The Journal Gazette
Saturday, September 12, 2020 1:00 am

Even with few fans, Irish grateful to be able to play today

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

The day has arrived.

After an offseason of wondering whether it would happen – and a few days in August when it seemed as though the 2020 college football season was imploding – Notre Dame will open its season this afternoon in South Bend against Duke, the first of the 10 opponents on its inaugural ACC conference schedule.

The No. 10 Irish will take on the Blue Devils in front of a crowd that is only 20% capacity (about 15,000 people) and limited to students and Notre Dame faculty because of the coronavirus pandemic. Without a roaring crowd behind them, the team plans to provide its own energy on the sidelines as it tries to extend its home winning streak to 19 games.

“I am so excited to play at Notre Dame Stadium this year,” right tackle and captain Robert Hainsey said. “I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world. There was a time this year where we didn't even know if we'd be playing football. ... I don't care if there's no one in the stands and it's like a scrimmage, the fact that we get to play football is such a blessing this year and anyone who's upset that (there won't be as many fans), I don't know where they're coming from.

“It's just so exciting that we get to play football this year. That's all that matters to me and I think that's all that matters to my teammates.”

The Irish are coming off an 11-2 season, their third in a row with double-digit victories, a feat they had not matched since 1991 to 1993. Notre Dame has never won 10 or more games four years in a row.

Duke, meanwhile, is coming off a disappointing 5-7 season, but the Blue Devils have still played in bowl games in six of the last eight years, a stretch that includes two nine-win seasons and four eight-win seasons. 

“I think it's unique and it's appropriate that 2020 opens in South Bend against a great team first of all, a top 10 team without a doubt,” 13th-year Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “Just look at their ability, their talent. But as a program, one of the top-five programs in the history of college football. So it's a great opportunity to test your team. It's a great opportunity to energize your team.”

Cutcliffe, who planned to be Charlie Weis' top assistant at Notre Dame in 2005 before health problems forced him to step down, said he doesn't see a weakness on this Irish team. He got an up-close look at Notre Dame last year, when the Irish went to Durham, North Carolina, and clobbered the Blue Devils 38-7, a game in which Irish quarterback Ian Book threw four touchdown passes and also ran for 139 yards.

Book is back for a third season as the Irish starter, throwing to a group of talented, if largely inexperienced, wide receivers. He'll face a Duke defense that gave up almost 30 points per game last season but has two talented cornerbacks in Mark Gilbert and Josh Blackwell.

On defense, the Irish are led by All-American candidates Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah at linebacker and Kyle Hamilton, a freshman All-American in 2019, at safety. The Blue Devils start former Clemson quarterback Chase Brice, who backed up Tigers star Trevor Lawrence the last two seasons. He'll take over an offense that ranked 94th in scoring last season and ran for just 3.6 yards per carry.

The Irish are starting the season after having only 22 of their usual 25 preseason practices because of a spike in positive COVID-19 tests in mid-August. Coach Brian Kelly, entering his 11th season at the helm and just 13 wins shy of Knute Rockne's all-time program record, said his team will be ready to go with “no excuses,” though he certainly would've liked to have those extra practices.

“The basic tenets of having a really good football team, potentially a great football team, are in place,” Kelly said. “Now we're going to have to go prove it.”

Notre Dame vs. Duke

When: 2:30 p.m. today

Where: Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend


Radio: 1380 AM, 100.9 FM

3 Storylines

Conference competition: When Notre Dame takes the field today, it will have ACC decals on its jerseys and ACC will be painted into the turf at Notre Dame Stadium. Those are signs of the new (temporary) normal in which the Irish are no longer independent. When they face Duke today, the game will matter not only for their national title hopes but also in the ACC standings. A win leaves Notre Dame tied for first place.

Ian Book vs. Duke defense: Book carved up the Blue Devils last season, rolling up 320 total yards and four touchdowns. When Duke's secondary had everyone covered, he tucked the ball and ran, averaging 11.6 yards on 12 carries. This year, the Blue Devils feature what coach Brian Kelly described as maybe the best cornerback tandem the Irish will face all season in Mark Gilbert and Josh Blackwell. Duke is also talented off the edge as defensive ends Chris Rumph II and Victor Dimukeje combined for 23 tackles for loss last season. Even behind a solid offensive line, Book will need to handle some pressure.

Who's running the football?: The Irish have five players vying for carries to start the season, and it remains unclear how opportunities will be doled out. Redshirt freshman Kyren Williams, who ran only four times last season, surprisingly won the lead back job in fall camp, beating out 2019 Week 1 starter Jafar Armstrong, five-star true freshman Chris Tyree and experienced juniors Jahmir Smith and C'Bo Flemister. For the Irish to have another big season on the ground, Williams or someone else will have to step up and take control of the position.

Prediction: Notre Dame 28, Duke 17

- Dylan Sinn, The Journal Gazette

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