This isn’t the kind of Notre Dame team that’s going to get a plaque on the wall. That won’t matter to Duke. The history is so thick around here, it sticks to your feet like gum. More than one opponent has found itself overwhelmed by the moment. The Blue Devils instead made some history of their own.
On a day when North Carolina mounted a ferocious late comeback to beat Pittsburgh and Wake Forest moved to 4-0 with a win at Indiana, Duke’s upset at Notre Dame on Saturday was the most improbable of all.
A chip-shot field goal by freshman kicker AJ Reed that was anything but easy – the first of his career after three misses – followed by a defensive stand at midfield gave the Blue Devils a 38-35 win over the Fighting Irish.
There have been some close games played between Duke and Notre Dame in South Bend, but they have been across the street, at the Joyce Center, where the Irish are on a two-game winning streak over the Blue Devils in basketball. But in football, Duke crossed the imaginary line that divides ACC territory from non-ACC territory and returned with one of the biggest wins of David Cutcliffe’s tenure at Duke.
“It means a lot,” Duke running back Shaun Wilson said, as the Notre Dame band blattered away behind him, playing some of the most famous songs in college football. “A lot of tradition lies here.”
What this must have meant to Cutcliffe, who once took a job at Notre Dame only to step down before coaching a game because he needed heart surgery, or Duke athletic director Kevin White, who came to Duke from Notre Dame in 2008.
For a long time, Notre Dame was the Duke of football and Duke was the Notre Dame of basketball. Or at least, until recently, when Duke started playing in bowl games regularly and Notre Dame started winning ACC titles. At this point, with Duke having lost five of six to the Irish in basketball, including those two straight in South Bend, you wouldn’t rule anything out.
You certainly wouldn’t rule out the teams heading into the fourth quarter tied at 28, even if Duke was a 20-point underdog after losses to Wake Forest and Northwestern, with redshirt freshman quarterback Daniel Jones matching Notre Dame’s NFL prospect DeShone Kizer throw for throw.
The Irish had the edge in total yards but fumbled four times, twice recovered by Duke. The Blue Devils, who lost safety and return specialist DeVon Edwards, most likely for the season, with a left knee injury early in the first quarter, also got a kickoff return for a touchdown from Wilson that helped staunch the bleeding after Notre Dame scored on its first two possessions to take an early 14-0 lead.
“We told our team all week, we’re on the verge of this,” Cutcliffe said of the kickoff return. “Of course, we thought it would be DeVon.”
Duke once again responded in the fourth quarter after Notre Dame took a 35-28 lead, answering immediately with a 64-yard touchdown pass from Jones to Anthony Nash. Duke got aggressive on defense after that, blitzing on second down to sack Kizer in the shadow of his own goal posts and again on third down to force a heave and a Deondre Singleton interception at midfield.
The Blue Devils proceeded slowly at that point, grinding out yards and the clock, until Jela Duncan got them into a first-and-goal at the 6. Three runs went nowhere and with Notre Dame out of timeouts, Duke settled for the unusually dramatic 19-yard field goal with 84 seconds to go, with Reed relying on a new holder, walk-on senior Danny Stirt.
“I struggled here in the beginning, but the biggest thing is my team has been positive,” Reed said. “Nobody’s said anything negative.”
Breon Borders, who was everywhere on defense all afternoon – he was credited with three pass breakups, forced a fumble and dropped two interceptions – knocked away Notre Dame’s fourth-down pass to seal the victory, and Duke finally won something in South Bend. Notre Dame is 1-3, having already lost to Texas and Michigan State, but no one takes wins in Cameron for granted, either.
“This feeling, you can’t even describe it,” Borders said. “It’s more than happy. It’s more than excited.”
It may end up a forgettable season for the Irish, but Saturday was an unforgettable win for the Blue Devils regardless. Not many teams get a chance to take a knee for the win under the disapproving glare of the famous mural whose name increasingly should more appropriately be 3-Point Jesus.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock