DURHAM, N.C. – The seventh-ranked Duke Blue Devils are at a crossroads.
Following a 15-10 loss to the top-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Koskinen Stadium on Saturday, head coach John Danowski had a look on his face that he hasn’t shown when his team has struggled during the season.
The Blue Devils had just lost their third game in a row, the first time the program had suffered that many consecutive defeats since 2004.
They also ended a 21-game win streak at home.
However, all of that was not what was most concerning.
Rather, it was the question of whether this season’s edition of the Blue Devils had the personnel who possessed the ability and maturity to rise like others before them had.
While the Fighting Irish put together an offense that featured four three-goal scorers (Matt Kavanagh, Nick Ossello, Mikey Wynne, Conor Doyle) who successfully challenged and beat Duke’s defense and redshirt freshman goalkeeper Danny Fowler, it was the Blue Devils’ lack of offensive punch that was a critical factor in the loss.
It’s been Duke’s lack of goal-scoring at critical points in a game that hasn’t been able to keep pace with the four teams that have beaten them – Denver, Syracuse, North Carolina, and Notre Dame.
Goalkeeping and defensive support has also been an issue for the Blue Devils, and more so recently.
As junior starter Luke Aaron got 16 goals scored on him in a 19-7 loss to then No. 1 Syracuse two weeks ago, Danowski gave Fowler his first start against No. 4 North Carolina last week.
The red-shirt freshman keeper lost a 15-14 decision, but got the start against the Fighting Irish.
Notre Dame seemed to score easily and took a 4-1 lead after the first quarter.
Though Fowler and the defense in front of him gave up another 15 goals, Duke’s offense couldn’t muster more than 10 goals against Notre Dame goalkeeper Shane Doss who made 17 saves to earn the win.
With a crowd of 3,265 looking on, the Blue Devils struggled throughout the game to put some semblance of an effective offense together that drove, drew slides and dumped quick passes to release shots on the Irish cage that were challenging.
It was not Duke-paced offensive lacrosse – too slow by its standard, predictable and tenuous.
Fronted by a tightly-packed Notre Dame defense that was allowed to keep its sticks-on-gloves coverage intact for most of the game, the Blue Devils weren’t helping themselves in any way.
Senior midfielder Tanner Scott led Duke with three goals while attackmen Justin Guterding and Jack Bruckner finished with two goals apiece.
Midfielders Myles Jones and Deemer Class, along with attack Kyle Keenan added a goal each.
Those goals came in bursts and as a result of drawing Notre Dame’s defenders to the edges of the restraining line before drawing doubles and finding the open shooter inside of eight yards to give Doss little time to react.
Unfortunately, that offensive pace and dynamic play was plagued with simple passing turnovers and a lack of putting the extra effort in to finish ball movement throughout each offensive sequence.
It made the game easier for the Irish defense and Doss to anticipate.
After losing for the third time this season to the top-ranked team in the country and fourth overall to a top-five opponent, is Duke capable of beating that level of opponent?
Duke possesses the personnel in the attack and midfield positions to score goals and had done so, averaging 15 goals per game, before facing Notre Dame.
However, the offense’s tempo has been inconsistent, and has fallen into droughts of at least one or more 10-minute segments in each of the Blue Devils’ losses.
Against the Irish, Duke scored in spurts, short and infrequent, and couldn’t put a string of goals longer than two at a time to pull even, or threaten to do so.
The Blue Devils again fell into the same rut they had stumbled on previously this season.
That’s not the style of Blue Devils lacrosse that fans and media have come to know in recent years that has resulted in eight consecutive Final Four appearances, four title games, and three national championships.
Unless Duke can correct its offensive tempo issues, it will continue to struggle to earn wins and potentially be on the outside looking in as the ACC and NCAA Tournaments approach.
The Blue Devils’ current roster of players is in full control of their situation.
If they are unable or unwilling to take the steps needed to develop this year’s team into one that can once again contend for a national championship, they will have regrets.
There is ample time for them to avoid that scenario and to reach deep down to figure out what their legacy will be, just like other teams did when faced with such adversity.
As Danowski alluded to following Saturday’s game, ”that will be determined by them – how they respond in practice, and how they respond next week, next Sunday.”