Spring Update: Syracuse

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In the first game of Notre Dame’s ACC scheduling pact, the Irish will face Syracuse, a somewhat familiar opponent in recent years. The Irish and the Orange have only faced off six times in the programs’ histories, but three of those games took place in the aughts (or whatever we’re calling the 2000-09), with Syracuse winning two of three.

Much has changed in the past decade for the Syracuse football program. After becoming one of the premier teams in the Big East behind Paul Pasqualoni and the offensive firepower of Donovan McNabb, things have trended downward in the Carrier Dome. The hiring of Greg Robinson was a disaster, winning just three conference games in his four seasons. And just as Doug Marrone got the Orange on track, he left to run the Buffalo Bills after an 8-5 season in 2012.

Syracuse decided to hire from within when they replaced Marrone, promoting defensive coordinator Scott Shafer. And with a 7-6 season under his belt that ended with a promising win over Minnesota in the Texas Bowl, things look to be on the upswing.

Giving us an update on Notre Dame’s September opponent in Syracuse football blogger John Cassillo, from the wonderfully named website Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician. He was nice enough to spend some time talking about the state of the Orangemen (and also nice enough not to bring up the 2008 game).

 

Scott Shafer finished his first season at Syracuse with one more win than loss, thanks to a bowl victory over Minnesota. How was the decision to replace Doug Marrone with Shafer viewed by Syracuse fans? Has that opinion changed after one season?

The initial reaction for a lot of fans was “betrayal.” Considering Doug was one of our own, we kind of expected him to stick around for awhile (or at least beyond two winning seasons in four years). This is a condition created by the very long tenure of fellow SU alum Jim Boeheim, who as you all know, has coached our basketball team since 1976 (we’re aware this is our own issue to deal with). We liked Shafer at first because he allowed for staff continuity (Marrone did take most of our old staff with him to the NFL) and helped keep enough recruits in the fold — while also grabbing plenty of new ones — to keep our 2013 class intact. After one year with Shafer, though, I think we all sort of love the guy now. He’s incredibly personable, loves our tradition, our campus, the city of Syracuse and the kids he recruits. He treats us like family, and in return, we’ve done the same.

 

It sure looks like Terrel Hunt has taken control of the quarterback job. Is he the answer for the Orange offense? What’s the ceiling on Hunt’s talent? Is he the engine for the Syracuse offense?

Hunt, like most quarterbacks, is going to steer the ship for this offense, so yeah, we’re rising and falling based on his ability to step up. Last season saw both extremes of his talent, but with a very strong finish — big numbers while winning games against both Boston College and Minnesota — I believe he’s turned a corner and is the answer for us. His ceiling depends just as much on him as his supporting cast. If the O-line holds up and our other offensive playmakers take some steps forward, it should allow him to make plays at will, both on the ground and through the air. I’m not delusional enough to think he’s a Heisman candidate before his career’s up, but don’t be surprised to hear he’s one of the top senior QBs in the country when it’s all said and done.

 

The rest of the offense looks poised to take a leap forward. Jerome Smith needs to be replaced at running back, but there’s returning depth along the offensive line and at wide receiver. The scoring offense barely ranked 99th in the country. Are brighter days ahead?

Last year’s offense was… rough. But yeah, I think we’re going to see some better results this season. Hunt has a year under his belt, we return four of five offensive linemen and the only notable skill position players we’re without this year are Beckett Wales and Jerome Smith, who both graduated. Couple all that with offensive coordinator George McDonald having a full year of play-calling behind him too, and things could come together pretty nicely in 2014. The coaching staff has promised that the offense will pick up the pace this year, now we just have to hope that means picking up the rate of red zone execution as well. If Hunt gets a solid handle on throwing the deep ball (and you saw it improve by the end of last season), this offense could be a bit dangerous.

 

Defensively, there seems to be a lot of talent returning, though finding a replacement for Marquis Spruill will be vital. How will Chuck Bullough’s defense be?

Spruill was incredibly important, don’t get me wrong. But the most vital piece of our defense was defensive tackle Jay Bromley, who’s now a member of the New York Giants. So if anything, we’re looking to fill the void on the defensive line and figure out a way to generate the same type of pressure without him. As far as replacing Spruill, linebacker has become somewhat of a strength for this defense — a point only hammered home by Bullough’s own experience at the position. Dyshawn Davis and Cam Lynch were starters last year and bring back a ton of experience at the two outside linebacker spots. They should also help out whoever wins the middle linebacker role, as they’ll likely have a bit of a learning curve to start the year. That position is likely going to either Luke Arciniega (who’s been injured all spring) or Marqez Hodge, but honestly, they could end up splitting time as well to keep them both fresh. The defense, overall, will once again rise and fall with its front-seven, though expect some addition by subtraction with some new faces in the secondary (plus an improved Durell Eskridge).

