The game never felt in doubt but a 31-15 win over Syracuse leaves Notre Dame with plenty of room for improvement before Stanford comes to South Bend.
Play-Call of the Game: Golson 13-Yard Pass to Torii Hunter
Must be nice to have your first career catch go for a touchdown. On the previous play Hunter took his first career touch in a Notre Dame uniform on a jet sweep for 6 yards. After being gashed all night on screens of varying degrees, the Irish dialed up a nice fake that sprung Hunter free inside the 10-yard line.
Golson fired the ball on time and major props to Hunter for avoiding a big hit, making a spin move, and trotting into the end zone. That's some big playmaking ability on your first career catch. Also, Irish Connections like this may be Notre Dame's greatest recruiting tool for high school kids.
Where do you start?
Well, completing 82% of your passes on 39 attempts is outstanding. Having 25 straight completions--even if most of them were short passes--is phenomenal as well. The 32 completions, 362 yards, and 4 touchdowns were all career highs for Golson too. Be happy for that kind of production but it was a sloppy game from Golson. Two interceptions (including a pick six) two fumbles, one of which was lost, and a very mediocre rushing performance prevented this game from getting out of hand and Golson from having one of the best games by an Irish quarterback.
Golson ran for 22 yards on one carry during the first series before losing his first fumble of the game and only finished the game with 21 net rushing yards on 10 carries. Subtract 1 sack and Golson's figures are only boosted to 30 yards on 9 carries. I thought the offense made an effort to get Golson involved a little more in called run plays, which is good, but for as much as we focused on his turnovers we can't have him eating a quarter of the carries and being so mediocre carrying the ball.
For me, not a huge need to criticize Golson for the turnovers because he's proven through his career to be good at protecting the ball. Well, at least where interceptions are concerned. His ball security when running still needs improvement, and honestly, the best thing he can do in the example of his first fumble is just get out of bounds. You've run for 20 yards, you've slowed down and run out of room, just step out.
The fumbled spike was ridiculously stupid, but again, that will never happen again. That much I know.
Turning Point: 4th & 1 Stop
One of the biggest plays from this game came from the defense in a spot where Syracuse realistically could have mounted a comeback and got right back into the game. Following a touchdown drive culminating in Corey Robinson's catch to make it 21-3 the Orange used 7 plays to get to the Notre Dame 21-yard line.
Knowing about their shaky kicking game and the fact that the Irish offense was moving the ball well all night it was probably a good decision by Syracuse to go for it on fourth down. Even though Bryant would fumble on the next series and Syracuse scored a touchdown off of it anyway, this stop prevented the Orange from putting points on the board with a lot of game left to play.
Surprising Stat: 95 Rushing Yards
Syracuse's punter Riley Dixon rumbled for 42 yards on a fake punt in the second half. Other than that Notre Dame limited the Orange to 95 rushing yards on 28 carries. Granted, the Orange fell behind early and only ran the ball 44% of the time but their bread and butter on offense was largely ineffective for most of the night.
Unheralded Star: Chris Brown
Yes, using the term star is a bit much and doesn't actually apply here. However, it was good to see Brown involved in the passing game while doing a decent job blocking on all those screens. His 6 receptions were a career high and his 57 yards also tied a career high.
Missed Opportunity: Golson's Second Fumble
The last drive before the end of the half had the feel of a field goal attempt at best, but even that couldn't happen when Golson's complete lack of focus led to this wacky fumble on a failed spike. The offense might have had the opportunity for a pair of shots at the end zone and even worse this turnover hurt the red zone efficiency.
Flag of the Game: Romeo Okwara 15-Yard Personal Foul
There is spearing, helmet to helmet contact, and late hitting. Then there's Okwara's personal foul on quarterback Terrel Hunt which was a clean football play. Luckily, nothing came of the drive for Syracuse and it should be pointed out that the Irish drove 95 yards for a touchdown after the Orange downed the ball on the 5-yard line. Still, Okwara absolutely blew up the lineman on this play and looked like Lawrence Taylor for a moment.
Red Zone TD Success: 50%
As noted the fumbled spike ruined the red zone efficiency on the evening. The Irish didn't enter the red zone until that fateful final drive of the first half. On the opening offensive series of the second half Golson found Robinson from the 8-yard line and Hunter's touchdown two drives later also came in the red zone. The final red zone opportunity came on the last drive in which Notre Dame got to the 12-yard line but a sideline interference penalty set the team back on a 2nd and 23 position from which they would ultimately kick a field goal.
Schemes n Such
I thought this was one of the best gameplans of the Kelly era from the perspective of playing to the team's strengths, taking advantage of Syracuse's weaknesses, fixing problems from the last game, and using multiple different looks. How about all that variation throughout the game! We saw some 2-back sets, 2 H-back sets, and plenty of jet sweeps. I hope that we continue to see these formations deployed on a consistent basis. Throughout the Kelly era we've seen nice adjustments for a specific opponent but these variations ultimately fade away into the memory bank.
