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Notre Dame Football: Syracuse Orange Preview

Your 10-0, #3 Fighting Irish take on the #12 Syracuse Orange tomorrow. Maybe we should talk about HOW HUGE THIS GAME IS

Notre Dame v Syracuse Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Well, ladies and gentlemen, here we are.

After a surprising 10-0 start led by a surprisingly balanced team against a surprisingly mediocre slate of opponents, the #3 Notre Dame Fighting Irish enter the second-to-last game of the season with a chance to add another very nice win to their College Football Playoff resume, and the opportunity to set up a win-and-you’re-in game at the LA Memorial Coliseum next weekend.

Oh, also, they’ll be wearing these abominations:

Standing in their way are the Syracuse Orange — ranked 12th in the country, sporting an 8-2 record, and led by a high-tempo, high-scoring offense that’s playing loose and scoring all over folks these days.

Head Coach Dino Babers, in just his third year at the helm, has very possibly turned the program entirely around after a couple of 4-8 seasons to begin his tenure there. The Orange average 44 points per game, own the #1 special teams group in the country according to S&P+ ratings, and have the chance to spoil the Irish’s perfect season (and quite possibly CFP chances) on a national stage in Yankee Stadium.

The Irish, of course, won’t exactly be allowing that to happen. Rated 6th in S&P+ and having just throttled a bad Florida State Seminoles team at home last weekend (with backup QB Brandon Wimbush at the helm), they get starting QB Ian Book back to take on an Orange defense that is just 68th in the country in S&P+.

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

In order to not belabor the point of this introduction any further, let’s jump right into how the two top-12 teams match up and what we can expect from the best matchup of the weekend in college football.

Syracuse Offense vs. Notre Dame Defense

Notre Dame v Syracuse Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

This shouldn’t be a surprise to you, but just to be clear — this matchup is STRENGTH vs. STRENGTH right here.

Notre Dame’s defense is #3 in the country in S&P+, #15 in defensive efficiency according to, #15 in scoring, #24 in total defense, #6 in pass efficiency defense, and #32 in red zone defense. Meanwhile, the Orange offense comes in at #14 in total offense, #7 in points per game, #27 in rushing, and #36 in passing.

However, it’s important to note something as everyone praises this Orange offense’s big raw numbers — Syracuse has largely beaten up on bad defenses in 2018, and a closer look at the stats reflects that.

The Orange have faced just two top-50 S&P+ defenses on the season (Clemson and Florida State), scoring roughly 18 points per game below their season average in those games (26.5 ppg). Hell, even if you look at games against top-80 defenses (add in Pittsburgh and NC State), the Orange still scored roughly 9 points below their season average of 44.4, averaging 35.3 ppg against those 4 opponents.

Meanwhile, on the ND side of things, Clark Lea’s defense has faced four top-50 offenses so far this year (Syracuse is #39 and will thus be the 5th such offense Notre Dame hopes to shut down), and his squad has actually tightened the screws in these toughest of contests, holding those opponents to 17.8 points per game despite a total season average of 18.7. When you include top-80 offenses (7 of ND’s 10 opponents to-date), the Irish are still only allowing 19.6 points per game. Clearly, one unit’s gaudy numbers are a little more battle-tested than the other.

Now, all of this isn’t to say that the Syracuse offense can’t succeed where other top-50 offenses failed. The Orange are #4 in the country in plays-per-game with their up-tempo offense, affording them more opportunities to score than most teams. The Irish actually saw a similar pace earlier this year in Ian Book’s first start, as the Wake Forest Demon Deacons sit at #2 in plays per game through Week 11.

NCAA Football: Wake Forest at North Carolina State Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

It’s worth noting that Wake, with that up-tempo offense, put up the highest point total of any ND opponent this year with 27 points. However, it’s also worth noting that the Deacs scored 14 of those points in the last 15:44 of the game, when everything had already been wrapped up with the Irish leading 49-13.

Nevertheless, Syracuse’s offense does come into this one firing on all cylinders, having scored at least 40 points in each of their last four games and averaging over 500 yards of total offense during that stretch.

