And In That Corner: The No. 17 Duke Blue Devils, QB Riley Leonard reaching new heights for Notre Dame's visit

Notre Dame readies to face its second-straight top-20 opponent and second-straight unbeaten opponent in No. 17 Duke this weekend, arguably the biggest game in Blue Devils football history. Even go back to Steve Spurrier’s greatest heights in Durham, and Duke was not ranked before or after its upset of No. 7 Clemson in 1989. The Blue Devils would not be ranked until the final week of Spurrier’s final season before moving on to Florida.

The height of David Cutcliffe’s Duke tenure ended in a 45-7 loss to No. 1 and eventual national champion Florida State in the 2013 ACC championship game. Given the Blue Devils were 30-point underdogs at a neutral site that day, it does not feel insulting to say this Saturday night (7:30 ET on ABC) is a bigger occasion.

To dig into these unprecedented Duke successes, let’s turn to Conor O’Neill, publisher of Devils Illustrated.

DF: Let’s try to proceed through this chronologically. And by that, I mean let’s start with Mike Elko’s hiring in December of 2021. Notre Dame fans last remember Elko when he left South Bend after just one season to take the same job at Texas A&M. He did not actively want to leave the Irish, but back-and-forth negotiations put Notre Dame’s administration in a position of having to say no to another raise, and the Aggies’ money then pulled Elko to the SEC. I have never known what to make of that; Both Texas A&M and Notre Dame could position Elko for a head coaching job like he has now, though a $5.4 million deal is hard to turn down.

All of which is detailed to give background to asking you, were you surprised when Duke hired Elko? What was that coaching search like?

CO: Well, as somebody who had him on the initial “five candidates to know” list when the job came open, of course I wasn’t surprised. Now please, pay no mind to the names “Will Healy” and “Josh Gattis” on the same list.

I think the only real surprise was that Duke hired a defensive-minded coach — but even then, looking back at the 2021 hiring cycle, that turned out to be the theme. Things seem to be going well for Oregon and Notre Dame in that regard, as well as for Duke. That was a nice change of pace from every school thinking it had to hire the up-and-coming offensive coordinator.

The search took about two weeks and had some twists and turns, as you’d expect. The one name I remember most — for stressful reasons — was Jason Garrett. There was an afternoon in which it gained traction that he was interested and things spiraled.

Duke and Virginia’s searches lined up in this region and both interviewed Tony Elliott, who obviously went to Virginia. Duke never offered him the job — despite what he implied last year — and there’s a chicken/egg hypothetical discussion there. Elliott going to Virginia freed up Duke to go all-in on Elko, and there’s no regret — at least, on Duke’s end.

The next question should be obvious. What were the expectations going into 2022? They were certainly far from the 9-4 that Elko delivered.

It’s funny: Expectations from anybody outside of the program were to just be better than the combined 5-18 of the previous two seasons. Things just went sour with David Cutcliffe at the end of his tenure and you knew there was talent on the roster, but nobody expected it to be harnessed and repurposed quickly.

Except Elko and his staff.

From his intro presser, Elko made it clear it wasn’t a rebuilding effort. He was firm that day on, “We’re here to win now,” and repeated it — a confidence Duke football fans aren’t exactly used to.

The transfer portal and first-time transfer eligibility rule mean a first-year head coach doesn’t have to settle for a foundational season. Even if there weren’t expectations from media, Duke expected to be good last year. I know how that sounds and comes off a little homer-ish, but it’s the way they talked about their team from Day One and it played out that way.

A drop off was expected this season, most pointing toward how few quality teams the Blue Devils faced in 2022 — playing only four bowl teams in the regular season — compared to 2023’s expected schedule strength, with nine 2022 bowl teams awaiting. But maybe more credit should have been given to 18 returning starters. Realizing we are only four games into the season, what drop offs have you seen this season, despite this 4-0 start launched by an upset of Clemson?

