Irish Season at the Crossroads

Notre Dame (4-3) travels to Syracuse, NY on Saturday to play the 16th ranked Orange at the sold out JMA Wireless Dome. The Fighting Irish continue to strive for consistency after a series of uneven performances this season, whether in victory or defeat. A road win over a solid and highly regarded Syracuse squad would restore a measure of credibility to the program and head coach Marcus Freeman. The ABC network will televise the game beginning at 12:00 Noon Eastern time.

Syracuse Coach Dino Babers is in his seventh season at the school. Babers has rebounded from a 1-10 low point in 2020 to a 6-1 mark this year. They have outscored opponents by an average of 34-15. Their lone defeat came in heartbreaking fashion last week at Clemson after the Orange led for most of the game. A 21-10 advantage after three quarters turned into a 27-21 loss despite a favorable 4-1 turnover ratio.

Garrett Shrader has benefitted from better coaching in 2022

The turnaround effort by Babers was accelerated during this past offseason when he hired Offensive Coordinator Robert Anae and Quarterback Coach Jason Beck from Virginia. The pair did wonders for Brennan Armstrong last year, even putting him in the Heisman conversation before an injury interrupted his campaign. Syracuse signal caller Garrett Shrader has physical and stylistic similarities to Armstrong, and the comparative results from 2021 have been equally impressive. A 53% passer last season, Shrader is now completing 70% of his throws.

Babers insists the Orange will turn the page and focus on Notre Dame. A return to their home stadium and a boisterous crowd will certainly help. “This needs to be an animal party”, Babers said on Tuesday. “Hopefully, the fans will come out and show them exactly what our 12th man can do…We’re going to need them. There’s no doubt that Clemson fans helped them, and we need our fans to help us.”

The Irish reported no new injuries after last week’s win over UNLV. Defensive tackles Howard Cross (ankle) and Jayson Ademilola (ribs) played through ailments suffered in previous games. Safety Brandon Joseph and linebacker Jack Kiser have also been “dinged up” according to Freeman but both will play this week. The same goes for freshman cornerback Jaden Mickey, who will be available after missing most of the last two games.

Syracuse has already lost five players to season-ending injury this year. Two of them were defensive linemen. The impact on depth in that area probably cost them the Clemson game because the Orange could not stop the run in the second half. In addition, cornerback Garrett Williams missed the Clemson game with a leg injury and remains questionable this week.


The Orange deploy a 3-3-5 alignment on defense. Notre Dame’s run-oriented attack presents a problem for the young, undersized and depleted group of healthy defensive linemen Babers can muster. Prior to the Clemson game they had allowed only 3.1 yards per rush. The Tigers wore them down and ended with 293 yards. The Irish will try to repeat their success so it will be interesting to see what adjustments Babers will make to stop them.

Despite their manpower issues, the Orange play excellent team defense. They have allowed the fewest long plays (20+ yards) of any major college football team this season. This is a remarkable achievement given the lack of depth and superstar talent on the roster. Furthermore, Syracuse does not currently have a single senior starter in its lineup.

Mikel Jones is the quarterback of the Orange defense

The best Orange defender is middle linebacker Mikel Jones. He eschewed the NFL draft last January to lead this defense. Jones and Marlowe Wax account for the majority of the tackles and stops behind the line of scrimmage. Both are very active and have multiple sacks to their credit. Ends Steve Linton and Caleb Okechukwu are also productive despite a size disadvantage with opposing offensive tackles. Each has 5.5 sacks and possesses excellent closing speed. Okechukwu also has an interception to his credit. Nose tackle Kevon Darton plays bigger than his 265 pounds. His quickness can be disruptive – similar to that of Cross for the Irish.

Williams is the team’s best cornerback so his absence will be felt if cannot play. Isaiah Johnson started against Clemson and would presumably get the nod against Notre Dame. Duce Chestnut is the starter at the other corner. Ja’Had Carter and Alijah Clark are quality players at safety. Carter returned a fumble 90 yards for a touchdown last week. Rover Justin Barron is an imposing force at 6’4” and 220 pounds. He is listed among the defensive backs but is more likely to play close to the line of scrimmage against the Irish to defend the run.

Assuming Notre Dame will have to fight for every yard, Tom Rees must stick to the run even if Syracuse overplays it by bringing up its rover and safeties in the early going. Play-action passes should be effective, especially on first down. Syracuse will likely gamble that its secondary can win in single coverage against the Irish wide receivers. Other teams have successfully made this bet so far. It’s also critical that Notre Dame avoids falling behind on the scoreboard so the running game is a viable option in the later stages of the game.