That high-powered run has of course been led by Syracuse’s dual-threat senior QB Eric Dungey. Dungey, on the season, has managed to accumulate 2,883 total yards (2,193 passing, 690 rushing on 4.7 ypc) and 26 total TD (14/12 passing/rushing split) while tossing just 5 interceptions and completing 60% of his passes. It’s safe to say that the mobile, fearless QB who’s most comfortable outside the pocket and on the run is the heart and soul of that offensive attack — they go as he goes.

What should be interesting is how Dungey and co. can move the ball against what has been a staunch Notre Dame defense. The Orange are a weird team in that they are #64 in the country in tackles for loss allowed and #79 in sacks allowed, and yet they surrendered just one sack to Clemson’s All-American-filled defensive line in the team’s 27-23 loss to the Tigers in September. Part of that can likely be attributed to Dungey just playing a smart, evasive game against the country’s best defense, but he couldn’t have done it ALL on his own.

How that Orange offensive line holds up against the less-heralded-than-Clemson’s — but still VERY good — pass rush of Khalid Kareem, Julian Okwara, Daelin Hayes, and Jerry Tillery should be interesting to see. ND’s pass rush isn’t elite in most metrics, but that group has been relentless and has gotten pretty strong and consistent pressure without much help from extra rushers.

Julian Okwara has been the best pass rusher of the group with 5 sacks and an absolutely RIDICULOUS 21 QB hurries on the year, and Tillery has been a menace in the middle with 7 sacks and 5 QB hurries to his name. Kareem has added 4.5 sacks and 7 QB hurries to the mix, and Hayes has come on strong recently, amassing a sack and 5 QB hurries overall.

NCAA Football: Florida State at Notre Dame Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The key tomorrow is going to be how well the Irish defense contains Dungey once they flush him out of the pocket. He will be most comfortable outside the tackles anyway, so it will be up to the speed and athleticism of guys like Okwara in the backfield — and guys like Te’von Coney, Drue Tranquill, Asmar Bilal, and Alohi Gilman in the next level of the defense — to quickly corral Dungey and keep him from taking off for back-breaking first down conversions. I have to imagine Clark Lea will have one of those linebackers spying Dungey at all times for this very reason.

If Dungey is able to find time to throw — in the pocket or outside of it — he does have a bevy of capable receivers to target. Jamal Custis is the leading receiver for the Orange this season, reeling in 42 passes for 748 yards and 5 TD so far this year.

Sean Riley has been just as dangerous and effective in 2018, snaring 54 balls for 603 yards and 2 TD. Look for him, as one of Dungey’s favorite targets, to potentially make some nice catches that extend drives — especially if Julian Love (14 PBU, 1 INT) isn’t covering him at the time.

Other solid receivers to watch out for include Nykeim Johnson (33 rec, 527 yds, 4 TD), Taj Harris (28 rec, 387 yds, 2 TD), Devin C. Butler (14 rec, 126 yds), and TE Ravian Pierce (15 rec, 89 yds, 3 TD), who could be an important target in goal line situations for Dungey.

The Irish pass defense has been much better than a lot of people seem to realize this season — #6 in passing efficiency defense, as mentioned above. But, I also believe that most opponents’ best chance at pulling off some big plays against ND is to attack the non-Julian Love DBs through the air. If the defensive line doesn’t get to the QB and force rushed throws, then guys like Jalen Elliott, Houston Griffith, Troy Pride Jr., and TaRiq Bracy could get individually beaten by a group of good receivers like Syracuse’s. At this point, the stats obviously don’t really back this personal fear up (especially considering Syracuse’s 68th-ranked passing efficiency rating and 60th-ranked yards per completion total), but the only guy I personally, completely trust in the ND secondary is still Julian Love, so take that for what it’s definitely not worth.

Of course, with Dungey at QB and considering the tempo of the offense, Syracuse also does a lot of damage on the ground. We talked about Dungey’s effectiveness running the ball, which is evident in both designed runs as well as broken-play scrambles. But there’s also a trio of talented backs that Dungey hands the ball to that will look to gash ND for yardage when they’re caught unprepared by ‘Cuse’s quick pace of play.

Moe Neal is the leader there, having run for 716 yards and 5 TD at a 6-yards-per-carry clip on the year. He’s had some injury issues of late, so it will be interesting to see how healthy he is in taking on an Irish defense that’s been pretty good against the run (#35 in yards per rush allowed, #41 in total rushing defense).