 

Is there an offensive playmaker that Irish fans should look out for? How about on the defensive side of the ball?

On offense, Brisley Estime really came on at the H-Back spot late last year, and the speedy sophomore will likely do so again this season — expect this time, for a full year. Between him and Ashton Broyld, it should be quite a challenge stopping our incessant screen passes — which we’re still going to call close to 50 percent of the time. On defense, I mentioned Eskridge, but it’s worth expanding on him a bit. He’s a ball hawk at safety, who hits hard, tackles harder and might have the most pro potential of any starter on that unit. He was injured for the last couple games of 2013, but should be back at full speed this season and will be an impact player.

 

What’s the best case / worst case scenario for the Orange’s record in 2014?

Whether best- or worst-case, I actually think Syracuse’s game against Notre Dame should be telling for the rest of the season. Win, and the sky’s the limit (and by “sky” I mean, 9-3). Lose a close game, and we’re still on track for 7-5 or so. Get blown out, and suddenly, 6-6 or worse could be on the table. SU’s had one of the toughest schedules in the country for years now, and this season’s is really no different. I’ve already chalked up FSU and Clemson as losses in any scenario, with Notre Dame and Duke very likely defeats. But the rest? I’m not really worried the Orange are out-manned against any other opponent. So yeah, best-case is probably eight or nine regular season wins. And worst-case would be a five-win campaign that was derailed by injuries. Considering I was on campus during the Greg Robinson era, the fact that I can say five wins are a worst-case scenario is still miraculous to me. But the program has recovered from that tragic coaching tenure, and with luck, the rest of the country will finally start to see that with the product on the field this season.

***

You can find more from John at both Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician and on Twitter @JohnCassillo.

QB Wimbush & Notre Dame RBs healthy; LB Martini not

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After a week off from most football activities last week and a week off from schoolwork due to fall break this week, No. 13 Notre Dame is near full health for its primetime matchup with No. 11 USC on Saturday.

“We had six days of not being in contact situations after the North Carolina game,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “You get the physical rest and then you get the mental rest this week, without having to be in the classroom. It’s clearly a benefit, not only for this game, but the next five games after this.”

Most notably, junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush has recovered from a grade one right foot strain.

“There are no questions about his health so we can put that to rest,” Kelly said. “He’s 100 percent.”

All of the Irish running backs should be past any ankle concerns, as well. Junior Josh Adams was battling two “cranky” ankles as Notre Dame finished the first half of its season, while junior Dexter Williams missed the victory at North Carolina due to a sprained ankle, just as sophomore Tony Jones did a week earlier against Miami (OH).

The bye week brought one new injury, though. Senior linebacker and captain Greer Martini injured his knee in practice, a status Kelly deemed “day-to-day.” Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated reports the meniscus injury could sideline Martini into November.

Martini and junior Te’von Coney have split time to date, complementing seniors Nyles Morgan and Drue Tranquill in the linebacker unit. With Martini potentially missing time, Coney will naturally receive more. He has already made 42 tackles this season, trailing only Morgan (by two) and ahead of Martini by three.

Kelly also ruled out an in-season return from Elijah Taylor. The junior tackle suffered a Lisfranc fracture during spring practice.

On Kevin Stepherson
The bye week may have benefited sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson the most. He missed the season’s first four games and had not contributed much in the subsequent two, catching just one pass for a loss of three yards. A year ago, Stepherson caught 25 passes for 462 yards and five touchdowns.

Kelly attributed some of Stepherson’s struggles upon his return to a version of rust from inactivity.

“What we saw was somebody that needed to get reintroduced into the game and get back up to game speed, game conditioning,” Kelly said. “It was preseason for him in a lot of ways.”

With more time focused on those aspects, Kelly said he expects Stepherson’s role to increase in the season’s second half.

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Navy falls, dropping undefeateds to only Georgia and Miami (FL)

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One of the three heretofore remaining undefeated opponents on Notre Dame’s schedule fell this weekend, largely due to its own mistakes. All in all, Irish opponents went 7-4 but are expected to go 3-5 this coming weekend, not counting Notre Dame’s matchup with USC.