The Irish need hard-running Audric Estime this week

Expect the Irish to use all three running backs as Audric Estime will get a chance to redeem himself after costly fumbles in the past two games. Quarterback Drew Pyne is being coached to find his wide receivers rather than locking on to tight end Michael Mayer until his protection breaks down. Braden Lenzy and Jaden Thomas have shown some spark lately and need to be an integral part of the attack as teams pay excess attention to Mayer.


The Orange offense is well balanced thanks to the emergence of Shrader as a dual threat. Always a powerful runner at 6’4” and 228 pounds, the junior has developed as a passer under Anae and Beck.  Shrader’s favorite target is tight end Oronde Gadsden, who leads the team with 37 receptions and five touchdowns. A 6’5” stingbean with good speed, Gadsden is a matchup nightmare for opponents. He appears to be too tall for the Irish defensive backs and too fast for their linebackers. Senior Devaughn Cooper leads an otherwise very young wide receiver corps.

Tailback Sean Tucker is the most prolific weapon at Shrader’s disposal. He averages 100 yards rushing per game and is the second leading receiver with 28 catches. Tucker is built low to the ground and is difficult to bring down. Backup LeQuint Allen is used sparingly but brings an element of speed to the field when he gets an opportunity. Allen has a 90-yard touchdown run to his credit. Shrader is the second leading rusher with 99 carries to Tucker’s 129. Oddly enough, Shrader had 21 rushing attempts at Clemson while a healthy Tucker had only five.

Tailback Sean Tucker averages 100 yards per game

The offensive line boasts massive size, averaging 330 pounds and featuring 375-pound guard Kalan Ellis. Left tackle Matthew Bergeron is a three-year starter and their best overall lineman. The unit blocks well for the running game as one would expect. If they have a weakness, it is in pass protection against fast twitch rushers. The Orange were victimized for five sacks in last week’s loss. Bergeron’s matchup with Notre Dame’s Isaiah Foskey will be worth watching.

The Irish defensive front and linebackers will be challenged to slow down the running game. Tucker piles up yards after first contact while Shrader demoralizes defenses with third down scrambles or designed runs to move the chains. Marist Liufau had his best game for the Irish last week and will be a large part of the plan to contain Shrader. The rest of the group including Kiser, J.D. Bertrand and Prince Kollie must be able to get off blocks to prevent the long runs that have hurt the Irish this season.


The Irish have been on fire recently with multiple blocked punts and effective overall coverage. Returns have been moderate in length but the group has avoided penalties for illegal blocks that seem to eradicate every other productive return we witness on Saturdays and Sundays.

Kicker Blake Grupe missed one his four field goal attempts last week but remains solid overall. Punter Jon Sot should enjoy doing his job indoors this week.

Syracuse punter Max Von Marburg has a so-so 42.5 average while kicker Andre Szmyt has converted an impressive 11 of 12 field goal attempts. His range extends to 50 yards indoors. Trebor Pena returns both punts and kickoffs for the Orange. He is a threat to score every time he gets a chance to bring one back. Notre Dame would do well to make sure he doesn’t.


Notre Dame has more top end talent than Syracuse but are deficient in two key areas – quarterback and linebacker. This will put pressure on the Irish offensive line to run the ball well throughout the game no matter what the defense does to stop them. It also means Notre Dame’s defensive front must outplay the plus-sized Orange offensive front. This is a tall order on the road. It might have been better psychologically for the visitors if Syracuse had beaten Clemson last week, but it may not matter much by kickoff this Saturday.

Defensively, the Irish are overdue to provide a spark. They are among the nation’s worst teams at creating takeaways and have only one pass interception. The Orange, on the other hand, have demonstrated a knack for making these plays at the right time. If the Irish are to win, they must reverse this dynamic.

A final noteworthy statistic is Syracuse has outscored teams in the first half to the tune of 143-36. Notre Dame made it a priority to get off to a fast start last week and will have to ready to go when the clock strikes 12:00 noon on Saturday.

Here are a few questions that will shed light on the outcome:

  • Can the Irish linebackers corral Shrader when he decides to run?
  • Will Notre Dame’s offense be able to repeat last week’s fast start?
  • Can the Irish receivers beat man coverage by the Orange defensive backs?
  • Which offensive line will do the best job of protecting its quarterback?
  • Can Pyne find secondary receivers and make accurate throws?
  • Will the Notre Dame special teams continue to provide significant contributions?
  • Which tight end (Mayer or Gadsden) will dominate?
  • Can the Irish maintain their poise in a loud, hostile environment?


The Irish can and probably should win this game, but it will take a more consistent performance than they have put forth to date. Freeman and his staff have spent eight weeks “cleaning up the mistakes” from a previous outing, yet the offensive misfires and inexplicable defensive breakdowns persist. Even if some improvements are realized, the team remains limited by Pyne’s ability to see the field, make good, timely decisions, and deliver the ball with accuracy and authority.