Guys like Coney (87 tackles), Tranquill (59 tackles), and Bilal (40 tackles) will do their normal thing of shedding blockers with their strength and athleticism and then using their speed to run down ball carriers, so it will be key for Syracuse’s backs to be decisive, hit holes fast, and get as much as they can before contact — ND’s defense tends not to miss on too many tackles...especially the linebackers.

In case Neal is hurt or just needs a breather, the Orange do have a couple other dangerous dudes who can line up in the backfield with Dungey. Dontae Strickland has 381 yards and 6 TD this year, running for 4.5 yards per rush. Also, fun fact about him — Strickland is also 1-for-1 passing the ball on the season, completing a 48-yard pass that earned him an ungodly 503.2 QB rating.

Not gonna say it makes a TON of sense for Dino Babers to pull out all the stops and have Strickland try to replicate that pass tomorrow, but I’m also not gonna say he won’t. Be wary, ND defense. This clearly wasn’t a one-time thing...

Jarveon Howard is another back the Orange have gotten some strong production from this season, as he’s run for 298 yards and 6 more TD while picking up 5 yards per carry. Look for all these guys to get some run as Syracuse needs that rotation with such a high number of offensive plays run during each game.

Overall, I think Syracuse is in for something I’ll call an “eventual rude awakening.” The ND defense, as we’ve seen, typically wears opponents down and puts the clamps on in the second half. So, I think the Orange offense will come out and maybe do some good things in the early going, finding ways to move the ball against a defense trying to adjust to the heightened pace of the offense.

But, as everyone gets used to that and as the ND defense does its thing, I think we will see a lot of those key stats begin to be proven right, as ND will get to Dungey, bottle up ball carriers, and limit big gains and first downs. See the below Tim Prister tweet for some interesting stats on big plays given up by both teams’ defenses.

The Irish will hold Syracuse below their season average and make it clear that Yankee Stadium, and the state of New York, belong to ND, not Syracuse.

Offensive Orange to Watch

QB Eric Dungey

He’ll be one of the most exciting players on the field just because of what he can do with his legs and with his arm, and Syracuse needs him to play a very good, mistake-free game in order for the Orange to pull off the big upset.

NCAA Football: Louisville at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive Irish to Watch

DE Julian Okwara

Okwara is a fast, athletic, typically unblockable defensive end. Eric Dungey is a great running QB who loves throwing on the roll-out or scrambling out of the pocket. If Okwara can do well in containing him/running him down before he can do major damage, it will go a LONG way toward ND winning this thing.

Halftime Fun Facts!!!!!

Best Names in the Game

1. Notre Dame RB C’Borius Flemister

2. Syracuse DB Trill Williams

3. Syracuse HC Dino Babers

4. Syracuse DB DuWayne Johnson

5. Syracuse DB Scoop Bradshaw

6. Notre Dame TE Tommy Tremble

7. Notre Dame LB Ovie Oghoufo

8. Syracuse RB Markenzy Pierre

9. Syracuse LB Nadarius Fagan

10. Syracuse DL Shaquille Grosvenor

Honorable Mention: Syracuse DL Kingsley Jonathan, Syracuse RB Otto Zaccardo, Notre Dame LB Asmar Bilal

Quick Power Ranking: Things That Are Orange-Flavored

Pretty sure there are an infinite number of things that can be orange-flavored — and I compiled this list very late at night — so feel free to point out in the comments the hundreds of thousands of good orange-flavored things that I missed.

1. Orange Soda

2. Orange Pixy Stix

3. Orange Sour Skittles

4. Orange Chicken

5. Hi-C Orange Lavaburst

6. Orange Sour Patch Kids

7. Orange Sherbet

8. Orange Spree

9. Orange Skittles

10. Orange Starburst

11. Tang

12. Sunny Delight

13. Orange Tic Tacs

14. Orange Popsicles/Creamsicles

15. Orange Juice

16. Orange Gatorade

17. Oranges Themselves

18. Orange Kool-Aid

19. Orange Jell-O

20. Orange Gum

21. Orange Air Heads

Second to Dead Last. Orange-Infused Water

Dead Last. Orange Vodka

Orange You Glad Hux Inquired About This Topic????