Temple (3-4): The Owls were favored by 9.5 points, but gifted a 28-24 win to Connecticut. Two separate Temple turnovers provided half of the Huskies scoring. A fumble set up a two-play, nine-yard Connecticut touchdown drive, and an interception courtesy of Owls junior quarterback Logan Marchi was returned for a touchdown. Interceptions continue to plague Marchi’s debut campaign as a starter. He has now thrown nine in the last four games.

If he can avoid such a mistake at Army this weekend (12 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network), perhaps Temple can overcome its six-point underdog status. A combined point total over/under of 49.5 indicates an expected final of 28-21.

Georgia (7-0): The Bulldogs ran right by Missouri, to the tune of a 53-28 score and 370 rushing yards on 51 attempts, part of an offensive explosion of 696 total yards. No Georgia rusher gained more than 100 yards, while six ran for at least 30, and freshman quarterback Jake Fromm completed 18 of 26 passes for 326 yards and three touchdowns. All in all, the Bulldogs had possession for a whopping 39:36.

Georgia certainly does not need a break, but it gets one this weekend, anyway.

Boston College (3-4): The Eagles finally came out ahead in a tough game against one of the ACC’s better teams, topping Louisville 45-42. The shootout was certainly unexpected: The over/under was a mere 57 points.

Boston College’s record does not do its season justice. The Eagles played Notre Dame close into the second half, hung with Clemson into the fourth quarter and were never phased by Virginia Tech. They just could not put together a complete performance.

Thanks largely to running back AJ Dillon, that changed this weekend. Dillon ran for 272 yards and four touchdowns on 39 carries, most notably including this piece of disrespect:

A quietly-solid Virginia awaits Boston College (12:30 p.m. ET, ACC Network). The Cavaliers are favored by seven with an over/under of 48.5. Quick math hints at a 28-21 conclusion. It is awfully tempting to put some faith in the Eagles in that situation.

Michigan State (5-1): The Spartans’ 30-27 win at Minnesota was not as close as the field-goal margin implies. The Gophers put together two touchdown drives in the final six minutes to turn a blowout into a paper’s version of a tight contest.

Michigan State running back LJ Scott finally broke loose, taking 25 carries for 194 yards and two touchdowns. The Spartans needed his solid performance to help cover up three turnovers. They got away with those mistakes against Minnesota, and may be able to this weekend against Indiana (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC) and next week at Northwestern, but such mishaps would likely prove crippling vs. Penn St or at Ohio State in November.

Michigan State is favored by seven against the Hoosiers, with an over/under of 44 pointing toward a 25-19 result. It should not be that close, unless Indiana follows the Gophers’ example with late, meaningless scores.

Miami (OH) (2-5): This is not the season Chuck Martin expected. Without starting quarterback Gus Ragland, the RedHawks fell 17-14 to Kent State, one of the MAC’s two bottom-dwellers. Miami already lost to the other, Bowling Green, just a week ago.

Junior backup quarterback Billy Bahl completed 12 of 29 passes for 174 yards, throwing two touchdowns along with two interceptions.

Martin and the RedHawks will look to save this escaping season against Buffalo (2:30 p.m. ET, Watch ESPN). Favored by three, they would be grateful to be on the right side of a 26-23 afternoon.

North Carolina (1-6): The Tar Heels lost 2017 continued with a 20-14 defeat to Virginia. In this week’s illustration of just how dismal the day was for North Carolina, it managed all of 46 passing yards. The Tar Heels’ next viable hope of a win comes after a trip to Virginia Tech (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2) and a weekend with Miami (FL). A bye will then precede a Thursday journey to Pittsburgh. That may also be their last legitimate chance of an FBS-level victory this season.

The Hokies are favored by 21 points and will likely exceed that and a hypothetical 36-15 margin.

Junior quarterback Sam Darnold leads a talented USC offense into Notre Dame this coming weekend. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)

USC (6-1): The Trojans slipped past Utah 28-27, stopping a Utes’ two-point conversion attempt in the final minute. The win should set up USC to cruise to the Pac-12 title game. Junior quarterback Sam Darnold threw for 358 yards and three touchdowns on 27-of-50 passing. Perhaps more importantly, he did not throw any interceptions, though the Trojans did lose three fumbles.

Running back Ronald Jones took 17 carries for 111 yards and a score.

USC visits Notre Dame (7:30 p.m. ET, NBC) as a 3.5-point underdog. A 31-28 Saturday night would hardly leave anyone lamenting a lack of entertainment.

North Carolina State (6-1): The Wolfpack made it six victories in a row after its season opening one-possession loss to South Carolina. North Carolina State’s defense led the way in the 35-17 win at Pittsburgh, holding the Panthers to 95 rushing yards on 32 attempts. Pittsburgh managed only 5.1 yards per pass attempt and converted just four of 15 third down attempts.