I don’t know that there are any drop offs, with the caveat that it’s early.

It’s grasping at straws but the passing game hasn’t been all that explosive. Duke averaged 279 passing yards per game for the last four games of 2022 and has averaged only 224 yards this season.

But this year’s lack of big passing plays is attributable to two things: One, Duke averaged 242.7 yards per game on the ground in the first three games (UConn put the brakes on the Blue Devils last weekend, 74 yards) and two, Duke has had multi-touchdown leads in every game.

There is no need to ask what or who deserves credit for this 4-0 start. A physical defense and a run-heavy offense can go a long way if they are buttressed by one of the country’s top quarterbacks. Riley Leonard is that, both through the air and on the ground. Rather than rattle off a pile of his stats, let’s defer to you: What separates Leonard from most? How will he be most effective against Notre Dame?

Well, he’s gotta be the only quarterback in the country whose mom texts him, “You suck” before games.

As corny as it sounds, he’s the ultimate competitor. That’s the feature that Duke’s coaches have raved about since naming him the starting QB last August and it’s the one Elko continues to highlight as the reason he makes the plays he does.

Where he’s taken a step forward from a year ago is in his knowledge of the game and feel for the pocket. Leonard’s advancement mentally as a second-year starter allows Duke’s offense to open up a lot more possibilities.

It’s hard to fully gauge this, but I think Leonard is at his most effective when opposing defenses underestimate both his speed and power as a runner. It’s not like his running ability or athleticism is a secret by now, but you’ll still see players take bad angles (see: Clemson) or try to arm-tackle him (see: Northwestern) on his longer runs.

That brief mention of a physical defense, it is at its best against the rush. Opponents have been effectively split between running and passing against the Blue Devils, despite Duke being No. 29 against the rush in expected points added per attempt. What kind of openings do you expect for Sam Hartman to exploit downfield?

Duke brought in older, lengthier cornerbacks in Myles Jones (6-foot-4, 194 pounds) and Al Blades Jr. (6-foot-1, 194 pounds) from Texas A&M and Miami, respectively.

But most of the others in Duke’s secondary are on the smaller side. The three best defensive backs are Brandon Johnson (5-foot-10, 180), Jaylen Stinson (5-foot-8, 177) and Chandler Rivers (5-foot-10, 178), so I’ll be watching where Notre Dame lines up Jayden Thomas, Holden Staes and Tobias Merriweather.

Elko’s hiring, Elko’s first year, expectations heading into his second and a few keys entering this weekend. That was chronological. What did I miss?

Oh, I thought of one thing I missed. This is College GameDay’s first trip to Duke. That part of the atmosphere is often overblown, but a maiden voyage may turn Saturday into a genuine all-day affair in Durham. How much of a buzz have you sensed around campus?

This is another part of a Day One pledge from Elko that was probably met with more skepticism than it deserved.

We’re not breaking news here of what sport runs the news cycle at Duke. That might not ever change.

But there’s a fresh energy around the football program that’s brought some genuine excitement to the campus. Elko and the team have gotten out in the community as part of a grassroots effort to be seen and develop interest. Social media has ramped up, too, and that’s apparently what all of the kids these days love (says the mid-30s guy).

Basketball runs things and there’s an “always has, always will” feeling there. But there’s more room atop the podium than previously.

Now, let’s close with a prediction. The Irish are favored by 5.5 points. Will the Blue Devils hand Notre Dame a second straight loss?

That line is closer to what I thought it would be for the opener, which closed with Clemson as an 11- or 12-point favorite.

I’m confident it’ll be close. The four losses last season were by a combined 16 points.

I feel like this is going to be a low-scoring bludgeoning between offenses that want to exhaust all resources to run the ball effectively and defenses that want to keep everything in front of them.

So in the interest of not wanting to appear like a homer, give me the team that just played one of those games.

Notre Dame 20, Duke 16.

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