You guys will never believe this, but the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team is STILL undefeated.
10-0. Pretty crazy, right?
Now, even more insane news: they have ANOTHER game this weekend, and this one involves playing a top-12 team from just 4 hours away from the baseball stadium the game is in, and the Irish will be wearing really stupid-looking jerseys.
The Syracuse Orange are 8-2 on the season, have won 4 straight, and came within just a few minutes of defeating the now-2nd-ranked Clemson Tigers earlier this year (albeit with Trevor Lawrence injured on the bench for much of it, but still). They’ve scored at least 40 points in 70% of their games (averaging 40.4 points per game on the season), and are easily the biggest obstacle standing between the Irish and their spot in the College Football Playoff.
So, in order to learn more about this surprise huge-game, I reached out to my friends at Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician (SB Nation’s resident Syracuse site) to talk to John Cassillo and get the lowdown on Dino Babers, Eric Dungey, his Syracuse horcrux hunters of choice, and much, much more.
Let’s get after it.
1. After a couple 4-8 seasons in Dino Babers’ first two years, he has Syracuse playing some fantastic football and sitting at 8-2. What have been the big differences you’ve seen in the team/program this year that have led to such a nice turnaround? What do you think the program’s ceiling is with Babers at the helm?
John Cassillo: Experience in the system and health have been critical to this year’s team. This is year three under Babers for a lot of key players, so just having that familiarity is immensely helpful. We’re also a whole lot healthier this year than we’ve been for much of the last few seasons. Eric Dungey is the obvious name there in terms of previous injuries, but we’ve lost most of our secondary and d-line to injury for the last couple years. Having those players healthy -- and the depth to deal with when they’re not — is something attributable to Babers increasing the talent level on the roster over time.
Beyond that, we’ve had the best special teams unit in the country all year, and that’s really afforded us a nice field position advantage on both sides of the ball.
As far as ceiling goes, this is probably it. Granted, we’re a couple minutes from (somehow) being 10-0. But we’ve been assisted by a very down ACC and some breaks going our way. That’s not something to apologize for given the breaks that have gone against us for this long. Still, it’s notable when considering where the program goes from here
2. Let’s talk about QB Eric Dungey. What does he do well that ND should be worried about stopping, and what are his weaknesses that you’re worried the Irish defense will exploit?
John Cassillo: Dungey is at his best when he’s a running threat, rolling out of the pocket to buy receivers time and create potential coverage mistakes downfield. When he’s confined to the space between the tackles, he’s much less effective. He also has a potential to play some “hero ball” if the defense isn’t giving Syracuse much — which is usually where the mistakes come in.
Notre Dame should be worrying about stopping him from running and from letting Dungey pick them apart with short screens (especially to Sean Riley). If you take those off the table, the onus gets put on the traditional run game and downfield passing. Those have been effective at times this year, but also much less consistent. I’m at least a little worried about the Irish shutting down our running backs, which is how you get more “hero ball” Dungey (much less accurate, much more risk-prone)
3. Thanks to Syracuse’s up-tempo offense, they’ve got a whole bunch of playmakers at the skill positions. Who are the biggest weapons at Dungey’s disposal, and who should Notre Dame be most worried about?
John Cassillo: Mentioned Riley — he has 54 catches for 603 yards and two scores, and has the speed to quickly get around would-be tacklers in space.
Nykeim Johnson is similarly fast and has emerged as a very capable downfield threat with 33 grabs for 527 yards and four touchdowns. Moe Neal has been a big part of the backfield since his freshman year (2016), but he’s really found his stride this year and has over 700 yards on the ground.
4. I had a chance to watch some of the Syracuse-Clemson game earlier this year, and what struck me as very impressive was how the Orange gave up just 1 sack to that ridiculous Clemson defensive line, and that sack came at the VERY end of the game. How strong do you think this Syracuse offensive line is, and will they see similar success against an ND defensive front that is also very good?
