Notre Dame fans have been aware that Mike Elko is a really good football coach for a while. He proved it with his Wake Forest defenses overachieving year after year before he got to Notre Dame. Then he proved it in his one year in South Bend where he helped a defense that didn’t get an influx of talent from the transfer portal go from inconsistent to top-15 in DF+ (combined FEI and SP+ rankings).
Elko moved on to Texas A&M to run their defense before getting his first head coaching opportunity at Duke. He quickly showed that he was prepared to run a program as they improved from 3-9 to 9-4 in his first season. They’ve started out red hot in 2023 as well with a 4-0 start that includes a huge win at home over Clemson.
This is a good football team that beat a much more talented Clemson team 28-7. There is no doubt they were helped by Clemson’s ineptness in the red zone (only scoring seven points on four opportunities), but anyone who watched that game could tell that Elko’s program deserved that win.
I can’t say I know a ton about the history of Duke football and the little success they’ve had over the years, but this has to be one of the biggest games they’ve ever played at home. It’s a sold out crowd playing Notre Dame during primetime with College Gameday coming to town for the first time ever.
It’s happening not just because of their opponent, but because Duke is legit. Ranked 21st in F+ and seventh in net points per drive, they’ve dominated their games against their other three opponents after playing Clemson.
It should be noted that one was against FCS Lafayette and the other two were Northwestern (88th in F+, a bottom five Power 5 program) and UCONN (currently dead last in F+).
Notre Dame is a different level of opponent and Duke, 67th in 247Sports’ team talent rankings, has to prove once again they are up to the challenge against a team with more raw talent.
Offensive coordinator Kevin Johns took over the worst offense in the ACC (114th in OF+) and they took a massive jump all the way up to 41st. They are currently 28th after the first ⅓ of the 2023 seasons.
They’re also 29th in points per drive, 28th in yards per play, and 10th in overall EPA on offense.
Johns has done a really good job of not asking his players to do something they can’t do. They rely on the short passing game and are looking for yards after the catch because they don’t have a big time deep threat. The average depth of targets in the first three games was 6.9 yards and they had only five deep throws (20+ air yards).
Over 60% of the passing game targets are less than 10-yards down the field and it’s many ways of an extension of the running game. They don’t play uptempo and want to control the game by running the football as much as possible, including using the quarterback on designed runs.
It’s a veteran offensive line with five players with over 20 career starts. Four of their five starters are graduates and the other is a senior. They lean on those guys heavily as the foundation of the offense.
They are 20th in EPA per rush (5th in adjusted EPA per rush) and they were in the 90th percentile in EPA per rush vs Clemson. They ran for 199 yards against the Tigers and to put that into context, Florida State ran for 22 against them.
They have 8 rushes of 20+ yards and are averaging 5.65 yards per carry. They backs run really hard, but it’s Leonard who is the biggest weapon for them. He has a 33-yard touchdown against Northwestern and a 44-yards touchdown against Clemson where he broke numerous tackles. He had three runs of 56-yards or more last season as well.
Opposing defenses haven’t created a lot of negative plays against them. The opposing Havoc rate is only 11.9%. A lot of that has to do with the line doing a solid job, Leonard’s decision making (zero interceptions, only one turnover worthy play) and the fact that he’s incredibly difficult to sack.
He’s only been sacked once all season.
It’s not an explosive offense. They had zero explosive pass plays vs Clemson and have had only two passes of 30 yards or more all season. That means they have to grind out drives and that’s a hard way to live on offense from week to week.
They gave up pressure on 39% of drop backs in the first three games and it was a 50% pressure rate against Clemson. He didn’t get sacked, but he had to throw the ball away four times.
He only had 50% completions vs Clemson so his passing numbers have been inflated against weaker teams. He’s also only had two passing touchdowns this season.
They struggled to run the football against UCONN. If they get forced into passing situations against Notre Dame’s defense, that’s going to be bad for them. They won the game easily, but a big reason for it was their defense having a scoop and score and also recovering a fumble on UCONN’s 10-yard line.
Leonard struggled against the blitz against Clemson and UCONN. In those two games he completed only 48.8% of his passes for 4.7 yards per attempt.
