Who and What to Watch: Duke @ Notre Dame

Your weekly pre-game points of interest to monitor as Notre Dame takes on fellow 1-2 squad, Duke.

1 – (The Existence of) 3rd and Short Offense: Against Michigan State, Notre Dame faced only a trio of 3rd-and-short (2) and 4th-and-short (1) situations, failing on both efforts at the former and barely converting on the latter.

That paltry total of attempts is a clear sign the Irish running game wasn’t working on first and second down, i.e., they were playing behind the chains and thus forced to pass on third down.

The good news is the Irish goal line offense continues its surge. Notre Dame scored touchdowns in both of its goal-to-go situations, continuing its efficiency to that end (8 TD in 9 goal-to-go situations) through three contests.

Duke’s rush defense limited Northwestern to three yards or fewer on 24 of the Wildcats 44 attempts last week.  The Blue Devils rush defense allowed 3.61 yards per carry last season and remains capable of making the Irish work.

2 – You are what you are? Or Not? A combined 25 missed tackles presented for Brian VanGorder’s crew during losses to Texas and Michigan State. (Plus nine more in a win over lesser-talented Nevada.) Irish head coach Brian Kelly sought a solution for his defense’s fundamental flaws this week in practice.

“It wasn’t necessarily more hitting as much as we ‘thudded up,’” said Kelly when asked if his week of practice turned more physical than usual. “We didn’t take anybody to the ground. But what I wanted to do was put our defensive players, in particular in the back end and at linebacker, in a position where they could go from speed to power on every play and not just have a run-by, tag-off.

“I don’t know if it was more physical as much as it was an intent to put our players in what we would consider a better transition phase for being good tacklers.”

Saturday will illustrate if Notre Dame’s “intent to tackle” during the week translates to fewer misses when it matters.
 
3 – Sanders vs. Edwards…So to Speak: Irish sophomore slot receiver C.J. Sanders has two touchdowns to his credit already this season with a third – a 100-yard kickoff return to open the contest against Michigan State – called back for penalty. He remains Notre Dame’s X-factor, both from scrimmage and in the return game.

Duke fifth-year senior safety Devon Edwards has long-held that mantle for the Blue Devils, returning six career kickoffs for scores, one shy of tying the NCAA record. Throw in two Pick Six’s and Edwards has scored eight non-offensive touchdowns in his three-plus seasons as a regular.

Asked if he planned to test Duke’s top playmaker on kickoffs, Kelly first offered, “Absolutely,” than admitted tongue-in-cheek, “and then maybe not.” (If Edwards threatens on his first attempt.)

At 5’9” 180 pounds, Edwards plays more of a Rover position than true safety for the Blue Devils. As

4 – Make Your Own Kind of Music: Saturday night’s loss to the rival Spartans included a raucous home crowd, one engaged throughout – or at least the modern equivalent of.

Now mired at 1-2, and with the reality that Michigan State’s visit was the marquee game of September’s home slate, what should Duke expect inside the House that Rockne Built?

Take it from a South Bend native, Notre Dame alumnus, and 9-year reporter inside the edifice, there’s but one word to describe Saturday’s situation:

Apathy.

“We obviously compete unevenly,” said Kelly. “In a manner that would probably characterize as we lack a sense of urgency in the way we play. We play in spurts. We play really well for a period of time, and then we kind of don't play at the highest level necessary against really good competition. So finding that sense of urgency, that attention to detail that's absolutely crucial to being a really good football team.”

That sense of urgency won’t come from Notre Dame’s crowd Saturday (check back with me when Stanford rolls into town next month). The Irish players will have to first make their own excitement on the field for something similar to manifest in the stands.

5 – New Blood Emerges: Looking for the future of your Fighting Irish – the immediate future, that is. Keep an eye on freshman pass-rusher Daelin Hayes (#9), freshman nickel and sometimes first-string left cornerback Julian Love (#27), freshman safety Devin Studstill (#14), freshman wide receiver Chase Claypool (#83), and emerging sophomore defensive tackle Jerry Tillery (#99).


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