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Game Preview: Notre Dame vs. Syracuse

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One Foot Down previews this Saturday’s game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Syracuse Orange

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Connecticut Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Well everyone, since the last game preview I wrote, a lot has happened. Let’s review:

  • Notre Dame football fell at the hands of a lacrosse school
  • Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder was fired
  • Defensive analyst Greg Hudson was promoted to defensive coordinator
  • Brian Kelly called out all of his players and promised changes in the depth chart
  • No changes were announced to the depth chart
  • My work league flag football team locked up the #2 seed for next week’s playoffs

That’s a lot to digest in just one week, don’t you think? Now, imagine being one of the Fighting Irish football players. Things have gotta be crazy for those young guys, am I right?

They slid to 1-3 on the season, lost the coach of their defense, have to learn new tweaks from a new coach of their defense, are all stressfully attempting to lock down starting spots again, and still have to prepare for 8 more football games while their coach insists they need to have more fun out there.

So how will those kids deal with all that turmoil as they head into Saturday’s clash at MetLife Stadium with first-year coach Dino Babers and the 2-2 Syracuse Orange?

NCAA Football: Colgate at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s have a look.

Notre Dame Offense vs. Syracuse Defense

The Notre Dame offense has been the better half of the team all season, and there is no arguing that. Any chance the Irish had at winning the Texas, Michigan State, and Duke games came from the play of the offense.

However, in looking at those games, all of them involved huge lapses of time where the unit simply couldn’t move the ball or score points, serving as the inanimate, motionless shovel that the defense used to dig the team into a huge hole.

Terrible metaphor aside, this offense has averaged 163.8 yards per game running the ball in 2016 (not fantastic), and against MSU and Duke it averaged 105 yards per game on a meager 3.4 yards per carry (even less fantastic). The talk coming into this season was about how the ND offensive line would be destroying opponents and opening huge holes for Tarean Folston, Josh Adams, and Dexter Williams to run through on their way to huge gains on the ground. The opposite has happened, and aside from maybe LG Quenton Nelson, the line has played below expectations and been putrid at moving opposing defensive fronts.

So this Saturday, will anything be different, or will the line continue to struggle? The good news for the Irish is that this Syracuse team is not strong defensively, and is downright bad against the run, allowing 209.3 yards per game (102nd in the country). The Orange rely mostly on their linebackers and secondary to make tackles, as junior LB Zaire Franklin has led the way to-date with 32 tackles, 3.5 tackles-for-loss, and a forced fumble. He’s joined by Parris Bennett and Jonathan “Taylor” Thomas (I gave him that nickname - sorry, I couldn’t resist) in the linebacking corps, and those two have combined for another 46 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss, and a sack.

NCAA Football: South Florida at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The Irish running backs, then, will hope to have some success against this unit, as Josh Adams (238 yards, 1 TD, 5.1 yards per carry) and Tarean Folston (146 yards, 1 TD, 3.9 yards per carry) will try to get the running game back on track. Sophomore Dexter Williams is another back the Orange will need to bottle up, as he was the only player Brian Kelly singled out as playing with fire and passion against Duke (5 carries, 24 yards, 1 TD). Kelly said they would certainly need to get Williams more touches, so Syracuse can expect to see more of the fast, strong young back at MetLife Stadium.

The Orange defensive line is nothing to write home about, but the group is led by sophomore DL Chris Slayton, who has 13 tackles (4 TFL), 3 sacks, 1 forced fumble, and 2 QB hurries so far this year. He will spearhead the unit that will try to clog up the front line and force the Irish to sling the ball all over the field in an attempt to keep up with Syracuse’s own high-passing-volume offense. That defensive line unit also includes the likes of freshman Kendall Coleman, sophomore Steven Clark, and redshirt sophomore Kayton Samuels.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Connecticut Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

If the Orange front seven has success against the Irish offensive front, just as the Blue Devils and Spartans had the past couple weeks, then Notre Dame’s star QB DeShone Kizer will be forced to carry the load once again. Kizer has been very good this year, throwing for 1,096 yards, 11 TD, and 3 INT while completing passes at a 62% clip. He’s had to do too much for the offense, though, and has committed a few mental mistakes as a result. Nevertheless, he is still the most dangerous player out there for ND.

