Notre Dame will look to wrap up a perfect regular season on Saturday as they take on the Syracuse Orange on Senior Day. Led by elite play from Ian Book and a defense that has yet to be solved, the Irish are playing their best football at just the right time for what hopes to be a long postseason run. Before we get there, there’s business that needs to be taken care of and we have all the key stats you need to know for the season finale. For an explanation of the stats that will be used in this preview, please follow this link to our analytics primer.
This is by far the worst offense Notre Dame will face all season, and this is a case where the traditional stats tell you everything you need to know. The Orange throw for 4.9 yards and -0.31 EPA/drop back and average 3.8 yards and -0.28 EPA/rush. They rank 116th or below in EPA, success rate, first down rate, and yards both throwing and passing. There just is not really much talent on the offensive side of the ball and it’s going to be a long day as they face Clark Lea and a Notre Dame defense that has a Top 30 pass defense and a Top 10 run defense by EPA/play allowed.
Syracuse’s top and most efficient offensive weapon is Taj Harris, and he’s only been decent with a PFF grade above 70 and an average 0.42 EPA/Target. To put that in context, Braden Lenzy has averaged 0.4 EPA this season, and his performance hasn’t kept any defensive coordinators up at night as he works through a hamstring injury. Syracuse’s next most targeted player is Anthony Queeley, and he’s averaging a pedestrian 0.19 EPA and 5.9 yards/target. They can not compensate for their poor pass game with a dominant rushing attack since running backs Sean Tucker and Cooper Lutz have averaged -0.19 and -0.17 EPA/carry, respectively.
The team’s quarterback play has not raised any of these areas. They’ve tried three different quarterbacks this season in Tommy Devito, Rex Culpepper, and Jacobian Morgan but none have been able to produce even average offense. Devito began the season as the starter and actually posted a decent PFF grade of 74.3, but the production was not there. He averaged -0.42 EPA/drop back and has since been lost for the year due to injury. Morgan is the same story, putting up a 64 PFF grade but a -0.4 EPA/drop back as he works through his own injuries. While they are by no means great college quarterbacks, their struggles are more indicative of the lack of talented skill players Syracuse has given the disparity between their production and PFF grades. Rex Culpepper, the likely starter on Saturday, has just been bad, to put it frankly. While he has been more efficient than his counterparts, he is still only throwing for -0.2 EPA/drop back, has a completion percentage under 50%, and has a PFF passing grade of 33.6. For reference, 60 is considered replacement level. When considering how Clark Lea’s defense contained a future NFL quarterback last weekend this Syracuse team has no chance on the offensive side of the ball unless Notre Dame turns it over multiple times deep in their own territory, and even then it’s probably not enough.
Syracuse’s defense has not been the reason they struggle. While not elite they are certainly an above average group, ranking 48th in EPA/pass allowed and 69th in EPA/rush allowed. Ian Book and this Notre Dame offense is playing at too high of a level right now to make this remotely competitive. From the Clemson game on, Book has the 8th highest PFF grade and has a higher passing grade than Mac Jones, Sam Howell, Justin Fields, and Trevor Lawrence. He’s been playing like an elite quarterback and as long as he continues to do so, it’s going to be tough to stop him without an elite defense.
Kyren Williams’ efficiency continues to take a dive, but it’s not because of his play. The Irish are too willing to run into stacked boxes and need to alter their running philosophy. It can work if they want to continue with a run-heavy approach, but they have to create situations where they have the numbers advantage at the line of scrimmage by spreading the field.
Notre Dame is more efficient throwing than running on all downs, and if Book wasn’t playing like a 1st Round pick these last few weeks, there’s a good chance the run-first strategy would have burned them in one of these games. Williams had a PFF grade above 80 against North Carolina but averaged negative EPA/Carry because he had to run into 8, 9, and 10 man boxes. Just imagine what he could do if those turn into lighter defensive fronts.
Syracuse’s offense will not be able to put up points. They just simply don’t have the talent and are facing a defense performing at too high of a level to form any credible threat. While Notre Dame’s margin will be comfortable they might not cover a spread that has jumped out to 34 points. This is because Notre Dame still deploys a run-heavy attack that can limit scoring opportunities, and Syracuse has a decent defense that may keep this game from getting completely out of hand (under 50 points). For those reasons, we’re predicting a 41-10 Notre Dame win, one where the Irish are never really threatened but fall just short of covering the spread.