QB Riley Leonard
– 6-4 228
– Getting buzz as a first round prospect
– dangerous scrambler, top-25 in scrambling EPA
– dual-threat, 8th in ESPN’s QBR
– 98 yards rushing vs Clemson
– the best QB ND will have faced so far, 21st in ESPN’s QBR
– Very strong with decision-making, protects the footbal
l – 699 rushing last season, 7.5 YPC this season
– A plus arm who can rip it when he has to
RB Jordan Waters
– 6-0 219
– 7.5 YPC in first three games
– Runs yard through contact
– 11 missed tackles forced
RB Jaquez Moore
– 5-10 201
– 28 yard reception vs Clemson
– 5.26 YPC
– Broke a 59-yard run vs UVA last season
RB Jaylen Coleman
– 6-1 204
– 480 last season, 4.7 YPC
– Suffered an injury in camp, had his first game against UCONN
WR Jalon Calhoun
– 5-11 191
– WR1 for them
– only 5 for 32 vs Clemson
– Slot with some wiggle after the catch
WR Jordan Moore
– 6-0 195
– Former QB
– 20 for 246 this season
– 60 catches in 2022
– Only 5 of 15 on contested catches in ‘22, 2 of 4 this season
WR Sahmir Hagans
– 5-10 185
– 31 catches last season
– Took a punt back to the house against G Tech in ‘22
TE Nicky Dalmolin
– 6-4 241
– 9 for 108 this season
– Previous two seasons he averaged less than 10 yards per catch
– Improved as a run blocker, but not someone who can dominate at the point of attack
LT Graham Barton
– 6-5 311
– One of the top tackles in the country, the best ND will have played this season
– Finisher in the run game
– Very good in pass pro, but will open the gate and get beat inside
– Mobile athlete at the position
RT Jake Hornibrook
– 6-5 300
– Transfer from Stanford, started 23 games there
– Gave up 6 pressures vs Clemson
– Last season played LG
– Much better run blocker, suspect in pass pro
LG Maurice McIntyre
– 6-2 314
– 6th year player
– Average player at the position
LG Justin Pickett
– 34 snaps vs Clemson
– Had a rough time in limited opportunities last season
– Gave up five pressures vs Wake Forest in ‘22
RG Jacob Monk
– 6-3 320
– Over 40 career starts, two time team captain
– Started at guard and tackle as well
– Strong and agile, NFL tools
– When he’s on tilt, has trouble regaining form
– Gave up 19 pressures last season, 14 in four games
C Scott Elliott
– 6-3 297
– Transfer from Harvard
– Below average starter
– Gave up 3 pressures vs Clemson
Key for Notre Dame
Win the line of scrimmage
As good as Leonard can be, Duke’s offense goes as their offensive line goes. If they are having a tough time, then Leonard has to be on point knowing when to escape the rush or throw the football away.
If they can’t get downhill in the run game, then it goes against their identity. They were 2-4 last season when Leonard had to throw the ball over 30 times.
Elko knows defense and Tyler Santucci is his protege. He took over the defense this season and, with plenty of experience returning, they have ascended to a higher level.
They are 22nd in DF+, 2nd in points per drive, 28th in overall EPA, and 5th in YPP.
They play fast and confident. It looks a lot like Notre Dame on defense in that you don’t see many busts because the structure is good and the players play well within the scheme.
A 4-2-5 is their base, but the days of the Rover being a base player are gone with a slot corner/safety playing instead (much like Notre Dame). With the Irish likely to play in a lot 12 personnel (two tight ends), expect more of a 4-3 look from them in this game
They are very game plan specific with how they attack, but NC State and Ohio State have elected to rush four and play more coverage against Notre Dame’s passing game so we’ll see if that trend continues with Duke.
It’s a defense that finishes plays, which is why it’s no surprise that they have a 19.3% Havoc rate. It was 21.7% vs Clemson.
They are 10th in passes defended per game. They were second in the country in forced fumbles last season and have three this season, but have four returning players who had multiple forced fumbles last season.
They have a ton of experience in the secondary and the pass defense is sound. They are 1st in YPA and 4th in pass efficiency. The one caveat with that is that the best quarterback they’ve faced is Cade Klubnik (90th in QBR).
They haven’t given up big plays. They’ve only allowed six explosives (20+ yards) all season. They are. 19th in Eckel rate, which means they haven’t given up a ton of scoring opportunities for opposing offenses.
They are 41st in EPA per rush and Clemson was able to spread them out and create some big holes. Will Shipley had four rushes of 10+ yards against them and Phil Mafah broke off a 49-yarder.
Clemson was able to run on them and Northwestern and UCONN have two of the worst rushing offenses in the country (119th and 112th in yards per carry).
