While Notre Dame’s 153 yards rushing and 4.1 yards per carry was a decided improvement over the anemic ground game against Michigan State, it was not up to par with what the Irish needed to offer -- a balanced and consistent attack -- against the Blue Devils.
Once again, it was a DeShone Kizer-led rushing attack with his 60 yards on 11 carries (5.5), tying Josh Adams in yardage on three less carries. Kizer had the long run of the day for the Irish with a 23-yarder. Tarean Folston continues to add little to the rushing attack. Since his 54-yard run to open the season against Texas, he has carried 37 times for 92 yards (2.4).
There were a few highlights, including the 13-yard touchdown run by Dexter Williams that tied the game at 21 late in the first half. The Irish are leaving yards on the field every time Folston carries and Williams does not. Adams added a nine-yard score midway through the third period to tie the game at 28.
In falling behind by a touchdown at halftime, the Irish managed just 55 yards rushing on 20 carries. Eight of the 20 carries were for two yards or less. It improved in the second half to 98 yards on 17 carries. But it was never a ground attack that could be relied upon with any consistency.
Of note: this is the same Duke defense that allowed Wake Forest to rush for 239 yards on 49 carries (4.8).
The burden that DeShone Kizer carries in trying to shoulder a vast majority of the offense’s play-making really began to show against Duke as the normally unflappable Kizer took a pair of sacks, dropped a snap in which he took off before securing the football, and then heaved a 3rd-and-20 pass up for grabs from deep in Irish territory, allowing safety Deondre Singleton to make the pick that led to Duke’s game-winning field goal.
Kizer clearly had his moments, like he always does. In the first quarter, he had 26- and 17-yarders to Equanimeous St. Brown, an 18-yarder to Durham Smyth, a 44-yard touchdown strike to Kevin Stepherson, and a 28-yarder to Torii Hunter, Jr. Kizer was 8-of-11 for 156 yards in the first quarter alone.
But as the rest of the game transpired, Kizer’s fatigue showed, mainly via his erratic decision-making and lack of focus. Kizer overshot a couple receivers downfield. In a late first-half drive, Kizer was 1-of-5 for 15 yards with a sack. He has to do it all, and without a rushing attack to consistently balance the offense against a capable Duke secondary, there were gaps.
St. Brown dropped a pass, couldn’t come up with one slightly behind him, and fumbled after a 31-yarder. He finished with six catches for 116 yards and a 12-yard touchdown reception that gave the Irish a 35-28 lead with 7:46 left. It marked the fourth straight game that St. Brown has notched a touchdown.
Kizer finished with dazzling numbers: 381 yards and two touchdowns with completions averaging 17.3 and attempts at 10.2. But after scoring touchdowns in their first two drives, the Irish managed three touchdowns over the final 10 drives of the game with Kizer making critical mistakes when the Irish desperately needed more offense to compensate for the defense.
Duke rushed for less than 200 yards in eight of its 13 games in 2015. In games this September, the Blue Devils managed just 37 yards on 30 carries against Wake Forest and 117 yards on 34 carries against Northwestern. Everybody (but Nevada) runs the ball on the Irish.
Jela Duncan, who had nine carries for 25 yards against the Demon Deacons and 53 yards on 11 carries against Northwestern, cracked the 100-yard mark for just the fourth time in his career with 121 yards on 21 carries (5.8) – a career-high. (Note: Duncan’s other 100-yard games came against North Carolina, 115, and Indiana, 109, in 2015; North Carolina Central, 115, in the 2016 opener.
Duke ran the football just three times in the first quarter, but netted 22 yards. The Blue Devils added another 70 yards on 14 attempts in the second quarter. In the fourth quarter alone, Duke had 14 carries for 87 yards, including a 32-yard run by Duncan. Missed tackles continue to haunt the Irish.