In the halftime section of my Q&A article on Wednesday, friend of the program Hux was asked to talk about Syracuse, and he heavily focused on a topic that I had honestly not been introduced to before. Here’s what he said:

Hux: We need a Netflix documentary/mystery series on why Otto, the ORANGE, is hairy...I’ve never seen a hairy orange before


Sent in the GroupMe Chat by Hux

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?

Sent in the GroupMe Chat by Hux


Sent in the GroupMe Chat by Hux

Unable to procure the resources and skills necessary to make a 30 for 30 about this questionable fruit family, I’ve instead decided to quickly sketch out the likely dialogue from Maury, if this topic were ever brought to that wonderful, wonderful show:

Maury: Everyone, let’s welcome OTTO to the Maury Show!

Crowd: *cheers loudly and for way too long*

Otto: *sits in chair next to Maury looking unsettlingly happy considering where he is, and also isn’t blinking*

Maury: Now Otto has come onto today’s episode in order to figure out who his parents are, considering his orphaned, plush childhood, and also to ask why, as a kind of fruit that doesn’t typically have any hairy or furry substance on the outside, why he is so uncomfortably furry.

Otto: *Gazes silently at the crowd, nodding his large head-body and scanning everyone’s faces from his chair with that same toothless grin he’s had since the episode began*

Crowd: *oohs and aahs a bit, but are mostly unnerved by Otto, and a little worried he’s going to murder them all*

Maury: Well, Otto, today is the day you get some answers. BECAUSE TODAY WE’VE BROUGHT ONTO THE SHOW THE ORANGE YOU CLAIM IS YOUR FATHER, OBIE!!!!!

Crowd: *goes buck wild and then boos loudly as Obie waddles out on stage, grinning and only looking to his right for some reason*

Obie: *waves to the crowd, still looking to his right, and then wobbles over to his seat next to Otto*

Maury: Now Obie, Otto says he truly believes you are his father. He claims the resemblance is uncanny, and that he thinks you met his mother in Florida while Syracuse was at the 1989 Hall of Fame Bowl in Tampa, and that roughly a year later, he was born. Your thoughts?

Obie: *keeps staring to his right, which so happens to be where Otto is sitting. Otto is turned in his seat to stare silently back at him with that real creepy smile...Obie makes a motion with his hands to indicate “no way,” he is not the father *

Maury: Well, Obie, we’re about to find out if you’re lying...we did a paternity test, and are ready to reveal to you both the results.

Crowd: *goes bananas (great fruit pun here, right??)*

Maury: Obie, in the case of 28-year-old Otto the Orange, you...

~cuts to commercial~

~returns from commercial~

Maury: ...ARE the father!!!!!

Crowd: *goes berserk*

Otto: *jumps out of his chair, tries to hug Obie*

Obie: *tries to run away, has his crown torn off by Otto’s desperate grasps for his father’s yet-unprovided love and acceptance; Obie begins swinging at Otto in frustration and embarrassment now that he’s begun to peel from where his crown once sat*

Security: *lets them roll around fighting for a bit, but then breaks them up as the crowd continues to roar*

Obie and Otto: *clearly frazzled and overcome with emotion, make their way to their chairs and retake their seats*

Maury: Oranges — I know that wasn’t exactly the reunion either of you wanted, and obviously things feel unresolved here. But considering the juice is always worth the squeeze (YES ANOTHER GREAT PUN), I want you to know that we have gone to great lengths to bring you another special guest today. Please welcome...Otto’s mother!

*Roll Credits*

Where Are They Now: Marvin Harrison!!!

Folks, as someone who grew up in Indianapolis, one of my favorite athletes growing up was definitely Marvin Harrison, the NFL Hall of Fame wide receiver for the Indianapolis Colts who teamed up with Peyton Manning to provide Indy with YEARS of unbelievable pass-catching moments.

Harrison, like a few other early/mid-2000s NFL stars (Donovan McNabb, Dwight Freeney, etc.) attended Syracuse for college, playing there from 1992 through 1995.

