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Notre Dame-Duke 2016: Five Things to Watch

Sept. 23, 2016

By John Heisler

Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s 2016 Notre Dame football team takes the Notre Dame Stadium field Saturday for a third consecutive home game (the first time in nine years that has happened) and the first of three straight games against Atlantic Coast Conference competition (next up are Syracuse and North Carolina State). Here are five things to watch:

1.The Irish secondary will be tested.
Average out the numbers for Duke quarterback David Jones over three outings and they come to 22.6 completions, 37 attempts and 266.7 passing yards per game. He’s throwing the football at a .613 clip (Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer is at .633). Through those three games, Duke has run the ball 127 times and thrown it 123 times. Still, expect the Blue Devils to see if they can move the ball through the air.

2. Both these teams are a little frustrated.
Face it, neither of these two teams expected–or is happy–to be 1-2 at this point in the season. Notre Dame lost a heartbreaker at Texas and had the football with a chance to tie the game late against Michigan State. Duke had eight more first downs than Wake Forest, and those two teams were tied until late in the third period. The Blue Devils and Northwestern ran the exact same number of plays–and the total yardage figures were virtually identical in Duke’s games against both Wake Forest and Northwestern. This is a Duke program that has won 27 combined games over the last three seasons and played in four straight bowl games for the first time in Blue Devil history. Suggesting neither team is interested in standing 1-3 on Saturday night would be a major understatement.

3. The atmosphere won’t faze Cutcliffe.
You never know what playing at Notre Dame Stadium will mean to the Duke players, but don’t expect anything about the environment to muss Blue Devil coach David Cutcliffe’s hair. This is a guy who spent 26 seasons in the Southeastern Conference–19 at Tennessee and seven at Ole Miss. He’s coached Peyton and Eli Manning and he’s been part of a national championship season (1998 at Tennessee). He’s been to Tuscaloosa and Athens and Gainesville and Baton Rouge plenty of times, so it’s likely he’ll be immune to anything he sees or hears in South Bend.

4. These games matter (a lot) to the ACC.
Notre Dame has always had a tough time quantifying rivalries. (What’s the bigger game? USC? Someone else? There’s no politically correct answer.) But it’s safe to assume these games against the Irish are a big deal to Duke this week, Syracuse and North Carolina State the following two weeks and then Miami and Virginia Tech down the line. The atmosphere and interest at Florida State in 2014 and Clemson in 2015 in the first two seasons of Notre Dame’s ACC relationship were off the charts. So expect the Blue Devils and Orange and Wolfpack and the others to plan for statement-making opportunities in these games to come.

5. The Irish can get it going.
Despite whatever frustration might exist in the Notre Dame camp, it’s not that difficult to sell a scenario where the Irish would be standing 3-0 and flying high right now. Say what you want about statistics or anything else–but Notre Dame led late in Austin and had the football with plenty of time for a potential game-tying march late against Michigan State. Brian Kelly’s team has yet to play its best football or put together a complete football game. Kelly firmly believes his Irish–based in great part on the youthfulness of the lineup–have a big upside. Granted two overtimes at Texas added 10 extra points to the ledger, but Notre Dame has scored 114 points in its first three games combined and the Irish haven’t done better than that since 1968. Kelly’s message to his squad? Forget about the record–stack the building blocks one at a time. Notre Dame has a chance to go on a run and finish strong, and the Irish now are in position to operate from a bit under the radar.

Senior associate athletics director John Heisler follows the Irish football scene for Fighting Irish Media. Look for his Sunday Brunch piece, an inside recap of what happens against Duke as Brian Kelly’s squad continues its 2016 home season.