It’s Orange(men) Week!
We’re just a quarter of the way through the 2016 season, and I don’t think anyone other than the perennial naysayers could have predicted a 1-3 start to the season for the Fighting Irish. With no chance at the playoffs, or even a top-tier bowl game, the Irish need to find a way to turn their season around and build some momentum going forward. Their ability to do so will, in large measure, depend on how well the defense steps up and buys into the change made following the loss to Duke, with the firing of Brian VanGorder, someone who seems to have had the respect of a great number of the defensive players. Greg Hudson has stepped in to assume the defensive coordinator responsibilities, but Coach Kelly has stated that he’ll have a role in shaping the defense, and reports from the Irish practices have been that Coach Kelly has taken a much more hands on approach to coaching the defense up this week. It’s anyone’s guess as to what effect the necessary shake-up to the coaching staff will have, or whether we’ll see the sought after energy and intensity on both sides of the ball from the Irish this week, but one thing we can be sure of is that if the Irish continue to struggle, the return of the fire-breathing purple-faced Kelly won’t be far behind.
Following Notre Dame’s 38-35 loss to unranked Duke, the Irish fell to a record of 1-3, and fired Brian VanGorder, their Defensive Coordinator. With Greg Hudson taking over Defensive Coordinator responsibilities, and Brian Kelly getting more involved on the defensive side of the ball, the Irish will look to snap a two game losing streak. Syracuse comes into the game with a 2-2 record following a 31-24 win over UConn. Led by first year Head Coach, Dino Babers, the Orange(men) are looking to get their first win over Notre Dame since 2008.
This will be just the eighth meeting between Notre Dame and Syracuse, in a series dating back to 1914. Notre Dame holds a slight 4-3 edge in the series, including a 31-15 win over Syracuse in 2015, the last meeting between the two schools.
Players To Watch
Notre Dame has scored 20 touchdowns through the first four games of the season, with Kizer being responsible for 16 of those touchdowns, 11 passing and 5 rushing. With back to back 300+ yard games, Kizer’s now thrown for 1096 yards, and is also the team’s second leading rusher with 186 yards on the ground. Kizer has had some shaky play over the last few game, especially last week against Duke were he lost a fumble and threw an interception. Despite those miscues, Kizer went 22-37 for 381 yards, 2 TD and 1 INT, with 60 net rushing yards and 1 TD on the ground, in Notre Dame’s losing effort against Duke.
Following the loss to Duke, Coach Kelly had praise for just one player, Dexter Williams, who Kelly said was the only one who played with any energy against Duke. Williams only had 5 carries in the game, but he made the most of them with a 13 yard TD run. He’s played sparingly in just two games this season, but he’s run for a touchdown in each of them, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see an increase in touches for Williams going forward.
After the loss to Duke, Coach Kelly promised to evaluate every position, and that no position (except for the long snapper) was safe. Well, if anyone’s position deserved to be safe on the defensive side of the ball, it would be Morgan’s. He’s played with consistency in each of the first four games from his middle linebacker position, and he’s been one of the few bright spots on the Irish defense. He leads the team with 37 tackles, and finally ended Notre Dame’s 3 game sack drought against Duke.
Players To Watch
Eric Dungey (QB)
Dungey is receiving treatment for an undisclosed injury, and Coach Babers won’t comment on his status for Saturday’s game, but the consensus seems to be that he’ll lead the Orange(men) against Notre Dame this Saturday. That means that the Irish will be facing the 6th leading passer in the country who has passed for 350+ yards in three games already this season, with a total of 1,367 yards passing yards, 9 TDs, and 3 INTS on the season. In Syracuse’s last game against UConn, Dungey went 26 of 40 for 407 yards and 2 TDs through the air, and had 1 rushing TD, as well.
Amba Etta-Jawo (WR)
Etta-Tawo, a senior grad transfer from Maryland has played just four games for the Orange(men), and he’s already surpassed his previous season high numbers, across the board. In his best season at Maryland, he had 31 receptions for 500 yards and 2 TDs. Through four games this season, he has 40 receptions for a 706 yards and 5 TDs; he’s ranked fourth in the country in receptions, first in the country in receiving yards, and fifth in the country in receiving touchdowns. His most productive game of the season came just last week against UConn where he torched the Huskies for 270 yards receiving and 2 TDs on 12 catches.
Fighting Irish Keys To Victory
Cut Down On Mistakes
The easy mistakes to point to are the dozens of missed tackles on the Irish defense, and even special teams, that we witness every game, but against Duke, Notre Dame turned the ball over three times, as well, and two of those turnovers led to scoring drives for the Blue Devils, one touchdown and one field goal. Add on the missed 42 yard field goal attempt by Justin Yoon, and it’s easy to see how the Irish let the game slip away from them. With the defense already on their heels most of the time, even on drives starting deep in their opponents’ own territory, giving any team a short field to work with is a recipe for disaster. Against a high-tempo offense like Syracuse, the Irish are going to need to play a nearly mistake free game with respect to turnovers and giving up field position, if they’re going to have any chance to leave the Meadowlands (still doesn’t sound right calling it MetLife…) with a win.
It’s basic, it’s fundamental; it’s something the Irish defense has not done a very good job at so far this season. Some sites that track advanced stats have the Irish with 24 missed tackles against Texas, 11 missed tackles against Michigan St., and 9 missed tackles against Duke, but, to be honest, the missed tackle stats, at least for Michigan St. and Duke seem…low. Regardless, it’s an area that the Irish need to improve upon, especially against a high-tempo offense like Syracuse runs.
Adjust To Syracuse Offensive Tempo
Speaking of that high tempo Syracuse offense, it’s the one area of this game that really gives me an uneasy feeling. The Irish defense has struggled against every offense they’ve faced, except for Nevada, and they’ve yet to see an offense that plays at such a staggering pace. Syracuse averages 86 plays per game, which ranks them in the top 4 in the country; that average was dragged down by a 66 play effort last week against Uconn. Against Colgate, in their season opener, they ran 81 plays, ran 93 plays the in their loss to Louisville, and a whopping 105 plays (for 549 yards) in a defeat to South Florida. Coach Kelly has expressed his intention to get more players involved on the defensive side of the ball, but Syracuse’s high tempo offense will pose a serious challenge to doing so, and Notre Dame’s success in substituting fresh players in on defense, or their lack thereof, could be the deciding factor in this game.
This is a game that, unfortunately, will likely give the Irish, and their fans, fits. Notre Dame should be able to score against Syracuse, which is good, but I’m not yet convinced that a hopefully re-energized Irish defense can have rebounded enough in just one week’s time to make this anything other than yet another nail-biting game for Notre Dame. The Irish will need some late game heroics out of DeShone Kizer, and this time he won’t come up short.
Final Score: Notre Dame 45 – Syracuse 38