With a dramatic comeback late in the 4th Quarter, culminating with Jack Near's brilliant wraparound goal in the Second Overtime, the Notre Dame men's lacrosse team finds themselves atop all lacrosse rankings.
The game itself embodies many of the Irish's contests so far this season. The Irish erupted in the first half with a combination of solid efficient offensive play and shutdown defensive scheme on Syracuse's dynamic attack unit. But, they allowed it all to crumble away late and found themselves down 12-11 with a minute left in the game. But P.J. Finley won the ensuing faceoff and sprinted straight downfield and buried a shot past Orange goalie Bobby Wardwell to tie the game up and force a pair of overtimes.
The OT periods brought a couple of nailbiter possessions but in the second OT, after the Irish were awarded possession after an errant Nicky Galasso shot, Jack Near took the clear straight upfield and found himself covered by Hakeem Lecky and took advantage of Lecky's lackluster defense and won the game for the Irish.
Some thoughts on the game and where the Irish stand.
This was the best game the Irish have played all year
Wait, Paul. ND just beat Ohio State the week before. Did you see the score? They shut them out.
Yes, true, but this game felt more complete of a performance to me. I didn't mince words in my preview of Syracuse either. The Orange were (and still are) vastly better than the Buckeyes. Their offense is more dynamic and their defense is more disruptive. And still, the Irish made Syracuse look like Ohio State, especially in the first half and halfway through the 3rd quarter. Matt Landis completely shut down Kevin Rice, holding him to just a goal and a pair of assists. The Irish midfield only allowed one of Syracuse's goals to come from the midfield. In net, Shane Doss was extraordinary, going 50-50 again with 12 saves and 12 goals allowed on 44 shots.
This was a team victory and while not flawless, showed the grit and resilience of the Irish against a tough opponent. In many ways, this was the Denver game with a different outcome. Doss had a 50-50 game against he Pioneers, the Irish were outshot but were more efficient, etc. Against Syracuse, Notre Dame took what they gave away in the Denver game and turned it on its head and came out on top.
Notre Dame performed better at the Face-off X than I was expecting
My benchmark for this game all along was the Denver-ND matchup. In that contest, as I wrote above, the Irish came out flying and and the Pioneers on their heels and allowed them to claw back by Trevor Baptiste's faceoff dominance and a second half collapse.
The expectations that I had were pretty similar. Syracuse's faceoff specialist, Ben Williams, is along the same talent level as Baptiste. Very strong and impressive. Yet, Ben Williams (18-29) went 62% from the X against the Irish. Irish Head Coach Kevin Corrigan threw a gauntlet at Williams, using not just the three faceoff middies for the Irish (Nick Ossello, P.J. Finley, John Travisano Jr.) but also Trevor Brosco and LSM John Sexton. While Sexton, Travisano and Brosco failed to win any faceoffs, the fact is that the Irish held Williams below his 67% season average.
Part of that reason is because of P.J. Finley.
Stars of the Game: Finley, Doss, Near, Ossello, Landis
P.J. Finley, going into the Syracuse game, was 32-58 (43%) from the X. Pretty lousy. Against Syracuse though, Finley was lights out, especially in the second half. He would end up going 7-14 (50%) from the X and kept Irish hopes alive with a Costabile-esque run-shoot-and-score with a minute left in regulation. He even won the opening faceoff in the first OT period, giving the Irish a chance to win early. It was the perfect kind of game that instills confidence, and faceoff middies, like goalies, rely pretty strongly on confidence and mental fortitude.
I don't know if I can say anything else about Shane Doss. It thought his game was pretty strong. In the first half, he let in a couple of no-angle eggs that I shook my head at, but he made the kind of saves that you expect out of a top-tier goalie. Like Finley, Doss kept the Irish in the game as it slowly slipped away in the second half.
Jack Near scored the winning goal. Nuff said. He also buried a shot past Wardwell to put the Irish up 9-3 in the third quarter and it began to look like a boat race. Near's defensive abilities are second to none but it's his offensive runs like the ones we saw against Syracuse that make him a force to be reckoned with.
After sitting out the Ohio State shutout, Nick Ossello returned to the lineup with a fury. He scored the Irish's first goal of the game roughly 30 seconds in and ended up with a two goal, one assist day. Ossello, like Conor Doyle, really highlights what makes ND so dangerous. Most programs run their offenses through their attackmen. However, ND will run it from the midfield stripe too. Look at how Corrigan is utilizing Doyle. He has Doyle run through the midfield and off faceoffs, has Perkovic line up in the point position on attack to shoot on quick 4-on-3 breaks. Ossello being able to faceoff only adds to that problem for defenses. The first sliding longpole is reluctant to leave Perkovic so early and it allows Ossello to light up the scoreboard.
As I said above, Landis was great, and the ESPN commentators were heaping well-deserved praise on his game and keeping Rice off the scoreboard as much as possible. However, there were a couple issues that didn't exactly involve Landis.
Letting an opposing player score 7 goals on you is not a good thing
I am the last person you will find that will criticize Irish defensive coach Gerry Byrne. Au contrare. I think Byrne is one of the most brilliant coaches at lacrosse in the game right now. Maybe ever. Byrne has made teams fear the Irish defense and even though he loses All-Americans every year to graduation, the unit keeps reloading. Take this year. The Irish lost Stephen O'Hara and Brian Buglione but reloaded with Garrett Epple and Edwin Glazener and some assistance from John Sexton and Pat Healy. However, sometimes reloading comes at a cost.
See, the Irish don't play matchups. That means that specific players won't guard specific players (Landis on Rice being an exception). If Epple is the left longpole, he will guard the offensive player there, whoever it is. Likewise with Glazener and the Irish d-mids.
This is where teams try to outsmart the Irish. Syracuse Coach John Desko tried to run an "inverted offense" against the Notre Dame defense. An Invert is where the middies will run from below GLE or the X as a way to get more space and run against a shortstick. In some cases, the Orange were able to get mismatches, like when Sexton had to guard an attackman and so forth.
Obviously Desko found something that worked because Dylan Donohue went off with a seven goal game. He was routinely open and running on mismatched defenders. While this might be tape fodder for future Irish opponents, don't think that the ND coaching staff hasn't already figured out what went wrong. That said, letting one guy carry a team like that is no good. The Irish were able to shut down Jesse King and Carter Brown, I would have expected similar results with Donohue and Rice.
At 6-1 with three regular season games looming before the ACC tourney (plus a post-tourney game vs. Army), the Irish have the bulls-eye right on their back
Sometimes it is good to be king. But that always means that there will be people trying to knock you off the throne. With an upcoming road contest against Duke coming Saturday, the Irish cannot pull a Denver and have a letdown game after such an emotional victory. Part of being #1 means that you have to play like it every week. Considering that the Blue Devils are coming off a two-game losing streak, they're gonna be hungry to take it out on the Irish and given their talent level, they are a significant concern.
If the Irish want to hold on to the top spot, they'll need continued success from their star attack unit and defense and I feel like a broken record typing this, but more consistency. The Irish have had way too many games where they mail it in the 4th Quarter or get on the wrong side of momentum, but if there is any team that can overcome that, it's Notre Dame.