By Stiofán Mac Fhilib

A brutal finish to a tight, defensive battle leaves Notre Dame’s season in the balance. Defeat to Ohio State leaves them in a precarious position in regards to the playoff picture. Here is our weekly look at everything Notre Dame.

Looking back at last week

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It truly was a case of so near – less than a foot – and yet so far – 30 years, give or take a month or so – for Notre Dame last Saturday night. What could have proved to be the biggest victory for the program since the ‘Game of the Century’ win over #1 Florida State in November 1993 instead finished like the legendary ‘Bush Push’ game against USC back in 2005. A last-second, one-yard rushing touchdown turned victory into defeat and left inconsolable Irish fans wondering, if not now, then when? 

If there is one positive for Notre Dame to take away from the evening, it was the manner in which they matched their opponents – who were likely a missed last-second FG away from winning the National Championship a year ago. They overcame a 0-10 deficit to lead 14-10 as the fourth quarter entered its final five minutes.

A second, fourth down stop by the Irish defense – mirroring their OSU counterparts – gave ND the ball, needing to run out the clock for a historic victory. That, alas, proved too much, and the visitors marched down the field on their final drive, again echoing 2005 with a key 4th down conversion. Before delivering the final, fatal blow as time expired and the Irish defense tried to keep them out, a man short. 

This game had a different feel than the last decade’s playoff and National Championship defeats. Notre Dame had sufficient talent and speed to more than compete. If anything, the lessons to learn fall mainly to the coaching staff. How they respond will determine the rest of this season and likely the direction of Marcus Freeman’s time as Head Coach.

The week ahead

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@ #17 Duke Blue Devils (Wallace Wade Stadium); 7.30pm EDT; 12.30am IST/BST

For #11 Notre Dame, the second trip of the season to North Carolina could well prove to be the most important of Freeman’s career with the Irish. In the second of four consecutive prime-time matchups, how the ND Head Coach has his team prepared to face a dangerous and unbeaten Duke team will tell us if he has what it takes to lead the Irish back to the top. 

Under second-year Head Coach Mike Elko, Duke went from 3-9 in 2021 to 9-4 a year ago. Elko, a former Notre Dame Defensive Coordinator, has led the Blue Devils to a 4-0 start this year, highlighted by a 28-7 week one victory over Clemson. His teams are invariably well-coached, good at the fundamentals and play smart, tough defense. 

Their offense revolves around junior QB, Riley Leonard, who has run for twice as many touchdowns as he has thrown (4/2). They have been balanced on offense, though lacking big plays. Defensively, this matches up well from an ND perspective. 

For the Irish, the game will likely come down to how the offense bounces back from a 14-point performance against the Buckeyes. Irish fans will remember how good Elko was as a DC for Notre Dame; whether he can scheme to stop the ND rushing attack and the deep passing game remains to be seen.

Duke’s win over Clemson was assisted by the visitors being unable to capitalise on repeated trips inside the redzone.  They will similarly need to win the turnover battle to beat the Irish. Can the Irish play a largely mistake-free game in prime time in front of a capacity home crowd? If not, Notre Dame fans may be in for another nerve-wracking evening. 

Game Prediction

Notre Dame 31-23 Duke 

The Irish have an offensive line capable of dictating the flow of the game, and I expect Freeman to lean on that to ground out a win that doesn’t often feel in doubt but which is never entirely comfortable.

Where to watch:

No coverage in Ireland and Britain

ABC (in the USA)

Playoff Picture

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Last week, I observed that victories for Clemson, UCLA, Ole Miss and Iowa would be helpful to the Irish, as would ND actually winning themselves. None of those five won. Notre Dame’s playoff hopes are still alive but are now reliant on a number of outcomes beyond their control.

Ohio State (and USC) winning their conferences (the latter with 2+ losses) would be a start. Cannibalisation in the other P5 conferences is a must as well. But most of all, Notre Dame must finish 11-1 even to suggest entering the conversation. So, until the USC game is in the books in three weeks’ time, the sole focus of the Irish may as well just be on winning their own next game.