Duke’s defensive staff had a lot to mull over this week in game-planning for Notre Dame.
At the top of the list: what to do about Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer?
Start with his size. He’s almost 6 feet 5 inches and 230 pounds.
Given time to throw, Kizer can beat you. If the pocket breaks down, the junior can run and beat you.
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“Their quarterback is probably one of the best in the nation,” Duke sophomore linebacker Ben Humphreys said. “He’s NFL-caliber, for sure, just in his reads and his intelligence. He’s obviously got the physical tools.”
Texas and Michigan State both found ways to complicate things for Kizer. Both beat Notre Dame (1-2), although Kizer, a junior, did rally the Irish last week after they fell behind the Spartans 36-7 to close within 36-28.
Duke’s defense again will use what Blue Devils coach David Cutcliffe calls a “pick-your-poison” strategy against the Irish on Saturday at Notre Dame.
“A lot of us in college football have tried to enhance our pass rush and there are risks taken,” Cutcliffe said. “You have to have a balanced pass-rush risk and coverage risk.”
A four-man pass rush last week at Northwestern wasn’t very effective, forcing Duke to blitz to pressure Wildcats quarterback Clayton Thorson. The blitzes at times worked as designed. Safeties DeVon Edwards and Corbin McCarthy both had sacks and the Blue Devils forced 12 hurried throws by Thorson, who completed 18 of 39 passes and had two picked off.
But Duke’s defense also allowed the kind of “explosives” — runs of 12 or more yards, passes of 18 or more, Humphreys said — that hurt the Devils last season. Humphreys said Duke’s goal is five or fewer explosives per game. The Wildcats had nine, including TD passes of 26, 44 and 58 yards.
In the fourth quarter, the Blue Devils rushed seven as Edwards and McCarthy both blitzed, leaving the other defensive backs in man-to-man coverage. When freshman safeties Dylan Singleton and Jordan Hayes both picked up motion man Flynn Nagel, wide receiver Austin Carr was alone down the middle for the easy 58-yard touchdown.
“We’ve got to focus on eliminating explosive plays,” Edwards said. “Fix the little things and stop shooting ourselves in the foot.”
In Duke’s 1-2 start, opposing quarterbacks have completed just 42.5 percent of their passes. Defensive coordinators like that. But the Blue Devils have allowed 16 yards a catch.
“Some are mental errors, Edwards said. “We’ve got some young guys who are getting some decent amount of playing time. It’s mainly being where you’re supposed to be. It should be an easy fix.”
Duke contained Northwestern running back Justin Jackson after the first quarter, but Thorson, a 6-4 sophomore, threw for 320 yards and three scores.
Duke, taking a more aggressive approach up front this season, had five sacks in the 24-13 loss. The Blue Devils have 14 after finishing with 17 sacks last season.
Duke will play Saturday without junior defensive end Dominic McDonald, who suffered an upper body injury last week. Safety Deondre Singleton will not play the first half after being ejected for targeting on a hit on the Wildcats’ Carr.
Kizer and senior Malik Zaire battled through preseason camp to be the Irish’s No. 1 quarterback. Kizer ended any plan for a QB rotation by accounting for five touchdowns in the opener against Texas, a 50-47 double-overtime loss. He then passed for 344 yards and two scores against Michigan State and ran for two more.
“He’s so big and so lightning-quick with his delivery,” Cutcliffe said. “I’m shocked at how accurate he is when he just seems to flick his wrists. And nobody hardly gets near this young man unless you're just a beast because the offensive front at Notre Dame is outstanding.”
Looks like another risk-vs-reward day for Duke.
Duke at Notre Dame
When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Notre Dame Stadium, Notre Dame, Ind.