Preview: Notre Dame Fighting Irish (1-9)

The Devils will close their disappointing 2007 out with two straight road games, the first of which takes them to South Bend, Indiana to take on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. When this game was originally scheduled, Duke seemed to be sacrificing a chance for victory for a big payday against a big powerhouse on the road.

A funny thing happened to that script though as Notre Dame comes into this Saturday's contest with the same 1-9 record that Duke has. While the Devils are not favored in this contest, this will probably be the most evenly matched contest they have played in a month. The Irish have lost two consecutive games to service academies (Navy and Air Force) and are ripe for a third consecutive home loss when the Devils come to town. Can Duke follow the service academies lead and sneak out of South Bend with a win? Lets take a look at the match-ups.

When Duke Has the Ball:

The Devils offense has gone backwards in their development this season. After seemingly hitting their stride mid-season, Duke has now gone 4 straight games without a good offensive performance. The Devils are not going to win too many low-scoring affairs, so they need the offense to get in gear and put points on the board this weekend. The lack of a running game is severely hampering Duke's ability to move the football consistently. The offense is continually going 3-and-out and giving up field position by not sustaining drives. The Devils are dead last in the country in rushing offense, averaging a pitiful 52.9 yards per game on the ground. Duke must be able to at least competently run the ball this weekend to keep the Notre Dame defense honest. If Duke cannot get any ground game established, the Irish will be able to pin their ears back and come after QB Thad Lewis. After a hot first half of the season, Lewis has cooled off considerably in the second half. Granted, Duke has probably faced the four best defensive teams on their schedule in the last four weeks. Still, Lewis is making unforced errors at unfortunate times to prevent the Duke offense from sustaining drives. The one saving grace for the Devil offense is the big-play ability of WR Eron Riley. His 9 TDs, 75 receiving yards per game, and 21.5 yards per catch average rank him among the ACC leaders in all those categories. Even more impressive, he has been accomplishing this despite consistent double-coverage from opposing defenses. Duke will need a big day from Riley for a weekend victory.

The Irish defense has been the bright spot on an otherwise dark season. They are 53rd in the country in total defense, giving up 372 yards per game. Their run defense is ranked near the bottom of Division 1 football, so if the Devils are going to run the football, this would be the weekend to do it. The rushing stats are somewhat skewed as teams have gotten ahead of the Irish early and run the ball to wind the clock down. Still, they are giving up over 207 yards per game rushing, and can be had. The defensive line has talent, but is a bit on the small side and can be overpowered. The Notre Dame linebackers are average at best and do not offer the same speed and coverage ability that Duke has seen in recent weeks against opponents like FSU, Virginia Tech, and Clemson. The best player on the Irish defense is senior All-American safety candidate Tom Zbikowski. He has great range in the secondary and is a tough as nails hitter. Thad Lewis will need to account for Zbikowski every time he goes back to pass.

Advantage: Even

When Notre Dame Has the Ball:

As bad as Duke's offense has been, Notre Dame has been even worse. The Irish are dead last in the country in total offense, averaging a pitiful 218 yards per game. They are one of only two division one schools to average less than 4 yards per play, and the other (Florida International) still averages 0.5 yards more per play than the Irish do. The Notre Dame struggles cannot be solely attributed to one cause. They have had a revolving door at QB. Three different players have started games under center so far this year. Highly touted freshman Jimmy Claussen is the starter do jour, and will be tasked with trying to lead the Irish to victory this weekend. He and Thad Lewis share similar experiences as neither player has a stable offensive line to work behind. Claussen has made many mistakes in his inaugural season, many of which can be attributed to duress caused by opposing pass rushes. The Irish do nothing well on offense. They are dead last in the country in yards per carry (1.61). They would be last in total rushing as well were it not for Duke. It doesn't get much better when Notre Dame tries to throw the ball. They are 111th in the country (out of 119 teams) in total passing, throwing 9 TD and 8 interceptions. The fact that the passing game is the bright spot of the offense tells you all you need to know about the 2007 Notre Dame offense.

