the ACC On Their Own Dumb Network
With Notre Dame’s win over Duke on Saturday, the Irish are 13-1 against the ACC in the regular season (13-2 including the playoff loss to Clemson). A win against Boston College in two weeks would mean just a single regular-season loss to the ACC in the last three years. That’s an impressive stretch that will be difficult to improve on in 2020 with Clemson coming to South Bend.
What made this most recent win over the ACC just a bit sweeter though was that it came on the conference’s own, terrible network. Many Notre Dame fans were unable to see the game on Saturday without signing up for a free trial to some streaming service because surprise, surprise; people don’t want to pay for the ACC Network. I’ll go into much more depth on the ACC Network in the five things I didn’t like column too, but man was that coverage bad.
Next year’s ACC schedule includes home games versus Clemson, Louisville, and Duke along with road trips to Wake Forest and Georgia Tech. Other than the Clemson game, those are four games Notre Dame should at least be favored in.