Notre Dame vs. Duke: Keys To Victory

Keys to a Notre Dame football victory in their matchup against Duke
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Notre Dame and Duke kick off their 2020 seasons tomorrow when the two programs square off inside Notre Dame Stadium. It will mark the first official ACC football game in Notre Dame history, and it will be game one in the team’s quest for its first conference championship.

Notre Dame is the better team and has the better roster, but Duke is good enough to pull off the upset should the Irish not play well, play focused and play smart. There are seven keys to victory for Notre Dame that cover all three phases of the game.

KEYS TO VICTORY - OFFENSE

1. Slow down the Duke pass rush by running the football — Duke has an outstanding pair of edge rushers in Chris Rumph III and Victor Dimukeje. In fact, the Blue Devil defense had more sacks than Notre Dame last season despite playing one fewer game. Pro Football Focus ranked the Irish pass rush as the nation’s fifth best last fall, but Duke ranked 10th. The only hope for Duke in this game is for its pass rush to make enough of an impact to force turnovers and keep the Irish offense from getting comfortable.

There are two ways to negate this. One is for the Irish tackles (Liam Eichenberg, Robert Hainsey) to have big games, but offensive coordinator Tommy Rees can help as well by allowing the offensive line to pound the Duke front four with the ground game. The more physical Notre Dame plays on the ground the more challenging it will be for the Duke pass rush to attack the pass game.

2. Protect the football — Duke is going to attack the Irish offense, they are going to mix up their coverages and they are going to do everything possible to try and get the Irish offense to make mistakes. Combine that with the first game hiccups that tend to happen, and could be especially prevalent in what has been the wildest offseason of my lifetime, and you have the recipe for turnovers making a big impact in this game.

If Notre Dame protects the football and this game is about talent vs. talent there is no question the Irish will start the season off with a victory.

3. Youth movement — Winning can’t be enough in this game. With such a chaotic offseason, this game needs to also be an opportunity for Notre Dame to get its young offensive weapons going. I know that Brian Kelly has always preferred to play veterans, even when the talent gap with a young player is significant, but that can’t happen in 2020.

There are too many talented young players like Kyren Williams, Chris Tyree, Michael Mayer, Jordan Johnson, Xavier Watts and Kendall Abdur-Rahman to not get them going as early as possible. Stubbornly holding younger players to the kind of standard that has limited their opportunities in past seasons can’t be the standard in 2020.

It might not hurt them in the matchup against Duke, but it could come back to bite Notre Dame in the behind later in the season.

KEYS TO VICTORY - DEFENSE

1. Don’t let Chase Brice get comfortable — Duke has weapons on offense that can do damage. Running back Deon Jackson, tight end Noah Gray and wideouts Jalon Calhoun, Jake Bobo and Damond Philyaw-Johnson are all talented players that can do damage. They were all limited last season by poor quarterback play, but that likely won’t be the case in 2020 thanks to the arrival of Clemson grad transfer Chase Brice.

Brice isn’t a world-beater, but he’s a veteran player with enough talent and smarts to give the offense a huge boost. He’s the kind of quarterback that can pick a defense apart, get the ball to his playmakers in space and allow the skill talent to thrive.

For Notre Dame, the best way to slow down the talented Duke skill players is to make sure Brice never gets comfortable in his first game with the Blue Devils. That means first and foremost getting pressure and disrupting the pocket. Second, it means doing enough from a coverage shell diversity standpoint to keep him guessing about what Notre Dame is throwing at him on the back end.

If Brice hesitates to get rid of the ball the odds are good that Notre Dame will rack up a lot of hits on the quarterback and get their hands on a lot of passes, which means the Duke offense won’t be able to move the football with any kind of consistency or effectiveness. If he gets comfortable Duke could make this a far more competitive game.

2. Be prepared for the double moves and trick plays — Duke runs a lot of double moves in the pass game, and they will run their fair share of trick plays. The double moves are a staple of the offense, and they require the Notre Dame linebackers and defensive backs to be disciplined, make sound reads of their keys and make good decisions.

I’ve seen them run a number of trick plays that have gone for big plays, and we’ll see them again on Saturday. Duke’s staff knows they can’t line up and play with Notre Dame man for man, they know they need to find ways to generate big plays, and they’ll run some gimmicks to make that happen.

If Notre Dame handles these two aspects of the Duke offense and limits big plays the Irish will roll.

3. Make Duke one dimensional — Duke will look to be balanced, and Notre Dame needs to keep that from happening. If the Blue Devils are forced to be pass-heavy the Irish defense should be able to pin its ears back and shut Duke down.

KEYS TO VICTORY - SPECIAL TEAMS

1. No big plays allowed — When Notre Dame lost to Duke in 2016 the Irish jumped out to a 14-0 lead, but a kick return for a score reignited Duke and spark their comeback victory. Simply put, Notre Dame’s special teams cannot allow Duke to have any game-changing or field-position swinging plays in this contest.

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