Opponent outlook: Duke aiming for 'aggressive' approach against Notre Dame

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

Not much seemed to work for Duke last football season.

The Blue Devils dropped five consecutive games before winning their season finale. They finished with their worst record since 2016 at 5-7. They ranked No. 79 in rushing offense, No. 115 in pass-efficiency offense, No. 87 in rushing defense and No. 127 in turnover margin.

Associated Press No. 10 Notre Dame (11-2 in 2019) will open its season hosting Duke on Saturday (2:30 p.m. EDT on NBC). In hopes to limit the spread of COVID-19, the game will be held before an abbreviated crowd capped at 15,525 fans to comply with social distance guidelines.

The Irish held the Blue Devils to 197 yards while quarterback Ian Book threw four touchdowns in their 38-7 win last season on Nov. 9. Duke head football coach David Cutcliffe pinpointed what will need to be different this time, and perhaps for this season overall.

“I think we’ve got to be aggressive on both sides of the ball. We can’t be afraid,” Cutcliffe told Duke football reporters in a press conference on Monday. “We can’t be on our heels. I thought we got on our heels a little bit on both sides of the ball a year ago. They are talented. They are outstanding. They are well-coached. So you have to match that with an aggressiveness, with a nature that you are going to compete at the highest level.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, the Irish and the Blue Devils have not publicized any active cases for COVID-19 from the tests administered to their football players and personnel. In accordance to ACC guidelines, Notre Dame will test members of its football program three times per week this season. Cutcliffe said Duke’s football program will test daily this season.

Other Duke news this week included Chase Brice being named as starting quarterback. He served as backup to Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence before transferring this offseason. The Blue Devils will be without starting center and team captain Jack Wohlabaugh. He suffered a season-ending torn ACL in his right knee in preseason camp.

We caught up with Adam Rowe of 247Sports for more insight on the Blue Devils.

How has Duke’s football program handled the COVID-19 pandemic overall?

Rowe: “From the outside, it has been handled remarkably well, especially when compared to other comparable programs and those in the area. Duke was one of the last programs to return to campus (mid-July) and one of the last to return to fall camp (early August). Once they got back to campus, there was a required testing followed by quarantine if there were any positive tests. While they did have some positives, the quarantine period allowed the team to get over those issues without any outbreaks. And they haven’t had any publicized positives since that time.”

Duke reporters seem to believe backup quarterbacks Chris Katrenick and Gunnar Holmberg could rotate with Brice. Do you expect Brice to get all the reps? And how would you describe his skill set?

Rowe: “In most games, Brice will dominate the snaps but behind him Katrenick and Holmberg are veterans who have a command of the playbook and are physically ready to step in should something happen to Brice. It would not be surprising to see Cutcliffe rotate in one of those guys in a goal line or short yardage scenario as Brice’s strength is his passing ability. He can get out and run, but Holmberg is much more adept at tucking the ball and running. Brice, by all accounts, has the best arm on the team and will represent a dramatic improvement over the last year’s quarterbacking situation that saw Duke have one of its more turnover-prone seasons in history.”

It’s not often you see someone with one career start be projected as a top 100 overall pick in the NFL Draft. What makes defensive end Chris Rumph II a special talent that intrigues draft analysts?

Rowe: “While Rumph doesn’t have the ‘starting’ experience some other top draft prospects do, he’ll play starters’ reps next year just like he did last year. Ben Albert (defensive line coach) brings him in for different scenarios, lining up in the middle of the line alongside the starting defensive ends Drew Jordan and Victor Dimukeje, who are no slouches themselves. Honestly, Rumph’s best position at the next level is likely as an outside linebacker but Duke likes to line him up along the line to disrupt opposing offensive lines they may not be able to physically match up with on paper. Like Notre Dame, which has one of the more impressive offensive lines in college football.”

How would this game go wrong for the Blue Devils? What would they need to do to make this things interesting?

Rowe: “Going wrong for Duke in this game would probably mean they got blown out by more than three touchdowns. That’s certainly possible, as Notre Dame’s two lines are some of the best in the sport. Chase Brice is going to have to show the kind of composure he showed in relief of Trevor Lawrence against Syracuse (in 2018) for this game to be interesting.”

The Blue Devils enter season No. 13 with Cutcliffe at the helm. How would you assess the job he’s done at Duke? What does the future hold for Cutcliffe, who turns 66 next week?

Rowe: “Talk to anyone inside the sport of college football, and they will marvel at what Cutcliffe has been able to accomplish at Duke. There’s a reason nearly every college football program in the country and some NFL programs sent people to Duke to try and learn what the staff did to accomplish such a dramatic turnaround. He always said it was harder to go from good to great than it is to go from bad to good, and that’s the last hurdle he’s yet to overcome. I don’t see him slowing down anytime soon, but the end is not too far down the road.”

• Score prediction: Notre Dame 31, Duke 21.

Rowe: “I would expect the final score to be a lot closer than last season, as there aren’t expected to be the number of turnovers from the offense with Cutcliffe taking over and better talent under center. Things will likely stay relatively close until the fourth quarter, when Notre Dame pulls away.”

Notre Dame wide receiver Chris Finke (10) falls into the end zone for a touchdown next to Duke’s Michael Carter II (26) and Dylan Singleton (16) on Nov. 9, 2019.