Notre Dame wants to do more than make history at the beginning of this season.
The No. 10 Fighting Irish will play as part of a football conference for the first time, and that starts with Saturday afternoon’s Atlantic Coast Conference game against visiting Duke at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Ind.
Just about everything looks unusual going into this season.
“It has been different, there’s no doubt,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said of preparations, noting the preseason impacted by precautions related to the coronavirus pandemic. “Probably our mental preparation is the biggest concern for me.”
Notre Dame has shed its independent status this year to play a full ACC schedule, a development brought about because of pandemic-related changes and the need to have enough games to fill a schedule.
There are big aspirations for the Fighting Irish, who went 11-2 last year. They were picked second behind top-ranked Clemson in the ACC preseason poll.
Because of health-related restrictions, attendance is expected to be capped at about 16,000 for the opener and perhaps for all the Notre Dame home games this season. Limits are at 20 percent of capacity for the start of the season.
Duke and Notre Dame were scheduled to play this season under the original slate, though that was set for Halloween as a non-conference game. Initially, Duke was set for three non-league home games to begin the season, so this is a major deviation.
“This team has got great spirit,” coach David Cutcliffe said of the Blue Devils’ reaction during summer workouts.
One factor behind the hype for the Fighting Irish is the presence of senior quarterback Ian Book, who made 34 touchdown passes with six interceptions in 2019.
“There’s a guy there who’s not going to be rattled,” Kelly said. “Just having a veteran there (is the biggest plus).”
Duke won 38-35 in a 2016 visit to Notre Dame, while the Irish rolled to a 38-7 road victory last year at Duke. Book threw for four touchdowns in that encounter.
There are lots of questions regarding the Notre Dame secondary, which is stocked with talent.
“I like our closing speed,” Kelly said.
Duke is coming off a 5-7 season, failing to reach a bowl for the second time in four years.
Chase Brice, a graduate transfer from Clemson, has been named the starting quarterback for Duke, though his time with the Blue Devils has been limited with the unexpected shifts in workout routines in the summer. With Clemson, he had a clutch backup performance in a 2018 victory against Syracuse after Trevor Lawrence was injured on the way to the national championship.
The Duke offense has other changes as well.
Cutcliffe took over the role as primary play-caller during the offseason. He was expecting it to be a challenging transition even before the extra layers of responsibility related to coronavirus precautions.
“It has been a unique experience to manage the duties of a head coach,” he said. “From counselor, to just dealing with all the stress and emotions that everyone feels throughout this pandemic, and then to throw in an offensive coordinator’s job with it has been unique. It has been challenging. It has been fun at times, but I’ll be real honest with you, it has been a load.”
Further complicating matters, Duke lost center Jack Wohlabaugh, who has made 18 career starts, to a torn knee ligament Sept. 1 in practice.
The Blue Devils return seven starters on defense, including ends Victor Dimukeje and Chris Rumph II. The entire defensive front could be a team strength.
“We have some redshirt freshmen and freshmen that have certainly caught my eye,” Cutcliffe said. “I’m really excited about our interior defensive linemen and the depth that I think we’re going to surprise people with.”
–Field Level Media