Opponent Outlook: Duke trying to regain positive momentum against Notre Dame

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

Just like the Notre Dame faithful, Duke football fans are struggling with processing a 1-2 start.

The Blue Devils lost a 24-13 decision to Northwestern Saturday night.

Steve Wiseman, Duke football beat writer for the Durham Herald-Sun, takes an inside look at what the Irish might expect Saturday.

-- What are the primary problems with the running game (117 yards vs. Northwestern)?

Duke simply isn't winning enough battles at the line of scrimmage because the total rushing yards against Wake Forest and Northwestern, combined, is 154 yards. The staff put redshirt sophomore Zach Harmon in as starting left guard after starting redshirt freshman Zach Baker was there the first two weeks. Duke's tackles, Casey Blaser and Gabe Brandner, are experienced. So is right guard Tanner Stone, a returning starter. But that isn't translating into success. 

-- How have 10 turnovers impacted the season?

Half of them came in the first game against N.C. Central so they didn't hurt anyone. But they showed an alarming amount of sloppiness that's continued and hurt Duke in subsequent games against Wake Forest and Northwestern. Two of the turnovers at Northwestern came in Wildcat territory to kill successful Duke drives. Redshirt freshman quarterback Daniel Jones has lost three fumbles over the last two games. For a talented passer who is adjusting to college football, that is something he can't afford to have hanging over his head.

-- What makes the Blue Devils' pass rush (five sacks vs. Northwestern) so effective?

The Blue Devils are athletic on defense and defensive coordinator Jim Knowles is good at sending pressure from different parts of the field to overwhelm pass-blocking schemes. Safety DeVon Edwards frequently gets free on blitzes, for example. Up front, redshirt senior defensive tackle AJ Wolf is off to a good start. Linebackers Ben Humphreys and Joe Giles-Harris are fast and good tacklers and cornerbacks Breon Borders and Bryon Fields are trusted cover corners. That allows Knowles to send blitzes because he trusts them to handle their assignments. 

-- How has head coach David Cutcliffe (who started in 2008) held up through some early frustration?

Well, this is a tough time for Cutcliffe because Duke is taking a step back after five consecutive years of positive momentum within the program. He knew he had some question marks along the offensive and defensive lines entering the season. He faces no job pressure or anything. But Duke's failure to be a fundamentally strong team bothers him the most. He's learning about this group and won't be afraid to make personnel changes. He seeks to maintain a strong program, not just have a solid season. 

-- What has surprised/disappointed you about this team so far?

We addressed the turnovers earlier. Duke's 10 turnovers are more than any other FBS team not named Kansas (which has 11). Just as important have been issues on special teams. Traditionally this has been an area Duke used to be an equalizer when facing teams with better talent. But freshman kicker AJ Reed has missed all three of his field goal attempts. He also missed an extra point against Northwestern. Redshirt freshman punter Austin Parker has twice fumbled snaps to give the opposition the ball in Duke territory. Punt returner Ryan Smith fumbled a punt against NC Central. What had been a plus is now a minus. Duke can't afford this.

Duke place kicker AJ Reed (48) reacts after missing a field goal during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Northwestern in Evanston, Ill., Saturday, Sept. 17 2016. Northwestern beat Duke 24-13. (AP Photo/Matt Marton)