DURHAM, N.C. — Still in full pads — everything but his helmet — Notre Dame wide receiver Chris Finke squeezed up a small aisle toward the corner of a postgame interview room late Saturday.
Finke also carried with him something else — the game ball — which he promptly tried to hide behind his back as reporters converged for comments. Like hiding that was going to matter. It wasn’t a big secret who had earned the game ball following a 38-7 victory over Duke at Wallace Wade Stadium.
“I had some plays called my way,” Finke said. “Sometimes I came open and Ian (Book) found me.”
Finke tied for the team high with five receptions. He caught a pair of touchdown passes, a first for him in a college game. Heck, Finke was so good, so locked in, so ready to make plays that he even busted out on a 46-yard punt return. He also found time and energy on the sideline to do a little dance.
Finke was good as he had been all year the previous week in practice. He legs were lively. He felt healthy. He played like it.
“It was a lot of fun,” Finke deadpanned afterward. “Anytime a team can come together and get a big win in November and have fun playing football, that’s what we do it for.”
Finke was key for the 15th-ranked Irish (7-2) almost from the start. Following a three-and-out on Notre Dame’s opening drive, it was No. 10 who kept the second Irish drive going with three-straight receptions on third down. That drive ended in a score. It got the offense believing. It got Finke going. It signaled the beginning of the end for the Blue Devils (4-5).
Head coach Brian Kelly said Finke was clocked as fast as 21 mph last week on his GPS during practices. In November, that’s rare.
“He has his legs,” Kelly said. “He feels good. Awesome day for him.”
That was evident with the second-half punt return. Finke usually goes with the fair catch, or lets the ball bounce away. This time, he caught it, eyed an opening, made a few cuts, put it another gear and almost got to the end zone.
“Had some really good blocking,” Finke said.
Notre Dame carried through on its laundry list of defensive goals to near perfection.
Coming in, the Irish wanted to take away tight end Noah Gray, who made four catches but for all of 28 yards. The Irish suffocated Gray with leverage inside and out. They wanted to turn rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah loose on the perimeter. He made six tackles. They wanted to be aggressive when Duke went with an empty backfield. Every time they did, the Blue Devils came up empty.
“We just worked and worked and executed,” senior cornerback Troy Pride, Jr. said. “We got on the grind. It was the culmination of a lot of good work during the week.”
Pride even delivered an interception, which he returned 39 yards. It could have been longer. Should have been longer. Racing up near the middle of the field, Pride had visions of getting all the way to the opposite end zone. He thought he might get there, only to be blasted by Duke wide receiver Aaron Young.
"So, I'm going to blame TaRiq Bracy and put him on the spot," Pride said with a laugh. "That was his guy that he was supposed to block. I saw some things on film that I liked and got a chance to get a ball and ran it back. He came out of nowhere and smacked me pretty good.
"I got whiplash. Pretty nice."
Notre Dame knows it’s not going back to the College Football Playoff this year. It may not play in a New Year’s Six bowl game. But there’s no shortage of motivation as the Irish roll toward a possible 10-win season for the third-straight year.
“If you’re not motivated to play football even if you can’t make the playoffs, you shouldn’t be doing it,” Finke said. “That was the goal, but we show up every day, we love each other, we have fun.”
Road wins are hard to come by in college football, so when the Irish get one, they celebrate it.
Saturday really was the first time they had a chance to do that. Yeah, they won opening night at Louisville, but that win way back on Labor Day night left sort of a sour taste. The Irish didn’t dominate, not like they did Saturday.
“It’s nice to go into an opponent’s stadium and just have their crowd leave,” Pride said. "it feels good. You want to continue to that. You want to beat a team 150-0 if you can."
Notre Dame's defense allowed one touchdown to Virginia Tech, one to Duke.
When Notre Dame and Duke meet in any sport, which happens more often than not as members of the Atlantic Coast Conference for sports other than football and hockey, worlds collide for Duke athletic director Kevin White.
White spent eight years as the athletic director at Notre Dame, where he’s remembered for extending the infamous 10-year contract extension to former Irish football coach Charlie Weis following the 2005 home loss to USC.
White abruptly left Notre Dame for Duke in May 2008. Through an athletic department spokesperson, White declined an interview opportunity with the Tribune leading into Saturday’s game.
• Senior captain Julian Okwara limped off late in the second quarter with an ankle injury. X-rays were taken at halftime and Okwara did not return. Kelly said he’d have more information about the defensive end on Sunday.
• Tight end George Tackas made his first career reception midway through the fourth quarter – a two-yard touchdown in the back of the end zone. He was one of four Irish tight ends to get snaps against Duke.
• Sophomore running back Jahmir Smith’s 40-yard run on Notre Dame’s third series was the longest of his career. Smith finsihed with 43 yards, second most on the team.
• Junior Josh Lugg made his first career start, at right tackle, in place of captain Robert Hainsey, who suffered a fractured ankle the previous week against Virginia Tech. Lugg lined up alongside right guard Trevor Ruhland, who was making his second-straight start in place of the injured Tommy Kraemer (knee).
• Sophomore wide receivers Braden Lenzy and Joe Wilkins was not on the team’s official travel roster for Saturday’s game.
• All four of Notre Dame’s road games (Louisville, Georgia, Michigan, Duke) have been played at night. There’s a chance the fifth and final one — Stanford — also will be a night start. That one remains TBD. The last time Notre Dame played all of its true road games at night was in 2012 (Michigan State, Oklahoma, Boston College, USC).
• With a capacity of 40,004, and nowhere near a sellout, Wallace Wade Stadium was the smallest road venue for an Irish game since last year at Wake Forest’s BB&T Field (31,092).
• Duke dropped to 28-143-6 against ranked teams, a record that actually appeared last week on the first page of the Blue Devil’s media notes.
• Coming off a season-opening loss to Alabama in which it scored only three points, Duke entered Saturday’s game having averaged 33.3 points in its last seven games.
• Notre Dame-Duke wasn’t even the only college football night game in the Triangle on Saturday evening. Some 24 miles away at Carter-Finley Stadium, North Carolina State played its homecoming game. At night. Against No. 4 Clemson.
·• Saturday was Notre Dame’s first win at Wallace Wade Stadium, and its first visit since a 37-13 loss in 1961.
• According to the press box seating chart, there were more spots reserved for bowl reps (three) than NFL scouts (two). The only teams to have scouts on hand Saturday were Atlanta and Jacksonville. Some game over in Alabama might have factored into so few.
• Notre Dame returns home Saturday to face AP No. 25/CFP No. 24 Navy, its second home game against a ranked team this season (Virginia was No. 18).