When dropping back to pass and trying to avoid Slayton and co. giving their best shot at a pass rush, Kizer will look for sophomores Equanimeous St. Brown and CJ Sanders, senior Torii Hunter Jr., and freshman Kevin Stepherson. St. Brown leads the team in receiving with 21 catches for 359 yards and 4 TD, and has been complemented nicely by CJ Sanders’ shifty, quick abilities that have garnered him 13 catches, 215 yards, and 2 TD. It’s hard to complain too much about those two guys and what they’ve produced so far this season.

Torii Hunter Jr. is a team captain and the veteran leader of this receiving corps, and he has had a fine, yet somehow quiet, start to the season with 15 catches, 207 yards, and 1 TD in just three games played. Stepherson, meanwhile, adds speed and big-play ability, having already contributed 8 catches, 149 yards, and 2 TD to the Irish’s scoring efforts.

Also, with the roster shake-ups Kelly has promised, don’t count out freshman Chase Claypool from getting a lot more time, as the big, athletic target is a match-up nightmare for linebackers/safeties and cornerbacks alike.

The Syracuse pass defense isn’t too much better than its rushing defense, ranking 92nd in the country (257.5 passing yards allowed per game). Key players to watch in the Orange secondary include sophomore Daivon Ellison (26 tackles, 1 forced fumble, 1 INT), sophomore Cordell Hudson (18 tackles, 1 INT), sophomore Kielan Whitner (14 tackles), and junior Corey Winfield (9 tackles, 1 sack), among others. Although no one in that group is an elite defensive back, they certainly have the ability to make a few plays and capitalize on any mental mistakes Kizer might make when trying to do too much with his arm.

NCAA Football: South Florida at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Overall, the Notre Dame offense should be able to move the ball fairly easily against a young Syracuse defense still trying to find its identity. However, having seen the first four Notre Dame games, that could mean absolutely nothing when game time comes around.

Syracuse Offense vs. Notre Dame Defense

On the other side, Syracuse’s strength faces off against Notre Dame’s ultimate weakness. The Orange are 25th in the country in total offense at 497 yards per game, and that is entirely because of their passing offense, which currently sits at 7th in the country with 371.8 yards per game.

The name to know here is Amba Etta-Tawo, a senior 6’2” wide receiver who is having an All-American caliber year so far, leading the country in receiving yards (706 through 4 games!), tied for 4th in the country in receptions (40), and tied for 5th in the country in receiving touchdowns (5). Etta-Tawo will have absolute mismatches against whoever he lines up against from the Irish secondary, and it will be interesting to see who will shoulder the task of trying to contain him (“who” is probably a committee of various unlucky cornerbacks and safeties over the top).

Brian Kelly said that they were going to shake things up, and considering the defense has been the worst unit on the team, there’s a very good chance the per-usual starters at CB, Cole Luke and Nick Coleman, will lose playing time and maybe even their 1st-string spots to younger corners like Julian Love and Donte Vaughn, who had a fantastic interception against Duke last weekend. At safety, considering the lack of depth there, it’s likely that freshman Devin Studstill, junior Drue Tranquill, and senior Avery Sebastian still see the bulk of the time, but watch for freshman Jalen Elliott to possibly get some reps as a young, athletic breath of fresh air that might be able to come in and make some plays.

Etta-Tawo will not be the only receving threat for the Irish secondary to worry about, though, as Syracuse’s passing offense is a result of the production of other receivers like Ervin Philips (36 catches, 289 yards, 2 TD), Steve Ishmael (17 catches, 171 yards), and Brisly Estime (14 catches, 147 yards, 2 TD). Throwing them the ball will be Eric Dungey, who has been very solid this season and who has put up some fantastic first-trimester numbers: 1,367 yards, 9 TD, 3 INT, and a 65.4% completion rate.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Connecticut Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse offense plays with fantastic pace (they average 86 plays per game, whereas ND averages just 71 on offense) and really moves the ball through the air, so they will certainly try to do the same against a patchwork ND secondary under the new tutelage of Greg Hudson.