The good news for the Irish is that they face one of the country's worst pass defenses in Duke. The Devils are near the bottom of the country in pass efficiency defense, and have allowed opposing QBs to complete 67% of their passes. Overall, the Duke defense is allowing 442 yards and 35 points per game. The Devils have played well in stretches, but give up too many easy underneath throws to the opposition. Some of the defense's problems have stemmed from the offenses' inability to sustain drives, leaving a short field for the defense to cover. Still, the defense does not help itself when it gives up 3rd and 10+ plus yard conversions on a regular basis. The Notre Dame skill players are not good enough to consistently beat the Devils deep.

Advantage: Even

Key Matchup: Duke offensive line vs. Notre Dame defensive line.

In last weeks' loss to Georgia Tech, the Devils were completely overmatched trying to protect Thad Lewis in the pocked. Duke would spread the field with 5-wide formations. Tech responded by rushing four down linemen and bringing a single linebacker on the blitz. The Duke offensive line did not properly diagnose and pickup the blitz, therefore, the linebacker usually got a free run at Lewis in the pocket. The Notre Dame defensive staff surely noticed this on film and will try to repeat the tactic this week. The Duke line must do a better job of communicating and recognizing the blitz packages. Of course, the other half of line play is getting a push on the defensive line the running game. If the Devils can open some holes and run for more than 100 yards this weekend, they stand a very good chance of coming out of the game with a win.

Three Keys to a Duke victory:

Third down defense: The Devils have done an atrocious job on third down this season, especially on third and long. Few things deflate a team quicker than giving up a 3rd and long. Duke has made a habit of doing so, sometimes when they need it the most. To give themselves the best chance at a win Saturday, the Devils need to execute their defensive assignments on third down and get off the field.

Run the ball: This game features the two worst rushing attacks in Division 1 football. There is probably not much chance of either team running wild, but the team that runs the ball better will have a significant advantage. At this time of year, weather can be a factor in South Bend. Right now the forecast is for sunny skies, but there will be rain the two days prior. The fields in northern Indiana are usually pretty slick in November because of the colder weather not allowing the water to evaporate. Because of this, cutting becomes a bit more of a risky proposition. North and south running will be the most effective weapon on Saturday. If Duke can use Boyette, Boyle, and maybe even Harris to run the ball vertically rather than horizontally, they will gain a significant edge.

Field Position: Because both offenses struggle to move the ball, field position is critical in this game. A few easy scores for either team will be difficult for the opponent to overcome. Duke punter Kevin Jones has shaken off early season struggles to become a reliable option for Duke. Still, a 40-yard net punt from your own 20-yard line gives the opponent the ball on their 40-yard line. A net 20-yard loss in field position in this game could be the difference between a struggling offense scoring or not.

Final Analysis: This week, the phrase "A resistible force against a moveable object" has been used to describe this game. It is an apt moniker for this contest of two 1-9 football teams whose seasons will end right after the Thanksgiving holiday. Both squads will look back on this season in disappointment, but the loser of this game will look back at a chance for victory which slipped away.

This is not said very often of Duke and its opponents, but this seems to be a very evenly matched game against two struggling football teams. Notre Dame's offense has been miserable in 9 of its 10 games this season. They scored 44 in their 2 OT loss to Navy, but have done little else. The Duke defense is a little better than what they faced against the Middies, but they are still not very good. The Irish should be able to move the ball somewhat. This could be a break-out game for ND QB Jimmy Claussen. The Devils will get some pressure on him, but he will have plenty of time to throw on many plays and should be able to get into some sort of rhythm. On the other side of the coin, the Notre Dame defense has battled throughout the season, but the offense just has not been able to support them with sustained drives (sound familiar, Duke fans?). Still Thad Lewis should have time to throw the football, and when he is given time to throw, can be very effective. This will be a see-saw game where both teams have the lead at various points in the game. In the end, Notre Dame will make one more play than Duke and that will be the Devils undoing.

Final Score:

Notre Dame – 24
Duke – 20

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