Duke looked like a team capable of competing for the top spot in the ACC Coastal division through the first four weeks of this college football season.
Then October happened.
The Blue Devils (4-4) dropped three of their four games that month, losing to intra-division foes Pittsburgh (33-30), Virginia (48-14) and North Carolina (20-17). The Tar Heels knocked them two games behind the top spot in the Coastal, held by the Cavaliers, in a tough fashion.
Trailing UNC by three with 18 seconds remaining, Duke had a first-and-goal on the two-yard line. The Blue Devils called for a trick play that resulted in running back Deon Jackson throwing an interception, resulting in the loss. They also settled for a field goal in the first half after having a first-and-goal at the one-yard line.
A bye week gave the Blue Devils time to address those concerns. Defeating No. 15 Notre Dame (6-2) in Saturday’s game (7:30 p.m. EDT on the ACC Network) at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, N.C., will require Duke to convert those opportunities.
Can the Blue Devils return to their September ways and take advantage of an Irish squad that’s faltered over the last couple weeks? For more insight we caught up with Steve Wiseman, who covers Duke football for the Durham Herald-Sun, the Raleigh News & Observer and the Charlotte Observer.
l How do you expect last week’s tough loss to affect Duke moving forward?
Wiseman: That was a brutal experience. Duke played so poorly against Virginia a week earlier and righted many wrongs to be in position to beat its rival. To lose on a play call like that is hard to stomach. They’ve had two weeks to mull over that, knowing they need at least two wins in the next four games to get back to a bowl game. That urgency should help, along with the challenge a team like Notre Dame presents.
l What has life looked like for Duke’s offense after losing quarterback Daniel Jones to the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft (New York Giants)?
Wiseman: In some ways the offense is better, but that is in no way a knock on Jones. Though younger, Duke’s wide receivers are more reliable making catches in contested situations this year as compared to last year’s group. The offensive line, including the tackles, have proven to be more reliable in pass protection. (Quarterback Quentin) Harris isn’t the same caliber athlete as Jones. He’s an effective runner, which is a plus, and a decent passer. But he’s been turnover prone, coughing it up when being hit and throwing the ball into dangerous situations. That’s been a big problem.
l Who are some key players that need to have big games against the Irish?
Wiseman: Duke needs a strong day from its defense, so defensive end Victor Dimukeje having a big day would help the Blue Devils reach that goal. He’s an impact player up front. In the secondary, Duke needs solid tackling to prevent Notre Dame from unleashing big plays. That means Dylan Singleton, Marquis Waters and Michael Carter need to play well at safety and cornerback. Offensively, Deon Jackson needs to produce some big plays in the running and passing games.
l This game being on the ACC Network has annoyed quite a few Notre Dame fans. Not all major carriers in certain areas come with the channel. How have Duke fans responded to having some of their football and men’s basketball games broadcast on the ACCN?
Wiseman: They are mostly fine with it because they are a charter league member and know how important the network is to the league’s future. It helps that the major television providers in our area were all on board from day one. They expect Duke basketball to be used to promote the network and take some pride in that. There honestly hasn’t been much grumbling about it down here, which isn’t surprising.
l If Notre Dame handles Duke, why do you think that would be the case? If Duke pulls off the upset, why do you think that would be the case?
Wiseman: The Irish can win by pressuring Harris to either force turnovers or stymie Duke’s offense. Even when not turning it over, the offense has been prone to stretches of poor output leading to three-and-outs. If Notre Dame can run the ball decently (200 total yards, maybe?), that should be enough. For Duke to win, the Blue Devils need Harris and the offense to play like they did back in September against Virginia Tech and Middle Tennessee. Harris completed a high percentage of passes and the running backs were productive in those games. Duke’s defense has been solid this season, even in the losses, but it must tackle well to prevent Notre Dame from racking up yards after contact.
l Score prediction: Notre Dame 31, Duke 14.
Wiseman: After the ugly loss to Michigan and the escape over Virginia Tech, I think the Irish will show improvement this week. I anticipate the Irish scoring at least 10 points directly from Duke turnovers. I’m not sure the Blue Devils offense can play consistently enough to score enough to overcome its turnover tendencies, which put a pretty good Duke defense in bad situations far too often.