And In That Corner … The Duke Blue Devils, Notre Dame’s next ACC challenge

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The last time Notre Dame and Duke met may have been the nadir of Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s decade-long tenure. On paper, this weekend should have no such hiccup for Notre Dame, even if on the road. To get a better understanding of if that theory will become reality, Stephen Wiseman of The News & Observer offers some Blue Devils insights … 

DF: I will keep it quick, admittedly partly because Duke fell off my radar about a month ago. I have kept half an eye on the Blue Devils, but it was tough to devote more than that after their September hardly included a minute of competitive football. Aside from getting trounced by Alabama to start, was that soft slate the kind of opening this Duke roster needed?

SW: For sure. Playing an FCS team in N.C. A&T, followed by a not very good Conference USA team in Middle Tennessee and then an open week allowed the Blue Devils to get right. They came back from that break to play their best game of the season, a 45-10 win at Virginia Tech. Other than the easy win over the Hokies, September went as we all expected.

If that easing in was needed, it surprises me just because Quentin Harris is a fifth-year quarterback, albeit a first-year starter. Before getting into his assets on the field, can you walk me through some of that timeline? In the current era of college football, it’s hard to fathom a starting-caliber quarterback biding his time for four seasons. Was Harris a late bloomer? Was he that committed to David Cutcliffe? It is not like he was behind someone he thought he could surpass the last few years; Daniel Jones was the No. 6 pick and hasn’t looked half bad despite the laughter when his name was called in the draft.

Harris and Jones arrived in the same recruiting class, an oddity when a school brings in two quarterbacks at the same time. Jones quickly showed he was the better player and, rather than transferring as has become the norm in college football, Harris became his capable backup and went about earning his degree so he could start graduate school this year. Harris is an intelligent kid. Duke installed a short-yardage and goal-line package of plays for Harris and he got a good bit of playing time from 2016-18. He even started and won two games last season when Jones was out with a broken collarbone.

Quentin Harris may be the exception that proves the modern rule as it applies to college quarterbacks, having waited a full four years to get his chance to lead Duke. (Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images)

Harris fits a mold of quarterback becoming quite familiar for Notre Dame. The Irish faced Bryce Perkins, Shea Patterson and Quincy Patterson within five games. Defensive coordinator Clark Lea is used to game planning for dual-threat quarterbacks, though each uses the threat of running in a slightly different way. How does Harris, and Cutcliffe I suppose, use his legs to help his arm, or vice versa?

Harris is an effective runner, not a threat to break a long touchdown run like Virginia’s Bryce Perkins, but very capable in run-pass options and scrambling out of pressure to gain positive yards. Harris averages nearly four yards a carry and that’s with sacks factored in. So the Irish will have to pay attention to Harris taking off to become a running back. 

Flipping sides of the ball, Notre Dame has struggled to run the ball this year, and I am being generous with that phrasing. Duke gives up only 145 rushing yards per game and 3.78 yards per carry. Has that been a reflection of their opponents or what have the Blue Devils been doing to shut down the run so well?

For that matter, the Irish run game will likely struggle only more moving forward, now with an entirely new right side of its line. I get the sense that is going to be a problem against a defense with 55 tackles for loss and 21 sacks this season. What Duke defenders will most challenge that offensive line?

Duke’s defensive front is better, in talent, athleticism and depth than it has ever been under Cutcliffe. Junior defensive end Victor Dimukeje looks like a guy who will be playing on Sundays. They have experience up the middle in tackles Trevon McSwain, Derrick Tangelo and Edgar Cerenord. The best of them all is sophomore Chris Rumph, who is a terrific athlete. The coaches use schemes to isolate him and allow him free runs into the backfield. These guys handle their one-on-one battles more often than not, allowing the Blue Devils’ linebackers and safeties to come up and stop ball carriers for little or no gain.

To move a bit toward the macro, Duke was coming off two losses before its idle week, one ugly and one disappointing, 48-14 at Virginia and 20-17 at North Carolina. Were those maladies things that could be cured during an off week?

Turnovers have been a major problem, both interceptions and fumbles. Harris is the prime offender with some poor throws and an inability to hang on to the ball when he’s hit, either on sacks or when he’s running. Duke has two turnovers in its four wins and 17 in its four losses. That tells the story.

The Blue Devils will undoubtedly be happy to play at home again. Primetime, against a ranked opponent, but — no offense to Duke; I have actually enjoyed every moment I have spent on that campus — it is not exactly a venue known for being intimidating away from the basketball court. What kind of atmosphere can Notre Dame expect?

There will be more Irish fans than Blue Devils fans without a doubt. Even as Duke has expanded and upgraded its stadium, giving it an improved venue to go along with a program that is a regular bowl participant, it has struggled to grow its football fan base. It has a rabid core group of fans but it’s just not a very big one. Saturday night’s game will be at capacity but only because of all the Irish fans who will travel to Wallace Wade Stadium.

(Addition from Douglas Farmer: I personally know a couple dozen Notre Dame fans headed to Durham, supporting Steve’s expectations.)

Lastly, and you knew I had to ask, what are you predicting while bookmakers suggest a touchdown difference?

I expect Duke’s defense to find success due to Notre Dame’s struggles at the line of scrimmage, but if Duke’s offense can’t protect the ball better, it won’t matter. Too often the offense’s mistakes have left the defense in tough situations. Duke has also allowed opponents to gain significant yardage on kick returns. So, I expect Notre Dame to win and probably cover the spread. Maybe 24-14? Something to that effect.