Drew Pyne must have a good game for Notre Dame to win

Could the Irish put it all together this week? It’s possible. Turnovers fueled a fast start by Syracuse last week before they faded in the second half. Seven possessions in the final two periods yielded only 68 total yards. This drought resulted in six punts and a game-ending interception. On the other hand, a raucous indoor home crowd this week may be enough to get the hosts over the hump. With 50,000 fans dressed in orange and many wearing their Halloween finery, it should be quite a spectacle. That aside, the game will be decided by the quarterbacks. Will Pyne or Shrader make the plays necessary to win? It’s hard to escape the fact that strong running quarterbacks have posed a problem for Notre Dame all season. At the end of the day, I haven’t yet seen enough consistency and week-to-week improvement from Pyne to choose the Irish.


Tell John what you think in the Comments section below

32 thoughts on “Irish Season at the Crossroads

  1. Solid assessment John, as always. Can’t really disagree with your final score either. We Irish fans keep banging our heads against the wall thinking what we have seen can’t repeat itself but it does. What’s the definition of insanity?

    • Brown nose much? He was way off last week with his assessment (no offense, Vannie, but I am happy you were), so you think it is spot on this week? Why don’t you pull for my Alma Mater, Alabama? I’m sure you will be much happier because there isn’t much to bitch, moan, whine, or complain about. If the team that showed up last week shows up this week, Irish win. Bank on it. I am not all that concerned about Syracuse and take not much stock in their win over Smoke and Mirrors U, Clemson. Clemson will tumble really soon, guaranteed.

      Irish win tomorrow. That is my assessment…assessment…. I couldn’t care less what Brady Quinn says. He has never been right in any of his assessments.

  2. This game could get ugly for the Irish. Coach Freeman needs time to bring in the type of players that will fit his system. I believe that Coach wants to return ND to its roots as a power oriented physical football team. It will take a few years. We need to understand that he is in the midst of a very significant rebuilding process. He wants to build a team that will beat elite teams on a regular basis. We haven’t had that since Holtz.

    • I agree, not so much rebuilding but, as you point out, a change in identity. I doubt that the Irish can compete with elite programs in the skill game, but there are plenty of kids out there who will come to a school where you can knock folks on their butts. Go Irish!

    • Sorry but I don’t buy that argument. It’s not like the last few recruiting classes were worse than Marshall’s or Stanford’s. The ND classes were highly ranked and the coaching staff has failed to develop them.

  3. Never thought I would live to see the day when Jvan picked Syracuse over the Irish. Damn. I’m going 24-20 ND

    • Yeah, I hear you. A terrible Syracuse team beat ND in 2008 and a middling Syracuse team thrashed ND in 2003. They also won in 1963, but I’m the only person old enough to remember that one.

      The problem this year is that no one has any idea which version of the 2022 ND team will show up on Saturday.

      • Not the only one to remember…I remember that season well. The assassination of President Kennedy led to the cancellation of the Iowa game and a 2-7 record. Redemption came the next year with Ara.

      • You are NOT the only person old enough to remember that one – I remember that and I remember the year before when the Irish beat them in S.B. on a last-second field goal after a roughing the kicker penalty. I think the final score was 17-15. Ernie Davis was playing for Syracuse.

        “No one has any idea which version of the 2022 ND team will show up on Saturday” – You hit the nail right on the head.

      • I recall the 63 game very well. You’re only as old as you allow yourself to be. And 64 went well until a foul smelling holding call on Meeker ( who touched no one on ghe play) was called for holding at the Trojan 1.

  4. Timothy Miller says:

    We seem to play better against better competition. Let’s hope that holds this week (and next). ND 27 – ‘Cuse 20.

  5. The Irish will have to show poise early in the game. Delay of game, false starts, 3rd and long will prove costly. Control the game and the clock – keep Syracuse QB off the field – shorten the game. Score TD’S not Field Goals and stay away from giving up the big play after a score and on 3rd down. Fundamental football. Block and tackle. Pyne must step up and have his best game – ditto with the receivers. The Team needs to be ready from the start and play up to their potential. To date, this hasn’t been the case.

  6. John, your overview is spot on- ND at a crossroads.

    ND has more or less done the same things this season, expecting different results. Perhaps a nickel defense using the extra corner/safety could spy their running QB. Maybe give Pyne a moving pocket could help him see downfield better. Some innovation and playing some other players could also help.

    If we don’t, it’s’ ND 17, ‘Cuse 24.

