Notre Dame is back in action on Saturday after one of the most devastating losses the program has suffered in some time. The Irish travel to Duke this weekend along with ESPN College GameDay with a chance to start a redemption tour following last week’s embarrassing ending. The Blue Devils enter the game with some hype, featuring a 4-0 record and a #17 ranking. The Irish, meanwhile, limp in, still ranked 11th with a lot to prove. Will the Irish bounce back or let Ohio State beat them again?
What Worries Me This Week
An Ohio State hangover
Whenever you lose a heartbreaker like the one Notre Dame lost last weekend to Ohio State, the worry is that the loss lingers. Notre Dame can’t let Ohio State beat them twice – especially since they should have never let them beat them once. This game being on the road is probably a good thing for the Irish. Getting away from home and all of the distractions of a home game can be good in situations like this. It can help the team focus and come together after a devastating loss.
Notre Dame’s leadership is stronger than it was a year ago when they didn’t respond well to the loss to Ohio State, and I don’t think that will happen again this week. I don’t know that they’ll come out firing on all cylinders since the Duke defense is pretty good, but I think we’ll see the team come out focused and fired up. This team knows they let one slip away, and I think they come out playing with an edge. Still, the worry is there that the exact opposite happens. We’ll know very quickly which route this team went.
Another conservative offensive game plan
On this week’s podcast, we talked a lot about how Notre Dame just isn’t testing defenses vertically this year. Greg pointed out the lack of usage for Tobias Merriweather and Chris Tyree. Notre Dame got Sam Hartman from the transfer portal for a reason, but so far, they are still basically running the Drew Pyne offense from a year ago, just with a massive upgrade at quarterback. We aren’t seeing them do a lot of things that they didn’t do a year ago when the quarterback position was a liability.
Given we’re basically halfway through the season, I’m not confident that it’ll change now, but hopefully, the staff realized in their film evaluation that they have to be more aggressive offensively. Of course, they could look at the same film and think all they need to do differently is convert 4th and short and be fine. Duke is good enough to win this game if the Irish offense sputters again this week.
What to Watch
Notre Dame’s wide receiver rotation
Notre Dame enters this game very thin at wide receiver. Marcus Freeman listed Jayden Thomas as “doubtful/questionable” with a hamstring. In Freeman-speak, that means there’s no way he’s playing and probably won’t be available next week, either. Deion Colzie also had his knee scoped this week. Matt Salerno and freshman Kaleb Smith are still out as well. That leaves the Irish with just five healthy scholarship receivers for this one. One of those receivers is freshman Braylon James, who only has 11 snaps in the blowouts of Tennessee State and Central Michigan. Gerad Parker and Freeman were non-commital on him being heavily involved.
With the lack of available receivers, look for Notre Dame to use a ton of 12-personnel with Mitchell Evans and Holden Staes and for a lot more of the two-back set we saw last week. It’ll be interesting to see if James gets on the field this weekend and, if so, how much.
Evans had his breakout against Ohio State, and Staes had his against NC State. Staes wasn’t involved much in the passing attack last week, but he must be this weekend. With the lack of options in the passing game, Notre Dame almost HAS to use more play-action. So far this year, the Irish have been reluctant to use it, and when they have, Hartman has actually been less accurate, suggesting he’s not fully comfortable with it after the slow mesh he ran at Wake Forest for five years. However, he has 4 touchdowns on 26 attempts when using play action.
Notre Dame’s contain defense on another mobile quarterback
The Irish defense has already seen a few mobile quarterbacks this year and has done a good job containing them. Most notably, the Irish bottled up NC State’s Brennan Armstrong on the road a few weeks back. Duke’s Riley Leonard, however, is the best one they’ll have seen to date. More of a threat as a runner than a passer, Leonard has 4 rushing touchdowns to just 2 passing touchdowns on the season. He ran for 98 yards on 8 carries in Duke’s upset of Clemson to start the season.
Notre Dame used Marist Liufau as a spy against Armstrong, and it was one of the best games of his career. Since then, he’s trailed off after a strong start to the season and struggled against Central Michigan and Ohio State. Returning to a spy role to contain Leonard is likely for him this week. The Irish defense will also need its edge rushers to be disciplined in pursuing Leonard, so they don’t open any rushing lanes for him by over-rushing.
Notre Dame rush defense
Duke is averaging 37.3 points per game this year, but they are doing most of their scoring on the ground. Leonard only has the two passing touchdowns, while the Blue Devils offense has run for 15 touchdowns in four games. As a team, they average 5.65 yards per carry. Outside of the one long Ohio State run last week, the Irish run defense turned in a great effort against the Buckeye run game, so the defense should be up for the task.
Duke has relied on their rushing attack for their 4-0 start. Suppose they look to deviate from that, given Notre Dame’s success stopping the run. In that case, they’d be testing a secondary that just contained one of the most explosive passing attacks in the country that features two of the best corners in college football. Translation: Duke will probably keep trying to run and mix in play-action to create explosives. If Notre Dame can bottle up the Blue Devil rushing attack, the Irish will be in good shape.
Players to Watch
- Rico Flores – He is in store for a more prominent role this week and should see increased targets. Of all the freshmen receivers, he might end up being the best.
- Chris Tyree – He seemingly makes a big play every week but has yet to be featured much despite his production in limited snaps. Can we please get some plays designed to get him the ball in space?
- Tobias Merriweather – Like Flores, he’ll see a bump in usage and should start for Thomas in the boundary. If he shines, it could lead to a permanent placement.
- Jaylen Sneed – Notre Dame had Sneed on the field a lot during Ohio State’s final drive to rush the passer. Given his speed, he could be used to spy on Leonard at times.
- DJ Brown – No one has probably had a harder week following the loss to OSU than Brown after his near interception that could have won the game. For his sake, I’m hoping he gets his hands on one this weekend.
- Audric Estime – I both want him to have more than 14 carries while simultaneously not wanting him to get more work than last week because it will just annoy me again that Notre Dame underutilized their best offensive player in the biggest game of the season.
- Mitchell Evans & Holden Staes – With how much 12 personnel Notre Dame will play, one of them is going to EAT.
- Jeremiyah Love – I think he breaks one long this weekend.
This is the best Duke team in a long, long time. College GameDay is in town for the first time ever. Last week, the distractions were ALL on Notre Dame’s side. This week, they’re all on Notre Dame’s opponent – something Duke is not used to. This has the feel of some of the recent Syracuse games where the Orange came in ranked, and people talked about them knocking off Notre Dame only for the Irish to roll. I think we get a similar performance from the Irish on Saturday night. They’ll be ready to hit something after the week they had, and in the end, Duke only has a chance to pull off the upset IF Notre Dame makes as many mistakes as Clemson did against the Blue Devils.
Notre Dame 34, Duke 21