IRISH LOOK FOR SECOND WIN ON SENIOR DAYposted by Mike Coffey
Notre Dame closes its home schedule Saturday and looks to spare its sparse senior class the embarrassment of a winless home slate. There is hope for the Irish this week, as they face off against a Duke team that, unlike any of the first ten Irish opponents, is currently under .500.
Inexplicably, Duke’s season mirrors Notre Dame’s in many respects. Both teams have faced top-5 schedules and both teams have emerged with exactly one victory; moreover, each team’s victory came despite being grossly outgained in terms of total yardage. If not for a barrage of miscues by UCLA and Northwestern, this weekend’s matchup would be a battle of winless teams.
Whereas Duke reports no injuries this week, Notre Dame has a few bruises. Most notably, Pat Kuntz is out at nose tackle, putting a significant burden on freshman Ian Williams to handle most of the snaps there. Elsewhere, John Sullivan is inactive for his final game in Notre Dame Stadium. Dan Wenger will slide over to center, and Irish fans hope the Wenger-to-Clausen exchange will be seamless on Saturday and for years to come.
For a third straight game, the Irish will trot out an athletically superior squad. Unlike Navy and Air Force, Duke does not employ a gimmicky offense, which should be a welcome respite for a Corwin Brown defense that surrendered a combined 87 points to the Academies.
It will be interesting to see whether either team is able to establish the running game. If one team can run effectively and control the clock, it will go a long way in determining the outcome between these two evenly matched teams. Neither team’s performance provides much confidence in this regard - Duke is the only Division 1-A team with a worse rushing offense than the Irish.
Notre Dame’s Offense vs. Duke’s Defense
Very few teams have had a hard time scoring against the Blue Devil defense. Northwestern is the only opponent Duke has held under 24 points, and six teams have posted more than 40.
In last week’s game, Tashard Choice lit up the Blue Devils for 170 yards on the ground; earlier in the year, Navy and Clemson also treated the Duke line like a sieve. On the other hand, UConn and Virginia Tech picked them apart through the air, so there are many ways this defense can be slain.
Can Weis manufacture a balanced game plan, or will the Irish be too reliant on one facet? Many would like to see a heavy lean towards the running game, and Weis will most likely deliver healthy servings of James Aldridge and Armando Allen from the get-go. However, the Duke secondary is inexperienced and less talented than most of the defensive backfields the Irish have faced thus far.
Kamara returns to the line-up, and he will have a physical advantage over every Blue Devil defending him. Similarly, Duke lacks a corner that can keep up with a burner like Golden Tate, and this could be the game where he is once again used as a deep threat. As a unit, the Irish receivers will have to avoid the drops that plagued them against Air Force.
Duke’s Offense vs. Notre Dame’s Defense
Since Kuntz will be inactive, Notre Dame’s already porous rush defense (103rd in the nation) will be stretched thin. However, Duke has managed less than 50 ypg on the ground. Resistible Force, meet Moveable Object.
Enter Re'quan Boyette. This 5'10, 210-pound bowling ball is capable of wearing down a defense, particularly a defense that lacks depth. It remains to be seen whether Duke will commit to a running game that has been a failure throughout the season. Boyette and Justin Boyle, the team's two leading rushers, have combined for just 504 yards in ten games. The team has only three rushing touchdowns to its credit.
Versatile quarterback Thaddeus Lewis has put up good numbers (19 TDs) but is prone to turning the ball over (10 INTs). Like the Irish quarterbacking crew, Lewis has spent much of the season on his backside, as Duke has surrendered 40 sacks on the year. Lewis is mobile enough to avoid some pressure but has not proven to be a threat to take off and run with it.
Eron Riley is the Blue Devils’ most dangerous offensive weapon. The 6’3, 200-pound receiver has nine touchdowns this season, including at least one in five of the last seven games. In addition to Riley's receiving duties, Duke has tried to get him the ball in other ways, either on trick plays or by bringing him into the backfield, a la Percy Harvin. Riley hasn't had much success on these plays, but don't be surprised to see him run an end around or two Saturday, based on the success Air Force had with misdirection plays.
Negating Riley's physical presence will be one of the top priorities for Corwin Brown's defense. The safety on his side of the field will likely be in double-cover mode for much of the afternoon.
Jabari Marshall is a dangerous kick returner. He averages 25 yards a return and has one touchdown on the year. Leon Wright has been a solid though unremarkable punt returner.
Kevin Jones has gotten a workout punting for the Blue Devils, and he averages 39 yards a boot. Nick Maggio took over placekicking duties midseason and has yet to miss. However, his longest attempt was from 40 yards, so his range is an unknown at this point.
Notre Dame has special teams issues of its own. The lack of confidence in the kicking game does not bode well for the Irish if this game is decided in the final few minutes or goes to overtime. At punter, Geoff Price is doubtful, although Eric Maust is not a substantial downgrade.
It would be encouraging to see more life from the Irish return teams. Allen and Tate have the physical tools to be dangerous, yet lengthy returns have been few and far between. Allen in particular has seemed to run past his blockers on multiple kicks when holes seemed to be developing.
Make no mistake about it – Duke is not a good team. The Irish have not been a good team either, but they do have the ability to play up to a higher level than the Blue Devils. Say what you will about the leadership of this year's seniors, but I'm certain the underclassmen would like to send them out with a victory.
If talent prevails, the Irish should win. Then again, that has been the case many times this season.
The following questions will help determine the winner of the game:
- Will Weis effectively balance the passing and running attacks?
- Can the Irish avoid putting Clausen in must-throw situations on third down?
- Will Re'quan Boyette wear down the Irish defensive line?
- Can the Irish hold Eron Riley under 100 yards and out of the end zone?
- Which team will make a big special teams play?
Corwin Brown's defense will bend but not break against the Duke attack. The Irish offense will control the clock but won't score in bunches, which will keep the game close throughout. A late touchdown against the tired Duke defense will ice it, and though it won't be a pretty game, the Irish seniors will go out with a victory.
NOTRE DAME 26 DUKE 16