by John Vannie
Notre Dame goes on the road to East Rutherford, NJ on Saturday in search of a win against 2-2 Syracuse from the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC). The 1-3 Fighting Irish are coming off a tumultuous past few days during which their defensive coordinator was fired and all starting positions were deemed to be up for grabs in this week’s practices. Last Saturday’s loss to a very mediocre Duke team exposed the team’s over-reliance on quarterback DeShone Kizer to mask the team’s many weaknesses by simply outscoring the opposition. He nearly accomplished this task in each of Notre Dame’s three losses this season, but it proved to be too much to expect from any single player. This week’s contest starts at noon Eastern time and ESPN will provide national television coverage.
Whether the Irish players believe that Head Coach Brian Kelly challenged them to perform better or threw them under the proverbial bus in the aftermath of last week’s embarrassing loss, the question to be answered against the Orange is how the team will react to this adversity. Can they play inspired football and sustain the effort over four quarters, or will they go into the tank? As far as Syracuse Coach Dino Babers is concerned, the Irish are likely to show up in a very bad mood. “So we’re going to get an angry mama bear that’s been wounded, that’s going to be fighting and clawing and coming out with all they have, and really wish they wouldn’t had done anything and wish they would have won the game last week so we’re going to get their best shot”, he said.
Babers is in his first season at the school. He owns a 37-16 (.698) career head coaching record, and won the MAC championship last season at Bowling Green. His Orange squad has problems of its own, as seven of its 22 starters on offense and defense missed last week’s game due to injury. Two members of the secondary, Juwan Dowels and Antwan Cordy, are lost for the season, and safety Kielan Whitner has missed the last two starts. Three members of the offensive line, center Jason Emerich, right guard Omari Palmer, and left tackle Cody Conway, have been out of the lineup. On the defensive line, tackle Kayton Samuels missed his last start.
To make matters worse for Syracuse, there has been concern this week that quarterback Eric Dungey came away from last week’s win with an undisclosed injury, and his status on Saturday is not yet determined. Junior Zach Mahoney, who started four games in 2015, is the backup. As one might expect, Babers and his staff are not willing to shed light on any potential injury to Dungey.
Notre Dame has been relatively fortunate on the injury front, but the team’s bumps and bruises are primarily to its pride. The Irish have lost five of their past six starts, and have yielded an average of 40 points in those losses. The players and coaches will need to rely on more than raw emotion to take care of business against the fast-paced Orange offense. To that end, Kelly has appointed Greg Hudson to coordinate the defense for the rest of the season. Hudson has experience at other schools such as Purdue and East Carolina, and will strive to simplify matters for his troops.
NOTRE DAME’s OFFENSE vs. SYRACUSE’s DEFENSE
DeShone Kizer will attempt to climb out of Kelly’s doghouse and lead the Irish. His two turnovers last week were unfortunate, but certainly not the reason the game was lost. Defensive breakdowns and special teams gaffes were much more costly, and Kizer did throw for 381 yards. It would be a surprise to see Malik Zaire or Brandon Wimbush behind center this week, but anything is possible.
The real issue for Notre Dame in 2016 has been the running game. Kelly indicated it would be potent this season, but it has been disappointing. There have been reports that opponents have successfully keyed on the Irish offensive formations to anticipate and stuff running plays. Alternatively, teams have been able to load up against the run and get away with single coverage on the receivers. Last season, Will Fuller burned teams time and again when they deployed single coverage. Although Torii Hunter and Equanimeous St. Brown have enjoyed moments of success this year, the threat hasn’t been sufficient to force defenses to give them the same respect that Fuller demanded. There have also been fewer passes directed to running backs and tight ends this season, and teams won’t focus their defenses in those areas until they are burned a couple of times.
Meanwhile, the Syracuse defense has been carved up on most Saturdays. Louisville racked up 62 points and a whopping 845 total yards against the Orange, and the Irish are bound to pay multiple visits to the end zone. Syracuse has given up an average of over 200 yards of real estate on the ground to date, and over 250 through the air. They deploy a basic 4-3 alignment, and the key front seven performers are end Chris Slayton and middle linebacker Zaire Franklin, the leading tackler who became a team captain last year as a sophomore. Outside backers Parris Bennett and Jonathan Thomas are undersized at 210 pounds each.
With the loss of Cordy and Dowels, the remaining members of the secondary are young. Three sophomores now join junior cornerback Corey Winfield in the starting lineup. Notre Dame’s receivers definitely need to win their individual matchups if the offense is going to be successful this week.