John Cassillo: I think that the line is pretty solid, though has gotten up for the big games in recent years, making those results look better than they may be on average. Orange passers have been sacked 24 times this year, so it’s not like this group is protecting the QB like they did against Clemson in every game. Still, they’re very experienced and have played together quite a bit (always helpful), plus the addition of Texas A&M transfer — and Dino’s son-in-law — Koda Martin at tackle has been a major boost.
Against Notre Dame, they’ll see some success early, but could collapse under a constant blitz. That’s why the traditional run game is so critical. If they get away from that, it’s going to be a long day for the line, and Dungey.
5. The Syracuse defense has been pretty middling this year (68th in defensive S&P+). What are the strengths and weaknesses of that group, and who are the names to know? How do you think they match up with ND’s offense, especially if Ian Book is indeed back for this game?
John Cassillo: Middling, yes, but still leaps and bounds beyond what they’ve been in recent seasons. Said before the year that a top-40 offense and top-80 defense gets Syracuse to a bowl, and they’ve arguably gotten better than that production out of both units.
This team should actually remind people a little bit of Scott Shafer’s defenses when Doug Marrone was Syracuse’s coach. However, those teams generated constant pressure from the linebacker position and also plugged the middle quite well against the run. This group brings most of its pressure from the line and uses linebackers against the run. The pressure is the only way to combat a high-risk/high-reward secondary that’s gotten burned numerous times when the blitz can’t get to the quarterback.
I think they match up pretty poorly against Notre Dame, to be honest. The Irish line is good, and since we’re entirely dependent on pressure, the results of not getting to Book could spell disaster. We have some great young defensive backs (Trill Williams, Andre Cisco, Ifeatu Melifonwu), as well as experienced veterans (Chris Fredrick, Antwan Cordy, in particular) — just not sure how many of them will be healthy for this one.
Notre Dame also runs the ball well, and we’ve been gashed by plenty of teams on the ground this year. This defense’s best chance to positively impact the game is to force long third down tries where it’s easier to blitz. Teams that find early down success against us pick up yards in bunches.
6. If you had to pick one X-factor each on offense, defense, and special teams — the guys whose performances are CRITICAL to the Orange upsetting the Irish -- who do you choose and why?
John Cassillo: Offense, it’s obviously Dungey. His play opens up everything else, and I think we’ve covered a lot of what he does well (and not so well) above.
Defensively, Alton Robinson leads the team with nine sacks and will be a huge part of a successful Orange pass rush in this game. Even if he doesn’t pick up sacks, he’s adept at hurrying quarterbacks and altering throws. Syracuse is one of the top teams in the country at forcing turnovers, and that starts with the opportunities the line creates with the rush.
Special teams is Riley — who has returned both kicks and punts (when teams actually kick to him) and has come up big on blocks too. Even if he doesn’t touch the ball, he alters teams’ strategies.
7. Looking at this ND team, which players, if any, scare you the most?
John Cassillo: Dexter Williams runs the ball well enough to make me very concerned, no matter what Ian Book does through the air (though if he can throw the ball effectively, him too, of course).
Jerry Tillery and Khalid Kareem could pose real problems for Dungey getting some time to throw. SU will likely have to pull in an extra pass blocker all game, as they have for most of the contests this year.
WE INTERRUPT THIS VERY GOOD Q&A FOR SOMETHING INCREDIBLY STUPID: TIME FOR A WORD FROM PAT’S PERSONAL PANEL OF COLLEGE FOOTBALL FANS, AKA SOME BUDDIES OF HIS IN A GROUPME CHAT!!!!
Pat Rick: Gentlemen, do you have any opinions on Syracuse (either as a football program or as an institution in general)?
Hux: We need a Netflix documentary/mystery series on why Otto, the ORANGE, is hairy...I’ve never seen a hairy orange before
Hux: Also, why does Obie the Orange Bowl mascot refuse to admit that Otto is his son? Who is the mother? Has he been paying child support? Do we need Maury?
Very informational, per usual. Thanks guys! Now, back to my Q&A with John...