The Wolfpack now enjoys a bye before traveling to South Bend for what could be a top-15 matchup filled with national implications.

Wake Forest (4-2): The Demon Deacons had the week off and undoubtedly used it to prepare for Georgia Tech’s triple-option attack (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU). The Yellow Jackets enjoy nearly a touchdown’s advantage per bookmakers’ projections, prevailing in those views by something akin to 27-21.

Miami kicker Michael Badgley hit the winning field goal in the Hurricanes 25-24 victory over Georgia Tech. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Miami (FL) (5-0): The good news: The Hurricanes again used a last-minute, drama-filled drive to notch a winning score.

The obvious news: Beating Georgia Tech should never be taken for granted.

The forward-looking news: Miami has only one genuine ACC challenge left, Nov. 4 vs. Virginia Tech, meaning an undefeated conference slate and a regular season as a whole are both distinct possibilities. That contest will also likely determine if the Hurricanes bring an unblemished record into their matchup with Notre Dame a week later.

The bad news: This week’s opponent, Syracuse, could not be much more confident after beating No. 2 Clemson on Friday. Nonetheless, Miami is favored by 15 with an over/under of 57.5. Here’s an eye on more points than a 36-21 result includes.

Navy (5-1): The Midshipmen rushed for 314 yards on 68 carries against Memphis. That can cover up most anything, but not, apparently, five turnovers. Maybe four, but not five, as the Tigers topped Navy 30-27 thanks to those repeated giveaways.

Navy travels to Central Florida (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network) staring a two-game losing streak in the face as eight-point underdogs. An over/under of 66 points to a 37-29 final.

Stanford (5-2): Oregon was missing its starting quarterback, and it showed. The Ducks threw for only 33 passing yards in a 49-7 loss to the Cardinal. Stanford quarterback Keller Chryst threw for 181 yards and three touchdowns on 15-of-21 passing while junior running back Bryce Love ran for only 147 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries.

Stanford takes its second bye of the year this weekend, since it started the season a week early overseas.

Questions for the Week: Wimbush’s health & the unpredictability of college football

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How was your weekend off? Did you catch up on some sleep? Perhaps rake those leaves you had been ignoring?

Of course you didn’t, but let’s pretend you did. And as you did, you kept asking yourself …

Will Brandon Wimbush be healthy enough to start against USC? Actually, skip the enough. Will he be back to 100 percent?
No one in this space should play doctor, so offering insights on the recovery time from a grade one foot strain would be duplicitous and likely inaccurate. Rather, let’s turn to the most trustworthy of sources … Twitter.

The Notre Dame football account (@NDFootball) posted a video Thursday morning opening with Wimbush rolling a few steps and throwing a pass. Presumably, the footage was from a Wednesday afternoon practice.

To say the clip is brief is to say bacon tastes good. Nonetheless, the Irish administrators even allowing the inclusion of the junior quarterback in the video is noteworthy. If he was distinctly limited, there is no chance that would have been showcased.

For now, presume Wimbush to be healthy. By the time kickoff comes Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET, NBC), he will have had nearly exactly three full weeks of recovery time. If Wimbush is not at 100 percent, he should be close to it. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly will inevitably discuss as much during his Tuesday press conference.

Wimbush will be needed against the Trojans. Sophomore quarterback Ian Book played well — or at least well enough, and there’s that pesky e-word again — to lead the Irish past North Carolina, but Wimbush’s playmaking could be the key to getting past USC. The difference between the two is that simple.

During the bye week, was there any depth chart movement?
If there is a time for more-than-minimal reshuffling of the depth chart, it is during the midseason week off. When a team is 5-1 courtesy of a plus-139 scoring margin, moving things around may seem counterintuitive. On some level it is. On another, though, finding a way to get junior cornerback Shaun Crawford on the field even more often would seem a wise decision. Conceivably, moving sophomore Julian Love to safety alongside junior Nick Coleman would create that opening for Crawford.

Two disclaimers here: One, this is mere speculation. Two, the answer to this may actually wait until after kickoff, running contrary to this piece’s weekly theme, but it is also possible it could show up in the depth chart before then.

Will high-flying Syracuse hand Miami (FL) its first loss two weeks before Notre Dame gets the chance to?
It is still a touch difficult to believe. Underdogs by 23.5 points, the Orange beat No. 2 Clemson on Friday, 27-24. Anyone claiming to have seen that coming can go ahead and check the mirror to see how much their nose just grew.