So, considering he was such a big part of my sports fandom growing up, and since he’s relevant to this opponent, I’d like to quickly do some less-than-sufficient research (i.e. read his Wikipedia page) and tell you what’s been going on with him since his heyday:

  • Sued in a civil lawsuit by Dwight Dixon, a convicted drug dealer*, after both were shot outside Chuckie’s Garage, a North Philadelphia business owned by Harrison, in 2008. Dixon alleged that Harrison was the gunman who shot at him


  • In 2009, the Philadelphia District Attorney confirmed that the gun used was the same model as Harrison’s gun that fired shots at Dixon, but they had been unable to determine who pulled the trigger
  • Dixon, who had initially given the police a false name and claimed he was robbed by two men when interviewed at the hospital, was subsequently convicted of filing a false report for this incident
  • Later in 2009, Dixon was shot several times while in his car outside a building two blocks away from Harrison’s sports bar, Playmakers
  • At the hospital after the shooting, detectives questioned Dixon about the shooting and he stated that it stemmed from the Harrison incident years prior and that Harrison had hired a gun man to shoot him
  • An informant also made a statement asserting the gunman that killed Dixon was Lonnie Harrison, Marvin Harrison’s cousin
  • Dixon died on July 21, 2009 (from the shooting)
  • In 2010, Shaun Assael of ESPN The Magazine reported that police confiscated a 9mm handgun from Harrison during a routine traffic stop in Philadelphia. The stop occurred as Harrison drove the vehicle the wrong way on a one-way street
  • Harrison claimed he did not have a gun, but police believed they saw Harrison put what appeared to be a weapon in the console between the two front seats. They concluded they had probable cause to search the vehicle, and they found the gun. “Harrison was not charged” **

**Pat Rick Editor’s Note: Wait, what?? Assuming this is in reference to that gun not being connected to the shootings, but impossible to say without doing actual research — I refuse.

  • Another incident occurred in 2014, when Harrison narrowly escaped a Philadelphia shooting

That’s it.

That’s where Wikipedia leaves it.

And I’m definitely not about to do a bunch more research to find out what, if anything, has happened since — I’ve already spent a bunch of time writing Otto and Obie the Orange Maury Paternity Test Fan Fiction, after all. That’s more than enough.

Please, someone let us know the latest on Marvin in the comments! How many more shootings has he been involved in, and how many more cousins has he hired to kill his enemies way too close to businesses he owns????

Quick Dino Babers Tribute, Then It’s Back to the Actual Preview

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Clemson Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports
NCAA Football: ACC Football Kickoff Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports
NCAA Football: ACC Football Kickoff Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports
NCAA Football: ACC Football Kickoff Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports
NCAA Football: Central Michigan at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports
NCAA Football: ACC Football Kickoff Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports
NCAA Football: Central Michigan at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports
NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports
NCAA Football: Wake Forest at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports
NCAA Football: Clemson at Syracuse Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports
NCAA Football: Florida State at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

I LOVE this guy, and could listen to his postgame locker room speeches all day.

Seems like a great leader and guy and someone who really connects with his players.

Gonna be super tough rooting against him tomorrow. I <3 you, Dino.

Okay, back to the preview.

Notre Dame Offense vs. Syracuse Defense

On the other side of things in this game, it should be a little less evenly-matched.

Notre Dame’s offense is rated 27th in the country in the S&P+, and starting QB Ian Book is expected to start once again after a one-game hiatus last week against Florida State due to a rib injury.

Book, as you all know at this point, has been the driving force behind a total revival of Notre Dame’s offense this season, as the junior has thrown for 1,824 yards and 15 TD (and just 4 INT) in 2018, earning a 6-0 record as starter while also, ya know, just leading the ENTIRE COUNTRY in completion percentage with 74.5%.

NCAA Football: Navy vs Notre Dame Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

That could spell trouble for a Syracuse defense that’s 68th in the S&P+, 49th in pass efficiency defense, and 108th in passing yards allowed per game. The key for the Orange in overcoming those deficiencies is definitely going to be putting a little bit of pressure on Book in order to force him to rush throws or try to do too much, risking an interception.