8. Notre Dame has a freshman RB named C’Borius Flemister. What are the best/funniest/most ridiculous names on the Syracuse roster (coaches included), and do any of them measure up to my guy C’Bo?
John Cassillo: Atrilleon “Trill” Williams is pretty great and definitely takes the cake for Syracuse names. Would add Markenzy Pierre and DuWayne (Not the Rock) Johnson as two of the other contenders. Dino Babers is a great name, in all honesty.
9. Hypothetical: you need to choose three Syracuse football players, past or present, to take on the task of hunting down and destroying Voldemort’s horcruxes so that the wizarding world can be free of Voldemort and the terror he brings -- who do you choose as your Harry, Ron, and Hermione stand-ins, and why?
John Cassillo: Rob Konrad swam for 16 hours once to survive at sea, so definitely him. Doesn’t really matter which character he subs in for, since he could probably do all of their jobs combined.
Eric Dungey is pretty fearless, and might as well be “the Boy Who Lived.” I mean, have you seen the pain he puts his body through each and every season at SU?
Oh, and Don McPherson because if we’re not going to be able to buy him the Heisman Trophy that Tim Brown stole, it’s only fair that he gets this honor instead.
10. Karaoke battle between Brian Kelly and Dino Babers - what song(s) does each coach sing, who has the better stage presence and charisma, and who ultimately wins?
John Cassillo: Brian Kelly leads with “Danny Boy” since he knows his audience, then jumps into Alanis Morisette’s “You Oughta Know” before closing with something from Prince, because Kelly’s face is always purple. It’s not exactly the most inspired or moving performance.
Dino, on the other hand, starts by paying tribute to Hawaii (where he went to school) with Israel Kamakawiwoʻole’s “Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World,” then picks up the pace with Biggie’s “Mo Money, Mo Problems,” followed by a rousing rendition of Dean Martin’s “That’s Amore.” No question Babers’s charisma wins the day.*
*Pat Rick Editor’s Note: Couldn’t agree more, that’s a set list that easily wins it in my book
11. Anything else ND fans should know about Syracuse’s team, program, fans, traditions, etc.?
John Cassillo: Hmmm... I mean, we play each other often enough, and are pretty familiar with one another from years of annually facing off in non-football starts.
The broadcast will certainly mention the number 44 a bunch of times, so you should probably be familiar with the number’s importance to Syracuse if you aren’t already. Also, most Orange fans are pretty irate about the fact that Notre Dame pretty much stole two Heismans from the program — the aforementioned 1987 trophy pointlessly awarded to Brown over McPherson,** and Paul Hornung’s inexplicable 1956 win over Jim Brown. No, SU fans don’t care that most of them weren’t alive for the latter slight. It’s the principle of the thing.
**Pat Rick Editor’s Note: seems debatable
12. Prediction time: give me the final score, who wins, and your reasoning why.
John Cassillo: I’d love to predict an upset for Syracuse because of what it would mean for the program: a near-guarantee of a NY6 game, its best season in 20 years, the potential of being “back.”
But Notre Dame’s offense poses too many problems for the Orange’s defense and Book being healthy should mean a lot of pressure put on the SU secondary to get the win here. If they can’t force turnovers, ND likely tears us apart for the afternoon. Dungey will keep the offense moving to some extent, but the Irish just make a few more plays and that’s the difference. 44-34, Notre Dame takes home the win.
I wanna give a big ole shout-out to John for answering all my questions without flinching at their ridiculousness, and encourage all of you to head on over to Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician to check out all the great content they’ve got going on over there, including a Q&A with yours truly coming soon. I also recommend following them on Twitter, as well as my guy John, for any and all hard-hitting ‘Cuse updates heading into Saturday’s game.
Finally, my usual thanks go out to my personal panel of college football fans, AKA Hux and Serglock Holmes, for the undeniably useful answers they provided. Bravo!
That’s all I’ve got for now, people — see you all in my game preview on Friday!