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Tuesday, March 5, 2024
The Observer

Fast start gives way to Irish collapse against Blue Devils

Notre Dame’s secondary problems continue to prove problematic as the Irish fell to Duke 38-35 Saturday afternoon at Notre Dame Stadium.

All four of the Blue Devils’ touchdowns on offense came on plays of 18 yards or more. Both the defense and offense looked inconsistent as the Irish fell to 1-3 on the season.

It was a totally different story at the beginning of the game.

The Irish offense got off to a roaring start as junior quarterback DeShone Kizer led the Irish on an eight-play, 75-yard touchdown drive on their first possession of the game. Kizer found sophomore receiver Equanimeous St. Brown on an eight-yard touchdown pass to cap the scoring drive.

After Duke (2-2) went three-and-out, the Irish offense went right back to work as Kizer threw a 44-yard touchdown pass to freshman receiver Kevin Stepherson to put the Irish up 14-0 with 8:57 left in the first quarter.

Irish freshman receiver Kevin Stepherson elevates to make a catch during Notre Dame’s 38-35 loss to Duke on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.
Irish freshman receiver Kevin Stepherson elevates to make a catch during Notre Dame’s 38-35 loss to Duke on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.
Irish freshman receiver Kevin Stepherson elevates to make a catch during Notre Dame’s 38-35 loss to Duke on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

That’s when the tide began to turn.

On the ensuing kickoff, Duke junior returner Shaun Wilson took the ball 96 yards to the house to instantly cut the Irish lead in half. After a Notre Dame three-and-out, Duke freshman quarterback Daniel Jones led the Blue Devils on an eight play, 78-yard drive capped by a 25-yard touchdown run by senior running back Jela Duncan to tie the game at 14-14.

In the middle of the second quarter, Kizer fumbled a snap and Duke recovered on the Irish 25-yard line. The next play, Jones threw a 25-yard pass touchdown to junior receiver Quay Chambers to give Duke a 21-14 lead. The Irish responded with a nine-play, 72-yard drive that ended in a 13-yard touchdown run by sophomore running back Dexter Williams.

On the ensuing Duke drive, Jones hit senior receiver Anthony Nash on a 32-yard pass in the end zone to give Duke the lead again just before halftime, and the Blue Devils went into the locker room with a 28-21 lead.

With 4:54 left in the third quarter, sophomore running back Josh Adams capped a six-play, 83-yard drive with a nine-yard touchdown run to tie the game. A rejuvenated Notre Dame squad would go on to come up with a big stop on the next Duke drive, as freshman defensive back Donte Vaughn intercepted a Jones pass in the end zone.

In the fourth quarter, Notre Dame regained the lead on a 12-yard touchdown pass from Kizer to St. Brown with 7:46 left in the game. Duke responded just 59 seconds later on a 64-yard touchdown pass from Jones to Nash, who broke several tackles on his way to the end zone.

The Irish began their next drive backed up deep in their own territory. On a third-and-long, Kizer was intercepted by senior safety Deondre Singleton with 5:10 left in the game. Duke then orchestrated a 10-play, 44-yard drive that ended with a 19-yard field goal by freshman kicker AJ Reed with just 1:24 left in the game.

With time ticking down, Notre Dame attempted a comeback.

On the first play of the Irish’s final drive, Kizer found senior receiver Torii Hunter Jr. on an 11-yard pass for a first down to move the ball to the Irish 36-yard line. After a seven-yard route to junior Josh Adams and a couple incompletions, Notre Dame faced a do or die fourth-and-3.

Kizer’s throw was behind St. Brown and fell incomplete.

Notre Dame’s rushing game struggled on the day, finishing with a 153 yards on 37 attempts. Kizer finished tied with Adams for the team’s top rusher of the game as both players put up 60 yards and a touchdown.

Notre Dame’s defense was gashed for 208 yards on the ground as well as 290 passing yards for a total of 498 yards, while the Irish offense racked up 534 yards of total offense.

After the game, Irish head coach Brian Kelly talked about his team’s lack of consistency.

“Once you feel like you’ve got something going pretty good, we tend to make a mistake and let teams back into the game,” Kelly said. “I told our guys essentially that we’re going in the wrong direction. We’re not going to continue to go in this direction, we’ll have to re-evaluate what we’re doing, who we’re doing it with, and how we’re doing it, all of those things.”

When asked about the defensive coaching, Kelly responded that the defense was the one area that he felt better about after the game.

“We did what I wanted today in terms of coaching,” Kelly said. “And coaching had nothing to do with the outcome today. I was pleased from that perspective. Obviously, we put our defense in a bad situation today and they gave our offense a chance to win, quite frankly. Those turnovers were deadly and obviously the kickoff return for a touchdown just put us in a tough situation.”

Less than 18 hours later, however, Kelly announced he had relieved Brian VanGorder of his duties as defensive coordinator. Irish defensive analyst Greg Hudson will take over as the defensive coordinator, Kelly said in the announcement.

Kelly also hinted that player personnel changes could be seen in the future.

“If you want to play for me moving forward, you better, and I don’t care what your resume says, I don’t care if you were a five star (recruit), if you had a hundred tackles or 80 receptions or 30 touchdown passes, you better have some damn fire and energy in you,” Kelly said. “We lack it. We lack it. Severely.”