Last weekend, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team lost to the Duke Blue Devils, who were three-touchdown underdogs on the road in South Bend. At 1-3 and absolutely reeling, ND has since fired defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, and head coach Brian Kelly has declared all positions on the team - including coaches - are up for grabs.
With all of that churn and volatility surrounding the program, the Irish must now travel to MetLife Stadium in New Jersey to square off with the 2-2 Syracuse Orange, led by a high-tempo offense and first-year coach Dino Babers.
So, to help prepare you for the noon kickoff on Saturday, I asked John Cassillo, managing editor of Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician, to answer some questions about the Orange, how they match up with the Irish, and whether or not Dino Babers has one of the coolest names in the NCAA coaching universe. His answers are below, and also be sure to follow him and their site on Twitter for all Syracuse-related updates!
1. So Syracuse is in a very different spot in terms of coaching than Notre Dame, with Dino Babers having just started coaching the Orange this season. What are your impressions of him with this first third of the season in the books?
Dino Babers came in very differently than his predecessor, Scott Shafer. An experienced head coach, Babers brought his scheme and staff along with him, and he conducts himself well (like he's done this before). We're fans of him thus far because of his candor to the media, as well as his actual results. Our previous coach ran a very broken offense, so it's been nice to see Babers' team produce more entertaining football. Even if we're not scoring a ton and our defense is suspect -- both legitimate qualms at this point -- the team knows how to move the football and its pace is wearing opponents down.
So yeah, impressions are good through four games.
2. Syracuse ranks 7th in the country in passing offense. What should Irish fans know about quarterback Eric Dungey and what he brings to the table?
Dungey was known as more of a mobile threat in 2015. And while he still brings that skill set to the table, he's improved by leaps and bounds in the passing game this season. Part of that is Babers' system, which simplifies reads and emphasizes quick passes (allowing him to get hit less than he did last year, potentially). He's not an amazing passer, but he's accurate and again, knows how to improve from week to week. Against UConn on Saturday, you saw a player much more comfortable throwing accurate deep balls. He seemed to throw over the middle with more ease as well.
All that said, if he's put under pressure by Notre Dame's front, he's going to end up taking off a bit more. UConn didn't generate a great pass rush, which gave him time to throw (and throw well). He has speed to the outside and can make defenders miss in the open field if a blitz can't get containment on him.
3. In that same vein, what has Amba Etta-Tawo been able to do this year to have such a fantastic start, leading the country in receiving yards? What makes this guy so special?
Etta-Tawo's off to a record pace for Syracuse (or any receiver, for that matter) and it's a mix of his natural skill set and the scheme he's been inserted into. He's a big, fast target and that's created a lot of mismatches deep as he goes up against smaller corners. Even quality defenders like all-conference UConn CB Jamar Summers were absolutely abused by bunch formations repeatedly creating isolations downfield.
Amba's a fantastic route-runner, fights for jump balls, and is strategic after the catch, too. He's proven to be unstoppable thus far, which has helped this offense pick up big chunks of yardage at once.
4. The Orange have not been nearly as successful running the ball as they have throwing it. How is the offensive line holding up through 4 games, and do you expect more out of guys like Dontae Strickland and Moe Neal as the season progresses?
The offensive line's pretty banged up, with three starters out last week. This unit was already replacing several starters to start the year, though, so the injuries have actually allowed for some extensive auditions of younger talent. The old staff recruited your typical, big Midwest linemen. Syracuse's new staff is looking for slimmer, more agile options that can keep pace with the scheme. These injuries, while unfortunate, are where those ideas meet in the middle.
Without much ability to run block, and no real power back, we're left with a run-first (no, really, Babers' scheme is run-first) attack that can't move the ball well with two smaller ball carriers. That's no knock on Strickland or Neal. They're not really supposed to be every down guys getting knocked around between the tackles. I'd LIKE more out of those guys as the season goes on, but I'm not necessarily expecting it (no fault of their own).
5. The Notre Dame defense has been very bad this season, and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder was just fired after the loss to Duke. Syracuse's defense actually ranks just behind the Irish defense in all statistical categories. What's the defensive performance as a whole been like this season, and how can they begin to right the ship against an ND offense that's had struggles of its own?
Notre Dame has offensive weapons and plays with some amount of tempo and/or urgency. Therefore they'll be able to move the football reasonably well against Syracuse's defense. There are several reasons for this. The line and secondary are banged-up and have zero depth. There's a lot of youth all over the defense. And most importantly, this is a team of players recruited for a blitz-heavy scheme now playing a coverage-heavy scheme on the fly. All of this is how struggles happen, and happen often.
