Notre Dame’s season-opener against Duke on Saturday wasn’t all that different than the Irish’s opener at Louisville in 2019.
That might turn out to be a problem in 2020. The Irish — who beat the Blue Devils 27-13 at Notre Dame Stadium — need to be something more if they want to win the ACC championship as a full-time conference member.
The Irish (1-0, 1-0 ACC) were never in real danger against Duke (0-1, 0-1), even when Chase Brice cut ND’s lead to 17-13 with 2:19 remaining in the third quarter. A disastrous first quarter in which Notre Dame’s first three drives resulted in nine plays for 5 yards didn’t hurt the Irish, either. First-game jitters take on a little more weight in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in the wind and rain.
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, who received a contract extension through 2024 before the game, expressed the happy-to-be-here emotions prior to kickoff. He later made a call that jump-started his team when Jay Bramblett ran a fake punt 14 yards from his own 21 for a first down early in the second quarter. The Irish scored their first TD five plays later to take a 7-3 lead. They never trailed again.
Now, the question is whether the Irish can be a worthy contender for Clemson in the ACC.
They showed some of that potential through their exciting pieces on offense. Running back Kyren Williams rushed for 112 yards and two touchdowns and added two catches for 93 yards. Tight ends Tommy Tremble and Michael Mayer combined for eight catches for 83 yards. The defense allowed 124 yards on Duke’s first two drives but just 210 yards the rest of the game. Duke couldn’t run the football (75 yards on 30 attempts), and that made a difference.
Yet, per usual, the focus will center on senior quarterback Ian Book, who finished 19 of 31 for 263 yards and a touchdown. He threw a red-zone interception in the first half and another pick on the next possession, but the latter INT was negated by an offside penalty on Duke. Notre Dame is also inexperienced at receiver and it showed at times.
Book was good enough to beat the Blue Devils, much as he was good enough to beat Louisville in the opener last year. He won’t get publicity, however, unless the Irish lose, which was proven last year when they fell to Georgia and Michigan. Those games were the difference between a College Football Playoff season and the Camping World Bowl.
Notre Dame’s 2020 schedule is set up to keep it in the title mix no matter what. Louisville and Florida State come to South Bend in October, and the toughest road games are Pitt and North Carolina.
Perhaps more than 10,000 fans will be allowed in when Clemson visits on Nov. 7. That will be the game of the season, especially if a rematch in the ACC championship game is at stake.
It’s in those games – especially against Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and North Carolina’s Sam Howell – where Book will need to be a difference-maker, perhaps the difference
That will determine whether Notre Dame is happy to be in the ACC or nothing has really changed from 2019.