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Jack Freifelder | | September 28, 2016

Week 4 special teams spotlight — Duke Blue Devils

  A 96-yard kickoff return TD by Duke RB Shaun Wilson (29) gave his team life in a game they trailed 14-0 early.
  Duke kicker AJ Reed (48) converted his only field goal attempt in a 38-35 win over Notre Dame.

In some senses, it was really a David versus Goliath type scenario.

Maybe that’s not the first thing that college football fans would associate with a matchup between the Duke Blue Devils and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, but the tale of the tape would say otherwise.

Notre Dame boasts the 2nd-most wins in college football history, 893. Duke comes in at 96th overall among 128 FBS teams with a bit over half that total, 493 wins. Notre Dame has been the alma mater to seven Heisman winners, while Duke has had zero. And though the Irish have spent 770 weeks in the AP Top 25, compared to Duke’s 172 weeks, a meeting between these two programs in Week 4 came with both as unranked programs.

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Some might say the lack of any ranking for Notre Dame took a little edge off this contest. That fact aside, most would agree it did work to level the playing field a bit.

Sure, Notre Dame’s start to the season has not been what was expected following a run to the Fiesta Bowl a year ago, but this matchup in South Bend, Indiana, seemed to be the opportunity for a righting of the ship.

An 8-yard scamper from quarterback DeShone Kizer capped off a quick touchdown drive in the first three minutes of the game, putting Notre Dame in front by seven. A few minutes later Kizer connected with Kevin Stepherson to stake the Irish to a two-score lead, 14-0.

All was going according to plan early on for Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. But Duke, led by freshman quarterback Daniel Jones, had no intentions of rolling over. And Duke running back Shaun Wilson would get the first punch in for the Blue Devils on this day.

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Cue the spotlight.

Following Notre Dame’s second touchdown, Duke set up to return the kickoff with Wilson back deep.

Wilson fielded the kick just short of the five-yard line and began upfield between the hash mark and the left sideline. As Wilson neared the 20-yard line, a mass of players forms in front of him.

Most of the blue jerseys around the ball were within arm's reach, but a mistake by two Notre Dame players provided a crease that Wilson exploited.

In this case, the miscues in Notre Dame's coverage are the prelude to Wilson's return. The players on the kickoff team simply take bad angles to the ball here, and in doing so, they bust open the coverage of this kick.

The wedge blockers in front of Wilson are beaten to their spots, which is a major issue for any returner looking to create space. Normally, this scenario should result in an easy takedown of the return man based on numbers alone, but Duke is the beneficiary of a breakdown in coverage.

In a certain sense, two wrongs make a right for the Blue Devils. And Wilson's athleticism does the rest.

Granted, Wilson deserves a lot of the credit for the return, not to mention also making mincemeat of a Notre Dame cornerback with a hard juke just a few yards downfield, but the initial pursuit of the ballcarrier blows the coverage on this kick.

Nonetheless, the importance of the play is magnified given Notre Dame's hot start.

Duke would go on to score 21 unanswered points to take the lead in what ultimately became a seesaw affair, but the big contributions from the special teams department were just beginning.

With the game tied (35-35) just over halfway through the fourth quarter, DeShone Kizer was picked off by Blue Devils cornerback Dylan Singleton igniting the game-winning drive.

Duke then proceeded on a 10-play, 44-yard drive to set up a chance at a go-ahead kick for freshman place-kicker AJ Reed — who at the time had not made a field goal attempt on the season, or in his career for that matter (0-for-3).

Suffice it to say, the 19-yard kick proved tried-and-true.

On a day that began with a two-touchdown deficit, most would have been wary of the prospect of placing the game on the leg a relatively untested place-kicker. For Duke, a team that lets a freshman quarterback call the plays, there's extra validation in seeing the younger players step up and meet the challenge.

It's only fitting that a freshman quarterback started the drive and a freshman kicker finished it off for the win.

At the beginning of the season, a bout between the Duke Blue Devils and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish might not have been what college football fans were looking forward to watching, but the matchup produced one of the closest finishes on the day. And given that Week 4 of the college football season ushered in the beginning of conference play — rekindling old rivalries around the nation — that's saying something.

This is why they play the games y'all.

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