Prister’s Preview: Duke @ Notre Dame

Notre Dame has an advantage over Duke in its ability to create big plays as the Blue Devil defense showed vulnerability last week against Northwestern.


Who: Duke (1-2) @ Notre Dame (1-2)
Where: Notre Dame Stadium (80,795); Notre Dame, Ind.
When: Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016; 3:30 p.m. ET (NBC)
Duke head coach: David Cutcliffe (93-84 career, 49-55 at Duke)
Duke 2015 record: 8-5
Last meeting: 2007—Notre Dame 28, Duke 7
Series record: Notre Dame 3-1


Overall ND/opponent rank: 9th 
Rank by position: QB (11th), RB (9th), WR/TE (8th), OL (5th), DL (9th), LB (12th), DB (10th), ST (6th), C (5th)


The Blue Devils manhandled North Carolina Central, 49-6, limiting its FCS season-opening opponent to four first downs and 112 yards total offense while piling up 535 of their own. Duke lost five fumbles to the Eagles.

Over the last eight quarters against FBS competition, however, the Blue Devils have managed just four touchdowns and 154 yards on 64 rushing attempts (2.4 per carry). The turnovers have continued, as has the inability to convert on third down.

Big second-half plays by Wake Forest (a 55-yard third-quarter touchdown run) and Northwestern (44- and 58-yard touchdown passes) have been in stark contrast to Duke’s 13 second-half points in three games.


“Three games into the season, nobody wants to be where we are. But we are 1-2. I’m a 1-2 coach. We’ve got to work to get better. We obviously compete unevenly. We lack a sense of urgency in the way we play. We play in spurts.

“We can’t be the kind of football team that we want to be unless we play with a sense of urgency for four quarters. We do some really good things, and then we do some really sloppy things.”
--Brian Kelly


Big play, little play: This point could fall under both Irish Advantage and Irish Concerns. Against Northwestern, the Blue Devils allow 10 plays (seven passes, three runs) for 294 yards, including 26-, 44- and 58-yard scoring passes. On the other 73 plays, Northwestern netted 112 yards.

DeShone Kizer has thrown nine touchdown passes in three games with the Irish falling down by 17 to Texas and 29 to Michigan State. Six different receivers have caught those nine scoring tosses with Equanimeous St. Brown (3) leading the way, followed by C.J. Sanders (2). St. Brown has caught a touchdown pass in each of the first three games.

Five of six receivers are averaging between 14.7 and 19.5 yards per reception. Duke’s veteran secondary, minus 1st-team All-American free safety Jeremy Cash, struggled mightily against Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson. Thorson, who threw for more than 177 yards just once in 2015, hadn’t topped the 200-yard mark in ’16 until his 320 and three touchdowns against Duke.

Duke turnovers: Notre Dame has created just three turnovers through three games, but the Blue Devils have been coughing up the football at an alarming rate. Only Kansas has turned it over (11) more than Duke (10) and four others. They’ve lost eight fumbles, including five against North Carolina Central.
Notre Dame has turned the ball over four times, two on Kizer interceptions, one by C.J. Sanders after the catch, and the unfortunate bounce off the foot of Miles Boykin on a punt by Michigan State.

Notre Dame defense vs. Duke running game: Yes, you read that right. The Blue Devils managed just 37 yards on 30 carries against Wake Forest and 117 yards on 34 carries against Northwestern.

Duke’s rushing attack is more in line with Nevada’s than Texas and Michigan State, and the Irish held the Wolf Pack to 99 yards on 30 carries. Jela Duncan had 20 carries for 79 yards against Wake Forest (which has the No. 6 total defense) and Northwestern, which ranks 74th.

Notre Dame depth, talent vs. Duke: With just 12 returner starters, the loss of multi-faceted QB Thomas Sirk to a February Achilles tear, the graduation of a first-team All-American FS (Jeremy Cash), and the loss of the top two tacklers on the team (LB Dwayne Norman and Cash), Duke’s ability to absorb the talent drain is much more difficult than it is for the Irish.

At 1-2, obviously the Irish are not where they would hope to be record-wise. But a lot of young, talented athletes have supplemented the returning starters/starting additions, and over the course of 60 minutes, it should take its toll on the Blue Devils.

Duke kicking woes: Ross Martin converted 26-of-30 field goals a year ago, including a long of 53 yards. But Martin is gone and has been replaced by freshman AJ Reed, who is 0-of-3 on field goals – including two inside of 40 yards – and has missed extra point. Punter Austin Parker, a red-shirt freshman, dropped a perfect snap last week against Northwestern.


David Cutcliffe: Rated the No. 15 FBS head coach in the country by and, No. 16 by and No. 18 by, Cutcliffe – who was hired by Charlie Weis to be his offensive coordinator at Notre Dame in 2005 – went 27-13 at Duke the last three seasons and 33-20 over the last four.

Before coaching a game with the Irish, Cutcliffe underwent triple-bypass heart surgery and was replaced by former Irish wide receiver/defensive back Mike Haywood. Cutcliffe returned to coaching at Tennessee in 2006, where he had previously served for 17 years (1982-98).