This would be huge for Syracuse, as the Orange are #3 in the country in turnovers gained and #6 in passes intercepted, with a large group of ball-hawk DBs who have the ball skills to make QBs pay if they try to fit the ball into the wrong window.

The group is led in that turnover-forcing regard by Andre Cisco, who already has 5 interceptions and 7 passes broken up on the season, along with a forced fumble.

NCAA Football: Louisville at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

He’s joined by Chris Fredrick (3 INT), Evan Foster (1 INT, 3 PBU), and freshman Trill Williams (1 INT) as guys with a penchant for taking the ball away from opponents. Antwan Cordy has also been good this year at knocking the ball away, accumulating 3 PBU and a forced fumble. Scoop Bradshaw and Ifeatu Melifonwu round out that crew as well.

Besides Melifonwu and Williams, most of those ‘Cuse defensive backs are 6’0” or shorter, which could be an issue going up against all the size that Notre Dame will trot out at receiver. Miles Boykin (44 rec, 654 yds, 8 TD) and Chase Claypool (37 rec, 460 yds, 3 TD) are both 6’4” wideouts who could be trouble for some of Syracuse’s shorter DBs, and tight ends Alizé Mack (30 rec, 279 yds, 3 TD) and Cole Kmet are 6’5” and 6’6” respectively, giving Book a couple of huge, surprisingly mobile targets that should provide some mismatches in the middle of the field.

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

Add in small, slippery receivers like WR Chris Finke (36 rec, 442 yds, 1 TD) and RB Jafar Armstrong (12 rec, 151 yds) out of the backfield, and it’s easy to see a world in which Ian Book uses his pinpoint accuracy and plethora of targets to carve up the Syracuse secondary, especially considering that group has been plagued with injuries of late, so it’s unclear how many of them will be fully healthy for tomorrow.

Of course, Syracuse can make it much harder on him by getting a good rush, and all of that starts with DL Alton Robinson. At 6’4” and 249 pounds, Robinson isn’t exactly a behemoth, but he’s so athletic and talented that he’s been able to amass 9 sacks and 15 total tackles for loss already this season.

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

Combine his skills with guys like Kendall Coleman (7 sacks, 9 TFL, 5 QBH), Chris Slayton (3.5 sacks, 7 TFL, 5 QBH), and Kingsley Jonathan (4 sacks), and it’s pretty formidable group with a lot of great individual stats to their names.

Those guys, along with Orange linebackers like Ryan Guthrie (2 sacks, 11.5 TFL), are why Syracuse is #10 in the country in sacks and #26 in tackles for loss. It is PARAMOUNT, for Syracuse’s sake, that that group gets tons of pressure on Book and forces him out of the pocket and into rushed decisions. Without that pass rush, the Orange will struggle to shut down the Irish passing attack, which would really open things up for the ND running game as well.

That running game, which has been inconsistent all season, made a massive statement last weekend against Florida State’s only strength — its run defense. Notre Dame absolutely shredded FSU for 365 yards rushing, with 202 coming from senior running back Dexter Williams.

Williams has been unreal since his season debut against Stanford following his 4-game suspension to begin the year. He’s run for 770 yards and 10 TD in just 6 games of action, gaining 6.8 yards per carry and running for over 140 yards in 4 of those 6 contests.

His vision, cutting ability, and breakaway speed should serve him well against a Syracuse defense that is 69th in the country in rushing defense and 78th in yards allowed per attempt. The Irish’s backs all average at least 5 yards per carry, so look for Williams, Armstrong (359 yds, 5.4 ypc, 6 TD), and Tony Jones Jr. (367 yds, 5 ypc, 3 TD) to all have opportunities to move the chains tomorrow.

The Syracuse linebackers are not very strong either, especially against the run, so don’t expect Kielan Whitner (84 tackles, 2 INT), Guthrie (77 tackles), Andrew Armstrong (39 tackles, 1 INT), or Shyheim Cullen (17 tackles) to play lights out against the likes of Sam Mustipher, Williams, Armstrong, and Jones Jr.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Clemson Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Like most other middling defensive opponents the Irish have played, it’s more likely that this group will get worn down by the ND rushing attack late in the game than it is that they will shut it down the entire contest (unless, of course, Syracuse takes a decent lead early on — all bets are off, then, considering Brian Kelly and Chip Long may default into pass-a-lot mode to make up the deficit).

