Must-Win Matchups: Notre Dame Defense vs. Duke Offense

There are a number of key matchups that the Notre Dame defense must win when they take on Duke
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Notre Dame has a significant statistical advantage over the Duke offense, but the Blue Devils do have players that can present matchup problems for the Irish.

A key to victory on Saturday will be Notre Dame winning those matchups where Duke is strong, and dominating the matchups where the Irish should have the advantage.

If Notre Dame wins these three matchups it should be a strong day for the Irish defense.

#87 Noah Gray vs. #6 Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and #33 Shayne Simon

Duke's two best players heading into the 2020 season are running back Deon Jackson (#25) and tight end Noah Gray (#87). Notre Dame's linebackers will be challenged by both players, but making sure Gray doesn't go off is especially important.

Gray's numbers in 2019 weren't overly impressive (51 catches, 392 yards), but those numbers say more about the poor quarterback play than they do about his talent. Gray is an athletic pass catcher that presents unique matchup problems for linebackers.

Duke will line him up in the boundary (short side of the field) and the field (wide side), which means he'll be matched up against Owusu-Koramoah, Simon and possibly Marist Liufau in different instances, and the Irish linebackers will need to keep him from doing things like this:

Calhoun is a quality route runner that knows how to manipulate his opponent to get leverage advantages, which you can see in the clip above. He'll also run a number of double moves that can make him hard to defend. Quarterback Chase Brice will look for Gray early and often, and if the Irish pass rush doesn't hit home then we could see Gray have a big day.

If Duke has trouble getting Gray and Jackson going in the pass game it will stall their offense and limit their ability to consistently move the chains.

#5 Jalon Calhoun vs. #20 Shaun Crawford

Calhoun led Duke in receiving yards last season (420 yards) as a true freshman. He did that damage on 46 catches, which won't cause fear if you just look at the numbers, but like Gray, his numbers say more about the Duke quarterback situation than they do his ability to get open and do damage.

Calhoun isn't an overly explosive player, but he's shifty, quick and I expect his route running to improve as a sophomore. I'm not overly concerned with him running past Shaun Crawford or any other Irish safety, but he runs a lot of double moves that can be problematic.

This wheel route is one example, but Calhoun will also run stop-and-go routes and stutter routes in an attempt to get Crawford and the other safeties to bite on his first move in an attempt to then get free for a big play.

These routes can be effective because Duke throws so much quick game. Calhoun will catch a lot of screens and quick throws, and if you aren't disciplined as a safety you will bite on one of those quick throws, and if Duke catches you with a double move in those instances they can gash the defense.

Of course, if you're too patient then Calhoun can catch one of those quick throws and turn it into a big play.

At the end of the day, Duke isn't good enough to put sustained drives together against Notre Dame. They will need big plays, and Calhoun is capable of making those.

Duke Interior Blockers vs. Notre Dame Defensive Tackles

Losing All-ACC center Jack Wohlabaugh was a devastating blow for Duke. He's replaced by redshirt junior Will Taylor (#55), who has battled injuries himself throughout his career. 

At guard, 2019 starter Rakavius Chambers (#67) is now listed as a backup, and he was replaced by sophomore Maurice McIntyre (#71). At right guard, sophomore Jacob Monk (#63) slides inside after starting last season at right tackle.

Duke will have a completely different look inside, but after last season's struggles that's not all bad. Had Wohlabaugh not gone down this would have had the makings a much improved interior.

Notre Dame defensive tackles, led by seniors Myron Tagovailao-Amosa (#95) and Kurt Hinish (#41), and junior Jayson Ademilola (#57) will be a key part of the Irish success on Saturday. If they are able to handle the big Duke interior players and get consistent penetration the Blue Devil run game will be non-existent. 

Making Duke one-dimensional would likely result in Notre Dame completely dominating the Blue Devils. If the Duke run game gets going, especially early, it will give the Blue Devils confidence and early momentum.

When it comes to the pass game, the interior players need to be disciplined and stay in their rush lanes. Getting pressure on Brice would certainly be nice, but the more important part is not giving him lanes to step into should the edge rushers force him into the pocket.

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