Entering a college football season like no other, the revamped Notre Dame Fighting Irish 2020 schedule gets underway on Saturday with a home matchup against the Duke Blue Devils. The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in the Irish temporarily joining the ACC in football, given how devastated their original schedule became in the wake of the virus.
The chaos that’s ensued over the past six months and the uncertain roadmap that lies ahead make it diffcult to project how the Irish will do for the upcoming campaign. That includes their postseason, which is currently a guessing game.
Last season, Notre Dame traveled to Durham and routed Duke, 38-7, but it’s likely that Brian Kelly will remind his squad of the Blue Devils’ last visit to Notre Dame. That was four years ago, when the Irish dropped a 38-35 decision, a game indicative of that miserable 4-8 season.
Below are some of the matchups that will be worth watching on Saturday:
QB Ian Book vs. Duke Defense
Last season, Book enhanced his chances for the NFL by throwing for 3,034 yards and 34 touchdowns, while only tossing six interceptions. Against Duke, he stayed with the short passing game, though his four touchdown passes on the night were marred by two picks. During the 2020 season, he’ll have new targets to find.
Among the two sides of the ball, the defensive unit of the Blue Devils is the strong point. Book needs to hope that his linemen up front are on their game, since Duke will bring a strong pass rush. The Blue Devils’ run defense remains suspect, which means that Book’s arm might be used more for handing off than throwing.
Notre Dame Defense vs. QB Chase Brice
Establishing a consistent effort is one of the goals for 2020, with a number of new faces on the Irish defense. One face that Notre Dame hopes to keep healthy is end Daelin Hayes, who has a chance to be a force up front. Linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah hopes to build on last year’s breakout campaign, while the secondary is strong at safety and hopeful on the corners.
Brice transferred from Clemson after two seasons of backing up Trevor Lawrence, but despite his limited play with the Tigers, he did show he can deliver in the clutch. That was in 2018, when he took over for an injured Lawrence and led the Tigers back from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to save their season. Whether he delivers similar magic at Notre Dame remains to be seen.
MLB Drew White vs. RB Deon Jackson
White is a player who tends to be under the radar, probably because he’s not the ideal size for a linebacker. Despite that drawback, he still manages to be among the team leaders, collecting 80 tackles last year, including eight behind the line. There’s no flash to his game, which suits the Irish defense just fine.
Jackson’s numbers slipped in 2019, rushing for 641 yards and scoring six touchdowns, but he remains a receiving threat out of the backfield. An all-purpose back, Jackson has the potential to be a game-breaker, but hasn’t reached that status yet and could be challenged by fellow back Mataeo Durant, who gained 461 yards last season.
LT Liam Eichenberg vs. DE Victor Dimukeje
Eichenberg was one of the keys to keeping Book upright last year, which helped the signal caller deliver a solid 2019 campaign. Another strong year could likely put Eichenberg in discussions among first-round NFL draft picks, which is a category that a number of past Notre Dame linemen have achieved in the past decade.
One way for Eichenberg to move forward toward that goal is to neutralize Dimukeje, who’s coming off a career-high 8.5 sacks last season and has 24 tackles-for-loss in his first three seasons. Dimukeje also has a knack for forcing turnovers, with a pair of forced fumbles to his credit and even an interception.
NT Kurt Hinish vs. C Will Taylor
Hiinish doesn’t put up big numbers, yet still manages to play an effective role in getting the job done. He’s also not a physical presence on the field, but still makes enough of an impact to draw a double-team on occasion. His 3.5 career sacks and seven stops behind the line of scrimmage are not really a strong gauge of what he brings to the Notre Dame defense.
The expectation by the Irish defensive coaches was that Jack Wohlabaugh would be lining up at center for the Blue Devils. However, things changed when Wohlabaugh was lost for the year with a torn ACL, so Taylor, who’s also had injury issues during his career, moves into that spot. Two overachievers battling it out in the trenches should make for some interesting viewing.