On the flipside, the Orange have been less-than-great running the football. They rank 111th in rushing yards per game with 124.8, and their top two running backs have combined for 354 yards on 3.9 yards per carry with 1 touchdown between them. Their offensive line is suspect, and so this is a great offense for Notre Dame to hopefully find a groove when it comes to filling gaps, corralling the ball carrier, and making tackles.

Nyles Morgan will undoubtedly be leading the charge in that regard. As one of the only bright spots on the defensive side of the ball, Morgan has accumulated 37 tackles (26 solo) and the team’s only sack on the season. Because the depth chart is up in the air a bit at this point, it’s hard to say who will be joining him in attempting to stop the run, but at linebacker it’s likely that fans will see a mix of sophomore Te’von Coney (26 tackles - 18 of those solo), senior captain James Onwualu (24 tackles - 15 of them solo, which, if you notice this pattern of solo tackles by linebackers and DBs, is not a great sign for the defense), junior Greer Martini (17 tackles), and potentially little-used sophomore Asmar Bilal, who only has 4 tackles this year but has all the athleticism in the world to contribute to running down ball carriers.

NCAA Football: Duke at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

The defensive line could also see some new faces this week, but senior captain Isaac Rochell will definitely be starting. He’s played very well so far, racking up 21 tackles (4 TFL) and 4 QB hurries while being the only consistent presence in opponents’ backfields. Junior Daniel Cage has also been a stalwart in the middle and will likely grab some reps from senior Jarron Jones, while sophomore Jerry Tillery will continue to improve and earn time, considering his 12 tackles (2 TFL) from the defensive tackle position.

At defensive end, Kelly and Hudson will almost certainly shake things up by getting more time for freshmen Daelin Hayes and Julian Okwara, who just look miles ahead of incumbents like junior Andrew Trumbetti when it comes to athleticism and speed. Junior Jay Hayes is another talented defensive lineman that Kelly has said should be receiving more playing time, so expect to see his name pop up at potentially a couple spots along the defensive front.

NCAA Football: Louisville at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Overall, ND will likely be trying a few new combinations in the front seven, just as they will be in the secondary, so it will be interesting to see if those personnel changes, along with general tweaks in the defensive scheme from Kelly and Hudson, will be enough to right the ship and get the unit playing at least mediocre defense.

Knowing this Syracuse offense and the Irish defense, it seems pretty likely that the Orange will continue to move the ball easily through the air and have limited but potentially game-changing success running the ball on ND.

My Prediction

With all of that being said, and considering my record of predictions, which is 1-3 for Notre Dame games and probably worse for other college football games around the country that the One Foot Down staff picks each week, I think Notre Dame wins this in a very close game.

The Syracuse offense will score some points - I’m thinking 35 - almost exclusively through the air against a young hodgepodge of a defensive backfield. However, the young whippersnappers that have been newly inserted into the defense will make one or two plays, which will be enough to keep ND in it to the end. Meanwhile, Kizer and the offense will run the ball with moderate success while receiving typical passing production from Kizer and the receiving corps.

Kizer will then show his typical unflappable nature as he leads the team down the field in the final minutes, setting up sophomore kicker Justin Yoon for a game-winner just before, or right as, time expires.

Brian Kelly wants the team to play loose and have fun, and they will definitely do that. But it won’t stop the mistakes from continuing, and that enables Syracuse to give the Irish a run for their money.

Notre Dame 37, Syracuse 35

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So, now that you’ve heard my thoughts on how this game goes, what do you think? Let me know how much you agree or disagree in the comments, and remember - I am absolutely terrible at predicting this team’s performance, so expect a blowout from one team or the other!

Go Irish!