  7. Syracuse barely beat Purdue and Virginia. The game last week had a 14 point play (the fumble inside the 10 returned for a touchdown) So really, Clemson might have won comfortably.
    I am not down on Drew Pyne. He has thrown good TD passes and has decent velocity. He does need to see the field better.
    We win comfortably-28-17.

  8. Jvan,

    This is a poorly coached Irish team..We can’t seem to tackle anyone and the WR can’t get open.

    Syracuse stacks the box and forces Pyne to beat them.

    I truly hope the Irish in week 8 of the Freeman Era can put it together or look for a string of decommits very soon..

    I’m with you JVAN, Syracuse beats the Irish but I think by a bigger margin:

    Syracuse 28
    ND 17

    • Disagree. The coaches cannot play the games for the players and make the tackles for them, or run the routes for the players or catch the ball for them. Those issues are on the players.

  9. I too remember the ‘63 game. While I was in high school it was a bad day in a bad season. Thank Our Lady for Ada’s arrival. Will need Her intervention Saturday I’m thinking. Always enjoy your preview and post game stories. Cuse 32-The Lads 16 v

  10. Sticking to the run game is something Tom Rees has yet to learn, except for the second half of last week’s game. If he remembers that it can be effective and mixes in some play action, then the offense will move the ball. If he forgets about running, or gets behind early and totally abandons the run, then this game could get ugly quickly.

    Perhaps Tom should have lunch with Kellen Moore, the Cowboys offensive coordinator, and listen while Kellen explains how the Cowboys managed to win, after losing their starting QB, by committing to the run game. It probably wouldn’t hurt if Kellen brings Dan Quinn and Tom brings Al Golden too.

  11. Can’t win big games without a stellar QB, no matter what. Why doesn’t Swarbrick know this? Why didn’t Kelley know this. Freeman likely knows this but both Swarbrick and Kelley left him with a high school team. ND is on the way to morphing into Vanderbilt with the academic standings.

  12. Vannie… Nice analysis. I hope you are wrong and right in the same breath. if Pyne has a great game (and looks for more receivers than Mayer), then Irish win. I agree. I also agree that Shrader presents a problem for the Irish D. However, Stroud from 0$U presented the same problems for the Irish D in game 1, but the D stood tall against him. Shrader, in my opinion, is not Stroud. Look what this Irish D did with him. If they are able to contain the running plays and force Shrader to pass the entire game, Irish win. This is basically what Clemson did, Irish follow their blueprint. Limit his ability to pick up chunk plays with his feet. FOSKEY, ARE YOU HEARING ME??? SHOW UP, MAN! SHOW UP LIKE LAST WEEK!! Make the game hell for Shrader!


    • Scott, Sorry your comments were not reviewed and published in a timely manner. There are only two of us and sometimes our real lives interfere.

      • No worries, Vannie! Thank you for taking care of it. Sorry for being a bit of a jerk. You do a great job, sir!

        • Glad I was wrong this week. Pyne was not good but the rest of the team picked him up. Hopefully we’re turning the corner.

  13. There is a lack of leadership that reveals itself in unpredictable performance volatility. Freeman seems like a good man, but the results so far suggest that he has no idea how to lead men when they’re winning big, experiencing bad luck, have fallen behind, or are facing pretty much any situation. The players can sense that, and it looks like everyone is looking around for leadership. But we shouldn’t expect a “been there, done that” confidence because…we hired a first-time head coach. For the long term, what happens on the scoreboard tomorrow matters far less than what MF learns about how to lead through whatever circumstances the team faces.

    • The leadership failure rests as much or MORE with the late year players. When you have a lead in the second half you should not be surrendering it. This is on those 3rd-5th year players as much as it is on REES.

  14. Right now I believe Syracuse will win. The lack of week to week consistency has been a real problem and harkens back to the Davie/Willingham era and Weis’s tenure from 2007-2009. The 2022 Irish don’t inspire much confidence.

    ND is looking at a 6-6 finish and there’s really no excuse for that. Early in the season people claimed the schedule was much tougher than 2021 but with the exception of tOSU that is turning out to be false. BYU has dropped to 4-5, Cal has dropped to 3-4 and Marshall is now 4-3. ND’s only quality win thus far was against #21 North Carolina. All other wins are against teams with losing records.

    Thus far the highlight of the season is only losing to tOSU by 11 points on the road.

  15. Important stats so far
    We ranked 21 among power 5 programs in total defense.
    We are last. Last! in turnovers caused.
    We are last. Last! In red zone defense.

    It is almost impossible in my mind to have this combination. Some of it has to be bad luck that should even out over the rest of the season. Throw in the fact that our quarterback skill set is more on level with a division 2 school (or whatever they call that level now) and I do see reason for optimism in the future.
    I see the turnover and red zone problems finally turning in our favor this week.
    ND 27-14