Duke found its winning personality at Notre Dame

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — A little more than six minutes into Saturday’s game, Notre Dame appeared well on its way to taking its frustration out on an overmatched Duke team.

The Irish had scored 14 points in two drives and forced a punt following three offensive plays for the Blue Devils.

Duke had every right to be discouraged. A basketball school isn’t supposed to be able to come in and hang with a football powerhouse.

But quicker than you could write the Blue Devils off, running back Shaun Wilson returned the ensuing kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown. Duke was here to play.

“It did energize us, but I reminded all of them, that’s not what we came up here to do, to have to look for something good to happen to play well,” said Duke head coach David Cutcliffe. “That’s not what you do on the road. That may sound crazy, and they were excited, but I said, ‘Now let’s get back to being focused on what we intended to do from the beginning.’ And that’s to compete every play.”

Rather than allowing one touchdown be a point of pride, Duke revved up the intensity to battle with Notre Dame for the remaining 54 minutes. Even then, it wasn’t easy. Duke leads of 21-14 and 28-21 were eventually washed away. The Blue Devils even fell behind 35-28 with 7:46 left to play. But Duke scored the final 10 points in a 38-35 victory.

The last three points may have been the most nerve-wracking of all. Twice Duke chose to attempt a fourth-down conversion deep in Notre Dame territory and failed both times. But with 1:27 left in the game and his offense facing fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, Cutcliffe sent freshman kicker AJ Reed in to win the game.

Reed had missed the first three field goal attempts of his young career. He nailed the 19-yarder to give Duke the lead.

“We were all behind him,” Duke wide receiver TJ Rahming said of Reed. “We just had to get him to be confident in himself, and that’s what we did this week. We just tried to uplift him. We all trust in his ability, and he did a great job.”

Cutcliffe didn’t even consider keeping his offense on the field. He trusted his freshman kicker and forced Notre Dame (1-3) to try to tie or win the game without any timeouts in hand.

“When you have a team with no timeouts, you don’t do that,” Cutcliffe said. “You don’t play overtime. If they have no timeouts, you kick the field goal. And you realize that they’re playing on a shorter field, but they also have less time in that circumstance. So I felt good about that.”

Reed wasn’t the only unlikely hero for Duke in South Bend. If Duke was going to return a kickoff for a touchdown, it figured to be by DeVon Edwards. The senior, who has returned six kicks for scores in his career, injured his knee on the first kickoff of the game. Enter Wilson, who gave Duke life.

Redshirt freshman quarterback Daniel Jones stepped into the spotlight as well. The Blue Devils lost captain Thomas Sirk to an Achilles injury before the season started. In just his fourth start, Jones completed 24 of his 32 pass attempts for 290 yards and three touchdowns at Notre Dame.

While Duke let multiple leads slip away, the Blue Devils didn’t let their confidence be shaken.

“It’s all about motivating each other, and our coaches do it,” said cornerback Breon Borders. “We did a great job staying positive, and we also motivate each other. Leadership on this is critical, and we came out on the positive side of things.”

On the same day Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly took his players to task for not showing passion and a week after he demanded his coaching staff do a better job of coaching, underdog Duke (2-2) displayed the poise of a winning team.

“We found a little bit more out about ourselves today and what our personality has to be to win,” Cutcliffe said. “Not all that complicated. We did the things that we had to do to give ourselves a chance to win on the road and found a way to win it in the fourth quarter.”

Notre Dame’s Donte Vaughn (35) moves in on Duke’s T.J. Rahming (3) during the Notre Dame-Duke NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN