Notre Dame’s defense has flexed its muscles all season, but for one noteworthy week. That was no different at Duke in Saturday’s 38-7 snoozer.
Meanwhile, the Irish offense has shown up against only the comically-overmatched, until now. The Blue Devils (4-5) may not be the cream of the ACC’s crop, but they are competent and well-coached, lending some credibility to Notre Dame’s relative offensive explosion.
And it was an explosion, at least in that it was the most the Irish (7-2) have scored against a Power Five program this year and the most yards per play against a Power Five opponent since the opener. What was once anticipated for the whole season had become by now entirely unexpected, especially without the right side of the offensive line intact anymore.
“This game was won at the line of scrimmage,” head coach Brian Kelly said. “Controlling the line of scrimmage and our quarterback, Ian Book, deserves a lot of credit. Came out — assertive, decisive would be the words I would look toward.”
In being assertive and decisive, Book stole the attention from Notre Dame’s defense. Giving up only 197 total yards and 3.2 yards per play would usually warrant more praise, but that is also not all that uncommon for coordinator Clark Lea’s defense. For the second straight week and the third time this year, it gave up no more than one touchdown. Those same three occurrences included allowing no more than 235 total yards. Even with that one unforgettable defensive lapse, Lea’s defense is allowing only 327.3 yards per game, No. 26 in the country. Its 19.2 points allowed per game ranks No. 21.
The Irish defense exposed itself to doubt a few weeks ago, but two outstanding showings since then have reinforced its consistently stellar standard.
“They have been real good all season,” Kelly said. “We have one bad performance, we had a bad day, and certainly they rectified that with the way they’ve played the last couple of weeks. This defense has been a consistent performer all year.”
Holding the Blue Devils in check required discipline from Notre Dame’s linebackers, the group once upon a time most doubted. As has become a theme this year, they were led by junior Drew White, finishing with seven tackles including one sack. Junior Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah added six more with 1.5 tackles for loss and two pass breakups. When the Irish defense shows up, it can now be presumed the linebackers are leading the way, just as their predecessors did the last few seasons.
“I would just say there were some things in the game plan that allowed us to utilize some of our athletic ability,” Kelly said. “It was just at some leverage points in their offense where we had some really good players.”
Duke’s Quentin Harris was the last dual-threat quarterback Notre Dame will face this season, a grouping that also included Virginia’s Bryce Perkins and Virginia Tech’s Quincy Patterson, at least to some extent. Keeping all three in check was a credit to both Lea and his linebackers more than anyone else. And those efforts have been needed, even in a 31-point rout.
“We clearly know that offensively, we have had our starts and stops,” Kelly said. “But our defense has pretty much been there all year for us.”
Saturday it was less necessary, though still undoubtedly appreciated. Finally, Book showed the passing aptitude expected all season. Finally, his legs worried a defense as much as his arm. Finally, the Irish offense could not be held in check despite worthwhile opposition.
Let’s first acknowledge Duke’s relative standing. The Blue Devils rank No. 65 in the country — exactly average — with 27.2 points allowed per game. Remove the opener’s 42 points to Alabama, and that number drops to 25.4 points per game. By no means was this New Mexico or Bowling Green.
Yet, those are the only games to which this Notre Dame offensive showing can be compared. The 6.34 yards per play is a season-high aside from those two (9.09 against New Mexico, 9.39 against Bowling Green) and the opener against Louisville, when the Irish gained 6.51 yards per play. In the intervening quintet of Power Five games, Notre Dame averaged just 4.91 yards per play, peaking with 5.91 yards per play against USC.
To put all those numbers into context, the Irish averaged 6.18 yards per play in 2018’s regular season. Reasonable projections thought that would be the floor this season.
It has instead closer represented a ceiling.
“It’s a good stepping stone,” Book said. “I felt very comfortable. The O-line did a great job tonight. Receivers did a great job of getting some separation at the right times and knowing where they were going to be at the right time, so I felt like this was probably the best game.
“… I wanted to come down here and make a statement and get a big road win.”
If not a statement made, then perhaps an ideal realized. It is too late in the year to think replicating such a complete performance could lead to bigger things, but for at least one week, Notre Dame showed what it could be in 2019.