This space certainly did not expect it. In retrospect, this pondering of Clemson’s fate in the College Football Playoff published Friday morning rings particularly prescient now, even if unwittingly so: “A still-proving-himself quarterback (Clemson’s Kelly Bryant) doubts himself and makes another mistake …”

For that matter, only a few paragraphs later, this space predicted Washington State would cruise past Cal on Friday night. Care to guess what did not happen?

With all that in mind, Syracuse overcoming a 14-point spread to beat Miami (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) is a possibility to be recognized. The Orange have the momentum, if nothing else. The Hurricanes, meanwhile, are getting by with nothing to spare, winning each of the last two weekends on last-minute drives hinging on extremely difficult catches.

Will Navy respond to its first loss with a renewed focus on the AAC title?
The Midshipmen host undefeated Central Florida at 3:30 p.m. ET on CBS Sports Network. Favored by seven, the Knights are likely to thoroughly dampen any Naval hopes of winning the American Athletic Conference a year after getting routed in the title game. In falling to Memphis this past weekend, Navy obviously lost the tiebreaker in the AAC West, but knocking off Central Florida would keep the Midshipmen in the mix.

Speaking of which, how will Memphis fare Thursday night at Houston?
A three-point spread in Houston’s favor indicates Memphis could fall behind Navy in the AAC standings before the Midshipmen even face Central Florida. If nothing else, the Tigers and Cougars will fill up the scoreboard (8 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Bye Week Primer: What to watch & what to read

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This is Notre Dame’s bye week. Any “Who, what, when, where, why and by how much” ponderings do not really apply this week. Instead, it comes down to “What to watch” and “What to read.”

Partly due to the Irish not playing, there are no top-25 matchups this weekend. There are, however, still a handful of good games. If spending this fall Saturday indoors with football on the screen, consider these options:

12 p.m. ET on ESPN2 — Florida State at Duke. A loss here would just about put a wrap on the Seminoles’ season.
3:30 p.m. ET on ABC — Georgia Tech at No. 11 Miami (FL). The triple option is one of worthwhile two hurdles standing between the Hurricanes and meeting Notre Dame undefeated. The other comes the week immediately prior that game, when Miami hosts Virginia Tech.
3:30 p.m. ET on Big Ten Network — Purdue at No. 7 Wisconsin. If watching the triple option hurts your senses, perhaps turn toward the Midwest. Boilermakers head coach Jeff Brohm will be determined not to let this turn into a typical Big Ten rock fight.
3:45 p.m. ET on ESPNU — No. 25 Navy at Memphis. Again considering an Irish outlook, if the Midshipmen can get past the Tigers, they will have only one more difficult contest (next week vs. Central Florida) before traveling to Notre Dame. Those two games could lead to two Navy losses or they could lead to a rolling 9-0 entrance to South Bend.
8 p.m. ET on ABC — Utah at No. 13 USC. Utah may not be ranked, but this is essentially a top-25 game and certainly a Pac-12 indicator. In addition to that, the Trojans will be looking to build momentum before the primetime tilt with the Irish next weekend.
10:30 p.m. ET on CBS Sports Network — Boise State at No. 19 San Diego State. Do not let the time, the network or the school names fool you. This very well could be the best game this weekend.
11:00 p.m. ET on FS1 — Oregon at No. 23 Stanford. The Cardinal are still in the thick of the race for the Pac-12 North Division, but a loss to the Ducks would change that.

THIS WEEK’S INSIDE THE IRSH READING:
Monday Afternoon Leftovers: Notre Dame has already exceeded many of 2016’s totals
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Second half of schedule continues to look even more impressive
A statistical look at Notre Dame’s offense through six games compared to the past
Notre Dame’s defense has limited scoring, but what keys have led to that?
A Notre Dame Bye Week Mailbag: On bowls, momentum & passing game struggles
Friday at 4: 40 predictions updated & 4 more for the next six weeks

INSIDE THE IRISH COVERAGE FROM THE NORTH CAROLINA GAME
Notre Dame stifles North Carolina throughout 33-10 victory
Things We Learned: Notre Dame can turn to Book, though may prefer not to
Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Recover, relax, recruit and ready for USC (and Navy)

THIS WEEK’S OUTSIDE READING:
538 gives Notre Dame an 11 percent chance of finishing 11-1
ESPN’s midseason All-America team
Oregon State head coach Gary Andersen said he would walk away from $12.6 million and he did just that
The NCAA formed a commission to look into the current college basketball scandal. It is led by Condoleezza Rice and also has Notre Dame. Pres. Fr. John Jenkins on it.