Cutcliffe landed the full-time head-coaching job at Mississippi in 1999. In his first five seasons, he never finished worse than 7-6. He went 8-4 in ’99 and 10-3 in 2003 to cap a 39-22 five-year run.

When the Rebels slipped to 4-7 in 2004 – following the selection of Eli Manning as the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft – Mississippi fired Cutcliffe. Over the next three seasons (2005-07), Cutcliffe’s replacement, Ed Orgeron, went 10-25.

After a two-year stint back with the Vols, Cutcliffe went 15-33 in his first four years in Durham. Since then, he’s won at a .622 clip. In the four years prior to Cutcliffe’s arrival in 2008, the Blue Devils were 4-42.

The guy is a quality coach.

DeVon Edwards: With three kick returns for TDs (95-yarder vs. Tulane, 100-yarder vs. Georgia Tech, 94-yarder vs. Virginia) last year and six in his career, the 5-foot-9, 180-pound red-shirt senior safety is a true special teams weapon.

Edwards has just one kick return for 20 yards so far this year, and the Irish enter the game ranked seventh nationally in kickoff coverage at 14.0 yards on eight returns.

Duke should be better than this: David Cutcliffe teams, over the last four seasons, have averaged eight victories per season, including an 8-5 mark in 2015, a 9-3 record in 2014, and 10-4 ledger in 2013.

Cutcliffe has been getting the most out of this program for eight seasons. The offensive line should be and probably will be better than it has showed up to this point. The veteran secondary definitely is better than it has performed through three games.

The Blue Devils, much like the Irish, are due for a complete-game performance.

Sack disparity: Do the opponents really matter? The fact is Duke has 14 sacks – five against North Carolina Central, four versus Wake Forest, and five more against Northwestern. Notre Dame and Nevada are the only two FBS teams in the country with zero.


The Blue Devils look like the perfect ointment for the open wound Michigan State left on the Irish last weekend in Notre Dame Stadium when the Spartans racked up 501 yards total offense, including 260 on the ground, en route to a 29-point lead and an eventual eight-point victory.

It was Notre Dame’s second loss in September for the fourth time in seven seasons under Brian Kelly. (Other slow September starts included Kelly’s first year, 2010, 2011 and 2013.)

While some may claim the Irish have nothing to play for – except for positioning themselves for 2017 – a group of determined Irish players beg to differ.

Kelly put forth the look and sound of a united front this week, shouldering responsibility and pledging a full commitment to getting things right.

“I’m sure it’s out there,” said Kelly of the criticism via social media. “It comes with the territory. I know what the expectations are for the football program at Notre Dame. It’s if not out there I’d be surprised.

“When you build expectations you’re going to be criticized. I have no problem with that. I get that. As I said, I’m a 1-2 football coach. If you’re not criticizing a 1-2 football coach, your fan base is pretty soft.”

Offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey defended Notre Dame’s run blocking; defensive end Isaac Rochell defended the pass rush. Cornerback Cole Luke defended his honor and shot back at the critics.

“We think it’s funny because the people who are talking, they want to be in our shoes, but they couldn’t handle the pressure that we have,” Luke said. “They think our job is easy, which it’s not. We’d pay money to see them do what we do, which we know they can’t do.

“They can talk all they want outside. We don’t mind it. We actually think it’s entertaining. If that’s what they want to do, go ahead. (We) don’t care. Say what you want to say. It doesn’t matter. We’re going to keep going forward.”

A variety of emotions permeate the Notre Dame team from the top of the pay scale on down. Now along comes Duke, a tricky spoiler-type team that has struggled out of the gate and doesn’t have the advantage of sneaking up on an Irish team that might be a bit complacent at 3-0 or even 2-1.

Former assistant coach David Cutcliffe never had the opportunity to represent the Irish in Notre Dame Stadium on game day after being hired by Charlie Weis in 2005, although he was the quarterbacks coach for John Majors’ 1991 Tennessee squad when Andy Kelly and the Vols overcame a 31-7 late-second quarter deficit in Notre Dame Stadium to defeat the Irish, 35-34.

Cutcliffe had chance to come into Notre Dame Stadium for a second time with another talented quarterback – Thomas Sirk – who passed for 2,652 yards and 16 touchdowns last year while also leading the Blue Devils in rushing (803 yards) and rushing touchdowns (8).

But when Sirk tore his Achilles in February, it short-circuited Cutcliffe’s legitimate shot at pulling the upset over the Irish. The loss of Sirk has had a trickle-down effect. The Blue Devils have been a turnover machine through three games, and while the defense has risen to the occasion at times, Northwestern took huge gashes out of a secondary that remains one of the most talented units on the team.

Red-shirt freshman Daniel Jones beat out Sirk’s backup, Parker Boehme, for the starting job this August. Will Jones be a version of Virginia’s Matt Johns from a year ago, or Nevada’s Tyler Stewart? Here’s a vote for the latter.

Notre Dame gathers its varied emotions in the face of adversity and puts together a solid 60 minutes of work.

Pointspread: Notre Dame by 19; over-under 60 
Prister’s Prediction: Notre Dame 38, Duke 14
Season Record: Straight-up 1-2, vs. points 3-0, over/under 0-3

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