They were 115th in 3rd down defense before the UCONN game and are now 98th.
The linebacker play has declined from last season with way too many missed tackles. They are much better up front and in the secondary.
Edge RJ Oben
– 6-4 260
– Leads the team with 11 pressures
– NFL traits
– 23.8% win rate vs true pass sets
Edge Vincent Anthony
– 6-6 246
– 1.5 TFLs
– Sophomore, former 4-star recruit
– Occasional flashes, but not consistent
Edge Anthony Nelson
– 6-2 258
– 2 TFLs
– 39 plays vs Clemson, 18 plays the rest of the season
Edge Wesley Williams
– 6-3 278
– Blocked both field goals vs Clemson
DT Dewayne Carter
– 6-3 305
– 18 Havoc plays in ‘22
– 52 pressures in ‘22 was 2nd amongst Power 5 DTs
– 9 career pass deflections, 2 this season
– Been quiet as a pass rusher this season with only 3 pressures, but does get extra attention
– One of the better 3-techs ND will play
NT Ja’mion Franklin
– 6-2 309
– Notre Dame transfer who was not a rotation player for the Irish
– Has been a solid player inside for Duke, starter
– Good motor and will make interior OL work
– Batted down 5 passes last season
DT Aeneas Peebles
– 6-1 286
– 3 pressures vs Clemson
– Emerging pass rusher, two sacks vs UCONN
DT Aaron Hall
– 6-4 277
– 3.5 havoc plays this season, a sack vs Clemson
LB Cam Dillon
– 6-2 234
– Columbia transfer, 7 game starter for Duke last season
– Doesn’t always wrap, has had issues as a tackler
LB Dorian Mausi
– 6-2 233
– INT vs Clemson, but an be targeted in coverage
– 136.4 NFL opponent passer rating against for his career
– Did not play well vs UCONN
LB Tre Freeman
– 6-0 231
– Starter, but hasn’t been great vs the run
– Seven missed tackles in the first two games
LB Nick Morris
– 6-3 231
– 82 snaps in four games
– Missed some run fits against Clemson
S Jaylen Stinson
– 5-8 177
– Plays bigger than his size
– 3.5 Havoc plays, second on the team in tackles
– Active and consistent
S Jeremiah Lewis
– 5-11 197
– 6th year player, transferred to Northwestern
– 3rd on NW in tackles in ‘22
– Transferred back to Duke for final year
– Missed the second game with an injury
– Started 23 games in his career
S Terry Moore
– 6-1 196
– Converted RB, first full season on defense
– 10 tackles this season
CB Al Blades Jr.
– Transfer from Miami, 17 starts there
– 4 career INTs, none since 2020
– Has had issues with penalties
– 2 PBUs
CB Myles Jones
– 6-4 194
– Texas A&M transfer, 29 starts there
– 7th year player
– Senior Bowl watchlist
– Two interceptions, 4.5 total havoc plays
– Very productive early in his career before injuries
– Was playing at a high level, but missed the UCONN game
CB Chandler Rivers
– 5-10 178
– Started last season as true freshman, 9 havoc plays
– Leads team in tackles
– Very good run defender
Nickel Brandon Johnson
– 5-10 180
– 18.5 havoc plays in ‘22, 7.5 in 3 games
– Playmaker and who they blitz frequently
– Great perimeter tackler
– Might be the best defender on the team
Key for Notre Dame
This is probably a good week to have to rely on 12 personnel. Notre Dame is bigger than them on offense. Duke is small and fast and Notre Dame needs to use their size to their advantage in this matchup.
That means in the running game and the passing game.
K Todd Pelino is 5 of 7 on field goals this season. He missed one chip shot and another one over 40-yards. He was 8 of 9 last season when he took over the job.
P Porter Wilson is averaging 51.8 yards per punt with a 48.1 yard net average. He’s been great for them and this is his fourth year as their punter.
They used two different players for kickoffs and only 37% of their kickoffs have resulted in touchbacks. Notre Dame will likely have an opportunity to return kicks in this game.
Calhoun is the main punt returner and he is solid with a long of 29 this season, but he did muff one punt.
Jaylen Stinson hasn’t returned kicks this season, but had two returns for touchdowns in 2021. He averaged 25.3 per return in ‘22.
Terry Moore has returned kicks for them this season and has only had two chances.
Hagans scored a punt return touchdown vs Georgia Tech last season and that’s something to think about if he’s back there.
They blocked two field goals against Clemson.
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