SYRACUSE’s OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’s DEFENSE
The patchwork necessary along the offensive line has drastically reduced the production from the Syracuse running game. The Orange managed only 62 yards in 26 attempts last week at UConn, and the line was only marginally better in pass protection. Of course, Duke had gained fewer than 100 combined yards in its two games prior to Notre Dame, but still managed to romp for 208 yards against the Irish. Dontae Strickland is the primary ball carrier, and he is backed up by Moe Neal, a quick but small freshman at only 170 pounds. Dungey is the team’s second leading rusher and must be respected as a threat.
Syracuse’s best offensive weapon is senior wide receiver Amba Etta-Tawo, a graduate transfer from Maryland who has already accumulated 706 receiving yards. Etta-Tawo single-handedly lifted them to victory last week with 12 receptions for 270 of those yards and two scores. He has a knack for coming down with the ball in contested situations and breaking tackles, so he will present a challenge for the Irish secondary. Ervin Phillips is another quality target with 36 catches in four games, while Steve Ishmael and Brisly Estime are also in the mix. Tight end Cameron MacPherson is used primarily as a blocker in this offense, which relies on Dungey’s ability to get the ball out quickly and accurately. The sophomore quarterback has completed 65% of his throws this season with nine touchdowns and three interceptions.
The tempo of the Orange attack will present problems for the Irish, as its rapid fire design usually negates a pass rush. Successful defenses have slowed down and defeated Syracuse by stopping the run and forcing longer third down attempts. This did not happen often enough for the Irish against Duke, but the new approach implemented by Kelly and Hudson needs to disrupt the rhythm and timing that Dungey will seek to establish. Kelly has stated that Notre Dame will employ a greater number of players in the rotation to stay fresh and cut down on missed tackles due to fatigue.
The impending changes in the Irish defense have already impacted the game preparation of the Syracuse players. Ishmael has been studying film of Notre Dame this week, but knows he may see something completely different on Saturday. “It’s going to be really interesting,” the Syracuse wide receiver said. “I’m curious to see the defense.” From the Irish perspective, the challenge will be getting everyone lined up and ready for an offense that snaps the ball every 20 seconds. The desire to substitute fresh defenders for tired ones will also be more problematic. Finally, the makeup of the Irish secondary might include a number of freshmen, so it will be interesting to see if they are aggressive in coverage or fall back to keep plays in front of them.
Syracuse kicker Cole Murphy had a rough game with two missed field goals and a pair of kickoffs out of bounds, but his overall stats have been respectable. First year punter Sterling Hofrichter has performed well to this point in the season. The return game has been shaky as Sean Riley struggled fielding punts and kicks as the primary return man. Riley was replaced in the latter part of the UConn game in favor of Estime, who held the job in the previous three contests.
Notre Dame was burned for a 96-yard kickoff return last week and has encountered numerous special teams breakdowns of late. C.J. Sanders remains a bright spot as the returner, although he does not receive much help from his blockers. Kicker Justin Yoon has not been as reliable as Kelly would prefer, as missed field goals from medium range at Texas and against Duke would have been useful on the scoreboard. The winds in the stadium at East Rutherford are notoriously unpredictable for kickers and punters, so Yoon and punter Tyler Newsome will have their work cut out.
Syracuse’s chances in this contest definitely hinge on the health of Dungey and the number of starting offensive linemen they can get back from injury this week. The Orange secondary appears to be vulnerable, so the offense will have to match scores with the Irish to have a chance. Notre Dame must limit the playmaking ability of Etta-Tawo, and Kelly was sufficiently concerned with this challenge that he called former assistant and current UConn Coach Bob Diaco this week for input.
While the passing game for each team is productive, the offense that runs the ball most consistently will make it more difficult for the other team to make adjustments. The team that can gain substantial yards on first down and have fewer third and long situations will have the upper hand.
Here are a few questions that will shed light on the outcome:
Can the Irish keep Syracuse on its heels with a balanced attack?
Will Notre Dame allow Dungey to play pitch and catch in the short zones?
Which special teams will make a positive impact on the outcome?
Can the Irish play with the passion and fire that Kelly is demanding?
Will Syracuse’s fast offensive pace negate any new wrinkles the Irish plan to implement on defense?
Can the retooled Notre Dame secondary cover Etta-Tawo?
After VanGorder and Kizer, who is next to be thrown under the bus?
Unless the players fail to respond to Kelly and the team mails in a lackluster effort, the Irish have more than enough ability to win comfortably. Syracuse has too many injuries to compete for four quarters, but could make it interesting if confusion and poor tackling continue to undermine Notre Dame’s defense.
NOTRE DAME 41 SYRACUSE 27