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No. 15 Notre Dame dances past Devils 38-7

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For the first time this season, Chris Finke had frequent reason to dance during No. 15 Notre Dame’s 38-7 victory at Duke on Saturday. Whether it was a heel click after his first score or the macarena on the sideline in view of the broadcast cameras after his second, Finke finally made his presence known for the Irish offense, on a day when the entire unit enjoyed success.

Notre Dame jumped out to a 21-0 lead, and while two of those scores and four total came via senior quarterback Ian Book’s arm, it was the Irish ground game that dictated early terms as Notre Dame ran for 175 yards before halftime and finished with 288. On two of the three early scoring drives, long runs got the Irish down the field quickly, first a 40-yard dash from sophomore running back Jahmir Smith and then a 45-yard run from Book.

Those chunk gains combined with Book’s efficient evening to spur Notre Dame; an offense that has struggled for much of the season cruised to 474 yards. Book accounted for 320 of those, split between 181 yards on 18-of-32 passing and 139 on 12 rushes. His stat line officially includes two interceptions, but the first was the result of a pass rusher hitting him as he threw and the second was a batted ball on fourth down that actually helped Irish field position, so, all in all, it was a strong night for the embattled quarterback.

“He started fast,” Kelly said afterward in an on-field interview with the ACC Network’s Katie George. “I thought he was decisive, which I think at times he’s had a little bit too much on his mind in terms of trying to do too much. I thought he went out there, executed the game plan and got us out to a really good start. That’s really what he had been missing at times.

“I think this was a game that he can really build off of so it was great to see him have some success today.”

While Book’s success was arguably surprising, simply because it has been inconsistent this season, another impressive showing from the Notre Dame defense hardly resonated as abnormal. It gave up only 197 total yards, including 95 on 30 carries, a 3.2 yards per rush average.

“It starts up front,” Kelly said. “The defensive line controlled the line of scrimmage. They weren’t able to run the football.

“Obviously this game hasn’t changed much. You’ve got to be able to run the football and have some kind of semblance of control of the line of scrimmage.”

The Irish succeeded on both accords.

PLAYER OF THE GAME
For variety’s sake, someone aside from Book should be named, and that someone is the fifth-year receiver. Finke not only caught two touchdown passes, but his 46-yard punt return in the fourth quarter set up the final score. For that matter, he could have had a much heftier day if a 78-yard reception had not been negated by a holding penalty.

It was clear early on Finke was going to have a productive evening, the type he has not had yet this season. After Notre Dame went three-and-out on its opening drive, Finke converted three different third downs on the next drive, one needing four yards but gaining 14, one needing 10 and gaining 13, and one needing six but instead resulting in an 18-yard score.

“With Duke playing man, Finke is hard to guard,” Book said. “He’s a really smart receiver, so he’s able to find those holes in the defense. This week he was doing a great job with getting separation and it worked out perfectly tonight.”

Finke’s five catches tied his season high, a mark he has reached in three of the last four games, while his two touchdowns doubled his previous season total. His 51 yards in punt returns, highlighted by the 46-yarder to the 13-yard line, also set a season-high.

STAT OF THE GAME
Neither Book’s 139 rushing yards nor his 181 passing yards seemed all that gaudy in the moment, but his four touchdown passes did, to a degree. At one point, it occurred to this space that Book was quietly on a record-setting pace, just as he was against Bowling Green. It was much more notable in that 52-0 rout, when Book’s five scoring passes fell one short of tying the Irish record for touchdown passes in a game, the mark of six set by Brady Quinn in 2005 against BYU.

With three touchdown passes in the first half, in a game against a far more formidable foe than the Falcons who thus might keep things mildly interesting, adding another three after halftime would not have been too outlandish. Frankly, if one Notre Dame score had not been on the ground, instead giving Book five touchdown passes, Kelly may have greenlighted a drive with hopes of tying Quinn, just as he did against Bowling Green.

Alas, those possibilities did not come to be a reality. Nonetheless, the combination of four passing touchdowns and 100 rushing yards did set Book apart from all previous Irish quarterbacks.

None of this was by accident. Notre Dame very much knew it wanted to use Book’s legs to exploit the Blue Devils’ defensive tendencies. They rely on man coverages, meaning the defensive backs can be late realizing the quarterback is on the move. If the Irish could find Book a lane, a first down was as likely than not. Indeed, Book ran for four first downs.

“It worked out great and we were able to move the ball,” Book said. “All those guys did a great job blocking for me. … I need to get faster, I need to get into the end zone.”

HIGHLIGHT OF THE GAME
Smith’s 40-yard run, Book’s 45-yarder, his draw later for 53 yards … distinguishing between them becomes difficult.

Senior cornerback Troy Pride intercepted his first pass of the year (jump to 1:00 in the video), snuffing out Duke’s initial drive in the second half, which Notre Dame turned into a 2-yard C’Bo Flemister touchdown run and a 28-7 lead. If there was any point when the Blue Devils envisioned a comeback, Pride ended it, so consider this the TURNING POINT OF THE GAME, as well.

PLAY OF THE GAME
By no means is this a good one, but it may end up the most memorable. More will be known by Sunday afternoon, but Irish senior defensive end Julian Okwara may have played his last snaps in a Notre Dame uniform.

Shortly before halftime, the Blue Devils had a 3rd-and-2 with hopes of scoring before the break. Running back Deon Jackson took a handoff up the middle, and in combining for the tackle, Irish junior linebacker Drew White appeared to roll over Okwara’s ankle.

He walked off the field under his own power but did not return to the game. Kelly said x-rays were taken during the game, but more testing would need to be done before he could speak to the extent of the injury. If it is indeed serious, with only three weeks left in the year, Okwara’s career may have come to an abrupt end.

If nothing else, his homecoming to North Carolina was cut short. It was in a return to his homestate back in 2017, at Chapel Hill, when Okwara picked off his first pass, first flashing his athleticism in acrobatic fashion.

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
“Any time you go on the road and win against a Power Five team in convincing fashion, you got to feel really good about your team and their preparation, their execution. Most importantly, in the month of November, where you are as a program.” — Kelly.

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
8:02 — Notre Dame touchdown. Chris Finke 18-yard pass from Ian Book. Jonathan Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Duke 0. (10 plays, 85 yards, 3:11)
4:03 — Notre Dame touchdown. Chase Claypool 7-yard pass from Book. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 14, Duke 0. (5 plays, 65 yards, 1:49)

Second Quarter
7:58 — Notre Dame touchdown. C’Bo Flemister 2-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 21, Duke 0. (5 plays, 72 yards, 2:02)
2:55 — Duke touchdown. Austin Young 29-yard pass from Quentin Harris. AJ Reed PAT good. Notre Dame 21, Duke 7. (2 plays, 39 yards, 0:22)

Third Quarter
9:10 — Notre Dame touchdown. Finke 6-yard pass from Book. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 28, Duke 7. (8 plays, 70 yards, 3:28)

Fourth Quarter
12:59 — Notre Dame field goal. Doerer 34 yards. Notre Dame 31, Duke 7. (7 plays, 59 yards, 2:57)
7:21 — Notre Dame touchdown. George Takacs 2-yard pass from Book. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 38, Duke 7. (4 plays, 13 yards, 1:31)