Still, there have been bright spots here and there. Last week, when the offense was faltering, the defense came up big with a fourth down stop at the goal line to preserve the lead (and the game) for SU. The linebackers have adjusted and will continue to develop into the Tampa-2 we predominantly run. The secondary is young and inexperienced, but will improve with more reps as the year goes on.
This defense will never be amazing, since the nature of the offense is to score quickly, automatically creating more scoring chances for the opposition. I don't expect them to fix all that ails them against Notre Dame -- the Irish may have a lot of the pieces needed to tear them apart. But maybe we start to see a turnaround by the end of the season.
6. How does Syracuse plan on stopping DeShone Kizer and his receivers from doing major damage through the air? What can they do, having already played against Heisman-favorite Lamar Jackson, to stop another talented, athletic QB?
Is "we don't" a proper response?
In all seriousness, the Syracuse defense has been victimized by mobile QBs for nearly a decade and that's not going to come to a halt this year. Reference Lamar Jackson and Quinton Flowers' respective performances for some early proof there's still plenty of work to do when it comes to defending against passers that move around. SU can't get containment because it's not quick enough on the edge. This will prove problematic against Kizer just like it did in the other games this year.
The only thing the Orange are probably able to do is keep receivers in front of them. That won't prevent big gains, but it could prevent quicker touchdowns. We've talked about how young and inexperienced our defensive backs are, and their track record hasn't indicated much ability to stop bigger, faster wideouts just yet. Without a pass rush (almost a certainty), Kizer will have plenty of time to pick his spot.
7. What kind of talent and depth do the Orange have in the front seven on defense, and how do you think they match up with Notre Dame's running game?
There's a limited amount of talent and almost zero depth on the line, due to attrition and injury. They're supposed to be the primary run-stoppers in this scheme, but so far, opponents have been able to slice through them pretty well to the tune of 5.47 yards per carry. The linebackers have been focused in on the pass, which takes them away from many/any run blitzes, though they did play a more active role in it last week vs. UConn. They have depth, but the speed isn't there to make as much of an impact against a more talented opponent like the Irish.
Notre Dame should expect Josh Adams to have a bigger day, but the big gainer will be Kizer. That lack of a blitz and lack of speed on the outside to really get containment will result in a few big breaks for the QB.
8. Who is (are) the biggest X factor(s) for Syracuse this Saturday? What will they need to do to enable the Orange to beat the Irish?
I've painted a pretty bleak picture of the defense above, which means we'll be relying on the Orange offense (and thus, your defense) to win this one. Syracuse needs to be able to move the ball consistently through the air, and keep momentum going past the first few drives of the game. In past weeks, early scoring has led to later droughts. The Irish are too talented to let them slow down as they have the last few weeks. The Orange will need to be aggressive all game, and pull Notre Dame into a shootout if they have a shot at all.
We've said this before every game, but establishing a lead is critical, as it can take opposing teams out of their game plan, at least temporarily. Talented squads like Louisville, USF and ND can make up those gaps. But it's still better than the Orange trying to mount comebacks against teams like that.
9. Give me your top 5 coach names in the country. Does "Dino Babers" make the list?
I think he's right near the list, if not on it. And the ACC actually represents pretty well. If I'm making the list:
Rocky Long sits just on the outside, along with PJ Fleck, Dabo Swinney and a few others.
10. If there were one former Syracuse great you could insert onto this team to improve a certain area, who would it be and why?
Dwight Freeney would be awfully nice right now with regard to that absentee pass rush. Sure, Jim Brown could help the run game, but that still doesn't fix the defense. Freeney's ability to create havoc on the outside and put pressure on the various mobile quarterbacks we have faced/will face all season would be a game-changer for the Orange and really change what this defense could achieve.
11. Give me your prediction for how this game turns out.
Notre Dame 52, Syracuse 41
Syracuse lures Notre Dame into a shootout, as intended, but the Orange defense simply can't make enough stops to help the cause. DeShone Kizer looks back to his old self in picking apart the short-handed SU defense, while the Notre Dame defense holds its own in the fourth quarter enough to keep Syracuse out of the end zone late. Eric Dungey and co. still put up some eye-popping passing numbers, and are competitive all game. It's just not competitive enough, as the offense settles for field goals one or two too many times.
I’d like to extend a huge thanks to John for thoughtfully answering all of my questions, including the goofier ones. Again, be sure to give the Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician site the honor of your perusal, and follow John and the site on Twitter as game day approaches!