Notre Dame had intercepted only one pass this season until the light went on Saturday in the JMA Wireless Dome. The Fighting Irish started the day with a pick-six by Brandon Joseph and demoralized the Orange in the fourth quarter with a diving grab by linebacker Marist Liufau. The latter play put a fork in a Syracuse comeback attempt led by backup quarterback Carlos Del Rio-Wilson. The icing on the cake followed soon after when Clarence Lewis blocked yet another punt for Notre Dame. Audric Estime cashed in with a touchdown on the next play that drove the orange-clad fans to the exits.
It took the Irish just seven seconds to score seven points. On the first play from scrimmage, Syracuse quarterback Garrett Shrader threw a slant pass right into the arms of Joseph, who returned it 29 yards for the score. It looked like the game would be competitive when the Orange rebounded with the help of 30 yards in penalties against Notre Dame to march in for the tying touchdown. A missed tackle by Cam Hart on third down kept the drive alive. Shrader hit Oronde Gadsden two plays later to make it 7-7 just four minutes into the contest.
Errant passes, penalties, and a missed field goal kept Notre Dame off the scoreboard for the rest of the opening period. Meanwhile, the Irish defense settled in and stuffed the Syracuse attack. Estime and Logan Diggs took charge in the second quarter and led a 55-yard march to paydirt. Diggs capped the scoring drive with a three yard burst.
J.D. Bertrand and Isaiah Foskey rose to the occasion and ensured that the Orange could not answer. Notre Dame kept misfiring on offense, however, both by penalty and poor throws by Pyne. His interception a few minutes before the half prevented the Irish from extending their lead. Safety Ja’Had Carter returned the ball inside Irish territory and gave his team a chance to tie the game before halftime.
The Irish were having none of it and shut down the threat. Bertrand batted a fourth down pass by Shrader and the Irish took over with 1:18 remaining. Pyne suddenly caught fire. A 37-yard pass to Michael Mayer and another 11-yard toss to the All-American put Notre Dame inside the five yard line with 22 seconds on the clock. Pyne then hit Jaden Thomas with a scoring strike for a 21-7 edge at intermission.
Del Rio-Wilson was inserted for Syracuse to start the second half. He immediately elevated the Orange with his speed and strong passing arm. The teams traded field goals in the third period before Del Rio-Wilson moved his team through the air into the red zone. Tucker finished a six-play drive by running untouched into the end zone from four yards out. The Irish advantage was cut to 24-17 as the game moved to the final stanza.
The visitors began the final quarter with a three and out. Momentum was clearly on the the side of Syracuse as they took over and ripped off a quick first down. A Del Rio-Wilson pass on the next play was tipped by Notre Dame’s Howard Cross. The ball fluttered tantalizingly in the air as Liufau dove for it near midfield. His interception reignited the Irish, who scored moments later on an 11-yard Estime run.
The Orange faltered on the ensuing possession. A dropped pass by Gadsden and a sack by Foskey sent Max Von Marburg into punt formation. He never had a chance. Lewis flew in from the left edge and smothered it for the fifth Irish block of the season. Notre Dame took over at the Syracuse two yard line and Estime wasted no time in extending the lead to 38-17 at the 7:47 mark.
Del Rio-Wilson hit D’Marcus Adams for a concession touchdown late in the period to make the score a bit more respectable. Notre Dame subsequently tacked on a field goal after Mayer recovered an onside kick attempt for the 41-24 finish.
Despite a few more head-scratching moments from the Irish offense, the victory featured excellent perfomances by a number of players. Estime was obviously on a mission after fumble-itis earned him two weeks in the doghouse. He finished with 123 yards and two scores while Diggs chipped in with 85 yards and one touchdown. Notre Dame outrushed the Orange by 246-61. The Irish offensive line was dominant while wide receiver Deion Colzie emerged with three important receptions.
Defensively, Foskey, Bertrand, Joseph, Liufau, and Jordan Botelho (two sacks) turned in notable performances. Joseph had a second interception late in the game but it was nullified by an offsides penalty. The rest of the secondary did not play particularly well but were gifted with several dropped passes by Syracuse. Tackling remains an issue, especially among the cornerbacks. Freshman Ben Morrison had a few breakdowns in coverage.
Let’s review the answers to our pregame questions:
- Can the Irish linebackers corral Shrader when he decides to run? Bertrand and Liufau were clearly spying on both Orange quarterbacks and were effective in limiting that part of their game.
- Will Notre Dame’s offense be able to repeat last week’s fast start? No, but Joseph was even faster on defense.
- Can the Irish receivers beat man coverage by the Orange defensive backs? Occasionally, but Pyne had trouble finding them with precious few exceptions.
- Which offensive line will do the best job of protecting its quarterback? Notre Dame did a great job and has become very solid in this aspect of the game. Hopefully this will carry into next week.
- Can Pyne find secondary receivers and make accurate throws? No. Pyne missed wide open check down opportunities and repeatedly threw the ball into coverage. He was nine of 19 for 116 yards on the day. Absent the final drive of the first half in which he was three of four for 51 yards and his only touchdown, Pyne was six of 15 for 65 yards and an interception.
- Will the Notre Dame special teams continue to provide significant contributions? You bet. After a dozen years of special teams mediocrity under Whatshisname, I can get used to Brian Mason’s rowdy bunch.
- Which tight end (Mayer or Gadsden) will dominate? Both had good catches to help their team but the defenses were paying a lot of attention to them all day long. Gadsden had multiple dropped passes that hurt Syracuse when the outcome was still in doubt.
- Can the Irish maintain their poise in a loud, hostile environment? The Irish had five penalties in the first quarter before settling down. The defense came to play. They drove Shrader out of the game and held Tucker to 60 yards. As for the hostile environment, it was mostly a Dead Man’s Party aside from a few moments in the third quarter.
At 5-3, the Irish can feel good about themselves. More players are demonstrating improvement and the offense is developing options other than Mayer. Pyne remains the limiting factor here, but he’s the only option so the team will go as far as he can take them. Two high profile games remain, and it sure would be nice to win at least one of them.