Here are five keys for No. 15 Notre Dame (6-2) at Duke (4-4) on Saturday (7:30 p.m. EDT on ACC Network).
The lingering effects of the Michigan loss and the criticism that came with it may have impacted Notre Dame in its 21-20 win over Virginia Tech last week. Irish head coach Brian Kelly said quarterback Ian Book played tight. Maybe Book’s game-winning, seven-yard touchdown run to cap an 18-play, 87-yard drive will give him the confidence to play loose against the Blue Devils. Duke has lost three of its last four, so Notre Dame should have the momentum in this one.
NO SELF-INFLICTED WOUNDS
Being smart with the football was a strength of the Irish offense halfway through the season. Notre Dame ranked No. 1 nationally in turnover margin (now tied for 10th) before the Michigan game and No. 1 in red zone efficiency prior to Virginia Tech (now tied for 30th). The Irish have since committed four turnovers over the past two games and went scoreless on three red zone opportunities against the Hokies. Careless mistakes are a key ingredient to losing as the road favorite. Fortunately for the Irish, the Blue Devils are tied for No. 113 nationally in turnover margin.
COMPLETE RUNNING GAME
Junior running back Jafar Armstrong showed what he can do in space last week, catching a 26-yard screen pass and totaling four receptions for 49 yards. The Irish lacked a running presence between the tackles without senior Tony Jones Jr., though. With Jones expected to return from a rib injury that he suffered against Michigan, look for the Irish to incorporate two-back sets into their offense once again. A complete performance from the Irish running backs would ease some pressure off Book, who led Notre Dame in rushing last week with 50 yards and a touchdown in 13 carries.
CONTAIN HARRIS, JACKSON
Duke quarterback Quentin Harris and running back Deon Jackson will be the key players that Notre Dame’s defense must contain. Harris can beat defenses with his legs, rushing for a team-leading six touchdowns. He has 408 yards in 104 carries. Jackson (124 carries, 487 yards, five touchdowns) could also threaten the Irish run defense, ranked No. 72 nationally. Notre Dame sold out to effectively stop the run against Georgia, Virginia and Virginia Tech. Expect Notre Dame to adopt a similar approach that challenges Harris to make plays through the air.
POWER THROUGH OL INJURIES Losing right guard Tommy Kraemer (knee) and captain right tackle Robert Hainsey (ankle) challenges the Irish offense. Though Trevor Ruhland replaced Kraemer for the entire Virginia Tech game, a rotation could be in the works going forward. Ruhland’s injury history warrants a snap count limit of sorts. Kelly said to expect junior Dillan Gibbons to rotate with Ruhland. If Duke presents problems for this makeshift offensive line, Book must make quick decisions and remained poised in the pocket. Jones and Armstrong may have to make something out of nothing on certain runs.