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  • Irish Go East in Search of Answers

    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.

    Angry Mama Bear 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.


    ND QBs 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.


    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.

    Amba Etta-Tawo 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.


    Diaco 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.


    22 Responses to “Irish Go East in Search of Answers”

    1. Is it somewhat paradoxical that the former defensive analyst of a poor defense is now Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator? Just thinking outside the “box”…

    2. irishhawk50 says:

      My prediction days are over for this year. Even Vegas got the line way wrong against Duke. Just hope that Kelly can right the ship. I think this game will set the tone for the rest of the year, but I keep saying that about each game, but I really mean it this time! No more excuses. Go Irish!

    3. A coach has one essential job: Get the team to play as close to its potential as possible. BK has not come close to doing so this season.
      ND has excellent backs and a heralded OL with a couple of future high draft choices but, somehow, the run game has disappeared. Kelly has too many youthfull wideouts running in and out of the huddle, trying to learn their routes. Settle on a shorter rotation.
      On defense the safeties are chasing the run all the time and thus the corners keep getting toasted 1 on 1. BK has to find a way to help the corners. As for missed tackles and lack of a pass rush, those are just two more areas where ND is nowhere near its potential.
      BK seems to think the solution to all the ills, aside from blaming his best player, is to become more involved in everything. This is his chance, against an inferior opponent, to prove he’s right.

    4. John, it’s hard to imagine that “confusion and poor tackling” will suddenly disappear. But I hope your prediction is right. Otherwise….

    5. Vegas has it at -10.5. I think that seems right, but that defense…

      I see a barn burner, and the Syracuse QB will probably look like a Heisman candidate after this one. I’m thinking 48-45 or around there, escaping the Meadowlands with a W. If we lose, I think Kelly officially gets on the hot seat.

    6. Kelly’s arrogance has led to the downfall of this once great program (I’ve said it a million times on
      my posts)..

      The sad truth: I really don’t care whether we win or lose this weekend. The joy of being a ND fan
      has left and until Kelly restores some order I’m just not that interested anymore.

      But I love reading Vannie!!

    7. I think Kelly will right the ship. Simpler defence with fresh legs will make a big difference ,
      along with lighting a fire under them. Irish turn it around and start rolling.
      ND 45 SU 21.
      We only lose 1 more game this season.
      Go Irish!!

      • Dave, only negative opinions are allowed on here. If you don’t agree Kelly is complete trash and most of the other the coaches in the country would have this awesome squad 4-0, your nuts. It’s never the players fault, especially the 1000 missed tackles. Sorry I couldn’t help this post because the anti Kelly rhetoric hasn’t stopped since he was hired as if we had all just come off of watching 20 great years of ND football.

    8. The Hawk '65 says:

      Does anybody know how much ND will owe Kelly if he gets axed this year? I believe his new deal ends 2021. I’m sure it won’t be small despite our $9-10B endowment.

    9. John, these previews are always great but I had to laugh at the line “The Orange secondary looks vulnerable, they will have to match scores with the Irish to stay in the game.” Notre Dame has one of the worst defenses in all of College Football. It’s sad to say but as things stand right now Notre Dame is in the same “league” as Syracuse.

      Notre Dame’s defense is woeful, they can’t stop the run or the pass, or sack the quarterback. Both teams will have to match scores to stay in the game.

      If Syracuse, or any team, is well coached they can beat Notre Dame.

      • John Vannie says:

        Well, their QB might be hurt and their offensive line is devastated by injury, so we have that going for us. Despite these advantages, I doubt we’ll record any sacks. Makes me wonder if VanGorder coached them to count to “3 Mississippi” before they rushed the passer.

        On defense, Syracuse makes Duke look like the 1985 Chicago Bears.

        • I was just thinking about that. This is something worthy of research, when was the last time a defensive lineman got an offsides penalty? It’s like the defensive line doesn’t even try to anticipate the snap!

          I would wager anything Notre Dame’s offside penalties are at the bottom of the FBS. Penalties are bad but the leash is way too tight. It should be mandatory that players try to jump the snap.

          One thing to watch for is to the players on the line flinch, constantly stopping and starting, if they don’t it explains why they don’t get to the quarterback.

          It’s all just so sad…

    10. The season is slipping away fast, so ND is in a must win situation. The revamped Brian Kelly defense must keep opponents to under 30 points on a regular basis and play more fundamentally sound or he’ll become Brian Van Kelly in my eyes.

      This throwing players under the bus crap needs to stop. I don’t see Saban, Meyer or any big time coaches do that. Holtz never did that.

    11. Denverjoeirish says:

      GoND88: That’s because Saban & Meyer are coaching winning programs, which speaks to the player talent and coaching ability. I’m watching Stanford/Washington and the Huskies D has registered SIX sacks in the first half. Now, THAT’S the ND defense I once knew and doubt that I’ll ever see again.

      • And that’s why our football team plays the way is does!!!! They are there to do two things…..get an education and WIN football games!!!! A lot of these guys are on scholarship!!!! Win some damn football game games!!!! What Kelly did is no different what Saban or Meyer would do. So stop babying these guys they are babied enough!!!! If you want a participation Medal then may I suggest ND start playing in the Ivy League!!!!!

    12. Until Jack and BK realize defense wins championships we will always have an 8-5 team and today is just the beginning. I don’t see the IRISH winning this game, it will be similar to last weeks implosion, no defense, stupid penalties and the offense will sputter once again when the game is on the line.

    13. 45-17 Irish. Expect nothing less.

    14. I’m expecting everything to go well until kickoff. Then the rapidly accelerating downward spiral will begin.

      No battle plan survives contact with the enemy. ND’s play these days reminds me of the good old days of the “decided schematic advantage.”

    15. AUSTINIRISH says:

      I expect a dominant win, with the Orange getting a few scores late. Call it 45-28 Irish. Given that
      Stanford has been exposed, There’s not a remaining game we can’t win.