The Irish were at their best against the run in the third quarter when they held Duke without points on four straight possessions, including a 4th-and-1 stop at the Irish 19. There was also the 4th-and-1 stop early in the second quarter at the Irish 25 with the game tied at 14. The goal-line stand before Duke’s game-winning field goal gave the Irish offense one more chance to bail it out.
It was by far the defense’s best game in critical short-yardage situations. But overall, it was way too large of a yield to a Duke rushing attack that should not be able to net more than 200 yards against any Notre Dame defense. Compounding the situation was the inability to make tackles in the fourth quarter when the Blue Devils scored the final 10 points of the game.
The Irish picked up their first sack 201:45 into the 2016 season (the 14th quarter). Donte Vaughn made a tremendous play on a deep ball that resulted in Duke’s only turnover of the day. Cole Luke defended on a 3rd-and-6 incompletion to start the second half and safety Avery Sebastian made back-to-back plays through the air prior to the 4th-and-1 stop.
But the breakdowns continue, beginning with missed tackles in the passing game as well as the running game. Luke was burned by a 32-yard scoring strike from Daniel Jones to Anthony Nash to give the Blue Devils the halftime lead. When the Irish finally clawed their way back to the lead midway through the fourth quarter, a three-play, 75-yard drive – capped by a 64-yarder to Nash (six catches, 123 yards) – sparked Duke’s final 10-0 run.
Jones finished 24-of-32 (75 percent) for 290 yards and three touchdowns. All three touchdowns through the air – Nash, Quay Chambers and Nash again – exposed huge gaps in Notre Dame pass coverage by Luke, Drue Tranquill and Devin Studstill respectively.
Jones averaged 12.0 yards per completion and 9.0 yards per attempt, not outrageous, but worse than Jones’ previous two games. Northwestern averaged 10.3 yards per completion and 5.6 yards per attempt against the Blue Devils. Wake Forest held Jones to 10.7 yards per completion and 6.9 yards per attempt. Notre Dame’s pass defense pads every opposing quarterback’s numbers.
From the 96-yard kick return by a backup kick returner to Justin Yoon’s missed field goal from 42 yards, Notre Dame’s special teams continue to cost the Irish games. Even when Tyler Newsome got off a 58-yard punt, the Irish allowed an 18-yard return.
Other than the kick return for a touchdown, Notre Dame limited Shaun Wilson to 67 yards on three returns. But there can be no breakdowns of that magnitude when Notre Dame’s margin for error continues to shrink. Meanwhile, catastrophic special teams plays are on the rise.
C.J. Sanders, with one punt return for 12 yards and three kick returns averaging less than 22 yards per attempt, had a quiet game by his standards. Chris Finke had a 25-yard return that gave the Irish good field position.
But with A.J. Reed’s game-winning field goal besting Yoon on his lone attempt, the Irish did little to turn the game in their favor via special teams.
This is an easy flag to fly. After a week of “sense of urgency” talk both from Brian Kelly and his players, the Irish went 20:29 between the second and third scores. The Irish came out with a sense of urgency on both sides of the ball…and then went flat.
Lulls are lulls. They’re coming every game. It’s just a different time or place.
Kelly passionately pleaded his case after the game, vehemently bemoaning his team’s lack of passion, fire and grit. The entire week of preparation was about passion, fire and grit. By the head coach’s own admission, the Irish missed the mark by a substantial amount.
Special teams continue to destroy Notre Dame’s chances to win. Brian VanGorder’s defense has yet to show improvement. Kelly’s offense is as sporadic as it is explosive, which spells inconsistency, even when it averages 38 points per game.
There were a lot of “messages” throughout Duke week. Over the course of 60 minutes, the most important messages weren’t received. In a week when the Irish absolutely, positively needed a sound performance, it was much of the same.
Now, Kelly will have to live with calling out every starter on offense and defense, threatening to replace them with those who are willing to play the game with more passion and fun.
If this team wasn’t in a shambles last week, it is now, and that sits on the shoulders of a head coach and his staff that has done a horrific job preparing its players for the first month of the season.