SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly noticed the noise level surrounding his football team was different this week.
“A little quieter around here,” Kelly said. “I don’t know why, but it seems like if you win, it’s a little quieter. We are going to continue to try to do that.”
The tongue-and-cheek comment came after a 21-20 victory over Virginia Tech last Saturday in South Bend. The win helped quiet the critics of the Fighting Irish, who were out in full force after the 45-14 loss to Michigan two weeks ago.
Now with less distractions, No. 15 Notre Dame (6-2) sets its focus on Duke (4-4) as the Irish make their first trip to Durham since 1961 (7:30 p.m., ACC Network).
“Our preparation will be such that we’ve got our players understanding what it takes to prepare and play the right way,” Kelly said. “We’ll build off that and go have some fun, play the game, enjoy it, enjoy being with your teammates. Play fast, play physical against a really good Duke team.”
The Blue Devils had a fast start to the 2019 season, winning three of their first four games. The last four games have seen Duke stumble, though, posting a 1-3 mark to enter Saturday’s contest with a .500 record.
Notre Dame is down two starting offensive linemen for this game — and probably the rest of year — as redshirt junior Tommy Kraemer deals with a sprained MCL and junior Robert Hainsey a fractured ankle. Kraemer could be back for the Stanford game or a potential bowl, while Hainsey is out until the spring.
This has thrust graduate senior Trevor Ruhland and redshirt sophomore Josh Lugg into Kraemer and Hainsey’s positions, respectively. Ruhland will start at right guard, while Lugg will be the right tackle.
Despite being down two offensive linemen, Kelly said it won’t affect the way the Irish run the football.
“I think you have to go into the game with the sense that those guys can come in and get the job done,” Kelly said. “We believe they can. Both of them are really good players. Lugg’s a highly recruited player. His opportunity is now, and we expect him to compete at a high level for us. And, Trevor’s a veteran. He’ll do a nice job for us.
“I don’t think you can ever go and say, ‘Alright, these two guys were recruited on scholarship to Notre Dame. We can’t run the football because of that.’ We have to go in there with the confidence that these guys can get the job done.”
Senior wide receiver Chase Claypool noted the way Duke plays defense should open up things for both the passing and running game this week.
“They’ll play a lot of man (defense), which is good for our receivers,” Claypool said. “Kind of try to get after them, and then, hopefully, we can hit them with the run game a little bit, especially with Tony (Jones) coming back. That’ll be huge.”
Offensively, Duke is led by senior quarterback Quentin Harris, who’s thrown for exactly 1,500 yards and 13 touchdowns. His favorite target has been freshman Jalon Calhoun, who leads the Blue Devils with 294 yards receiving. Four players for Duke have more than 200 yards receiving this year, giving the Blue Devils balance.
“I can tell that (Duke head coach David) Cutcliffe is a very technical, very detail-oriented coach,” senior cornerback Troy Pride said. “Some of the stuff they’re doing, just watching the film, is kind of like, ‘Wow, that’s very precise.’ It’s almost a system where anyone can step in and make the plays.
“It’s very detail-oriented. It’s very to the point. Their routes are crisp. They run to a spot … a lot of their stuff is very good. You’ve got to be locked in. You’ve got to be ready to go.”
Saturday is the sixth meeting all time between Notre Dame and Duke. The last came in 2016, when the Blue Devils knocked off the Fighting Irish 38-35 in South Bend. Kelly knows the Irish need to put four good quarters together to avenge that 2016 loss.
“We will need to put together more of that consistency, offensively and continue to play the kind of physical defense that we played,” Kelly said. “If we do that, we’ll present ourselves well against Duke.”