The only thing I found puzzling was that we got away from these varied looks and reliance on the screen game in the second and third offensive series where the offense bogged down for just 24 yards on 9 plays while punting twice. Other than that, the use of Golson was tremendous against Syracuse's aggressive defense and the run game, while not explosive, was quite effective for most of the game. Here's the third down attempts from the game:
- 3 & 7- Golson 22 yard rush (fumble)
- 3 & 5- Folston 14 yard rush
- 3 & 7- Golson 9 yard sack
- 3 & 4- Fuller 3 yard pass
- 3 & 7- Folston 7 yard pass
- 3 & 4- McDaniel 8 yard rush
- 3 & 2- Golson 3 yard rush
- 3 & 6- Fuller 7 yard pass
- 3 & 2- Bryant 7 yard rush
- 3 & 5- Bryant 5 yard rush
- 3 & 1- McDaniel 1 yard rush
- 3 & 1- Golson 2 yard rush
- 3 & 1- Bryant 5 yard rush
- 3 & 5- Golson INT
- 3 & 23- Prosise 7 yard pass
There are some major black marks on that list (lost fumble, terrible pick six, and the only sack surrendered) but from a running game perspective this was a great effort. Not only did the offense run the ball 8 times on third down--that has to be one of the highest totals under Kelly--but they moved the sticks on each carry. The deep bomb to Fuller and passing efficiency of Golson may be the fireworks of this offense but it's this kind of third down rushing that will be needed to defeat Stanford and Florida State.
This was as close to a dominant performance from the defensive line as you're going to see for a team that didn't register a sack and just 4 tackles for loss. They were stout in stopping the run, collapsed the pocket consistently, and dared Hunt to make throws with his own linemen getting shoved into his face. If I were to be more critical I thought the line and defense in general allowed Syracuse's backs to break some tackles or make a guy miss a few too many times. Sheldon Day in particular could have finished with 5 tackles for loss because he beat his man and found himself one-on-one with the ball carrier only to be shaken out of the play on a couple occasions.
Overall, I was pleased with the offensive line. The lone sack looked like a major problem on the right side of the line but they settled down after the shuffled lineup during the bye week and played well. Obviously the short passing game helped in pass protection. Still, they opened holes in the run blocking while the backs left considerable yardage off the stat sheet with some poor vision, bad reads, and poor acceleration through holes.
Nyles Morgan, Daniel Cage, Tyler Luatua, Nick Watkins, Drue Tranquill, Kolin Hill, Greer Martini, Jonathan Bonner, Grant Blankenship, and Andrew Trumbetti were the freshmen to see the field on Saturday.
Trumbetti's tackle for loss while chasing down a Syracuse running back on the edge was as impressive of a play we saw all night. After disappearing over the last two games it was nice to see Luatua employed heavily as a blocking H-back.
- If there's been a problem in the passing game this year it's been finding a consistent second receiver. Right now, there is no doubt that Will Fuller is the main target with twice as many catches/touchdowns than anyone else as well as nearly twice as many yards as any other target. On Saturday we saw both Chris Brown and Corey Robinson reach career highs in receptions so we'll see how they progress if DaVaris Daniels never comes back.
- A third of the regular season is over and we're still waiting for Ben Koyack to break out. Although Saturday wasn't the type of gameplan to take advantage of his receiving (3 receptions for 16 yards) and he is blocking well, he's now dropped down to fourth on the team in yardage. It's been weird not to have a tight end break some long catches as Koyack is sitting at a rather low 8.68 reception yardage average.
- Remember when everyone was so worried about middle linebacker? I think we're looking at a pair of future defensive captains coming back to patrol the middle in 2015. Feelin' pretty good about that.
- One of the strangest aspects to this defense so far has been the near absence of a playmaker at the Sam linebacker position. A lot of that is due to playing so much nickel and dime coverage but still, did anyone think we'd be here at 4-0 while giving up 11.5 points per game with James Onwualu sitting at just 5 tackles?
- First thing to remark on the run game is how even all the carries have been this year. Both Folston and Golson are tied for the lead with 38 rushes while Bryant and McDaniel each have 33 carries. It's pretty amazing that even with a flawed season so far it's still Greg Bryant leading the team with 174 rushing yards.
- I hope the running backs stay humble because they still have a lot of room for improvement. At some point during the off-season on the site we were debating the best backfields in the country and frankly I don't think our talent is worthy of that discussion right now. I don't think Folston has breakaway speed and we've yet to see that gear from Bryant. They both looked more comfortable on Saturday with better blocking but bouts of poor vision, tap dancing, and a lack of conviction when getting to the second level are holding them back from being special.
- Austin Collinsworth suited up for the first time this season but was withheld from participation with Brian Kelly saying he was going to be used for emergency situations only. That's going to be quite the interesting dilemma for playing time moving forward as Elijah Shumate has played well in Collinsworth's absence and Max Redfield is beginning to blossom at free safety. With Stanford coming to town this weekend I would bet it'll be a hard decision for the coaching staff to keep the veteran Collinsworth on the sidelines for the bulk of the snaps.
- I was a little surprised to see Syracuse finish with 429 total yards with the caveat that 42 of those came off of their fake punt. Even still, the Orange racked up a shocking amount of yards in the second half relative to how I was perceiving the defense to be playing. Over Syracuse's final 5 drives all within the second half they put up 277 yards but but they ended with an interception, turnover on downs, touchdown, missed field goal, and turnover on downs.