Overall, I think Ian Book may get hit more than he’s used to due to Syracuse’s ability to bring the heat and the ND tackles’ inability to give great protection at any time this year, but I also believe Book will keep the chains moving, Dexter and his running back boys will get plenty of productive action, and the ND offense will just keep bashing away at the Syracuse defense (and maybe even play a little keep-away from the Orange offense by running a little clock) until they burst through for key, winning scores down the stretch.

Defensive Orange to Watch

DL Alton Robinson

Syracuse MUST take Ian Book out of his comfort zone and try to force some turnovers, because that’s what their unit is built on and that’s the best way for them to limit ND’s opportunities to keep up with their offense. That effort begins and ends with Robinson and his ability to wreak havoc in the backfield.

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

Offensive Irish to Watch

QB Ian Book

This is a no-brainer. Everyone wants to know how close to 100% he is considering his ribs/kidney/torso/upper body injury. Is he 100% and could have played last week, only sitting as a precaution? Is he still a little sore, and vulnerable to big hits? I think it’s closer to the former, but the latter is not out of the question, and with the pressure Syracuse likes to get, Book might take a bit more of a beating than he usually does. Hopefully his body is ready for that.

Special Teams???

I normally say “not much to say here” in this section, but Syracuse is legitimately #1 in the country in special teams. Their kicker, Andre Szmyt,**** is 51-for-51 on the season in kicking extra points, and is a nearly-perfect 27-of-29 on field goals: he’s hit 3-of-3 from 50+ yards, 10-of-10 from 30-39 yards, and 9-of-9 from 20-29 yards. Based on his 4-for-6 number from 40-49 yards, I recommend ND tries to force him to kick from precisely that distance.

****Pat Rick Editor’s Note: I’d like to buy a vowel?

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

On top of Szmyt’s fantastic kicking season, the rest of the Orange’s special teams units are all just incredibly sound. They’re 16th in the country in net punting (P Sterling Hofrichter is 23rd in the country in average yards per punt), 4th in kick return defense, and 11th in punt returns (1 TD each from Sean Riley and Trill Williams — and Riley leads the nation in average punt return yardage).

So, to say all of that scares me is an understatement. ND has been BAD on special teams (54th in S&P+ ratings, but it feels like worse), surrendering multiple kick return TDs, having a punt blocked, etc. It should be interesting to see if the Orange are able to use this special advantage to flip the field effectively and maybe get a huge, momentum-shifting play or two that pushes their upset bid over the top.

Just for comparison’s sake, ND P Tyler Newsome is 13th in the country in punting, so he’s actually been better than Hofrichter this season. Justin Yoon is 35-for-36 on extra points and 12-of-16 on field goals this year, so not quite Szmyt-level, but also pretty solid.

Alright, Let’s Predict the Result of This One

Syracuse is probably the second-best team the Irish have on their schedule this year. That’s a sentence I did NOT think, at the beginning of the season, that I would write in 2018. But their offense is very good with lots of talented skill guys, and their defense has the pass rushing and turnover-inducing capabilities that could really swing the game in their favor — along with their substantial special teams advantage, which could put it over the top.

With that said, I just think Notre Dame is much closer to Clemson in terms of talent/efficiency levels than they are to the teams Syracuse has been scoring 40-50 points on, and so the Irish defense will do a pretty good job slowing down the Orange tomorrow, what with the speed, football IQ, and athleticism at Clark Lea’s disposal this year.

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

On top of that, I don’t think Ian Book will get hurt like Trevor Lawrence did in Syracuse’s near-defeat of Clemson (KNOCK ON WOOD SO MUCH), so the ND offense will likely be firing on all cylinders once again against a defense that could force a turnover or two, but will also likely be caught getting too aggressive/taking too many risks, and guys like Boykin and Williams and Claypool and Mack will make them pay.

The Irish and Orange will play a close one for a while, but the second half will once again prove to be the time that ND separates itself from a lesser opponent.

Notre Dame 38, Syracuse 27

Agree? Disagree? Chime in below in the comments to tell us your own predictions for the game and its happenings!!!!