Win September. Sounds easy enough, but Notre Dame has only started 4-0 a dozen times since 1970 and just twice since the turn of the century. But by beating Syracuse on Saturday night the Irish have a chance to enter the most difficult stretch of their season on a perfect role.
Brian Kelly utilized his bye week to practice his young team hard, a rarity for the head coach. But with position shifts along the offensive line and a beat-up roster forcing youth into action, Kelly and his staff were still evaluating their personnel, making the early week off an opportunity for self-assessment.
“I think we found out a little bit more about our football strengths and weaknesses,” Kelly said Thursday. “So, I think we addressed some of what we felt were some apparent weaknesses as we move forward and that we’re gonna play to some of our strengths.”
Notre Dame’s first road test is in familiar confines. Heading back to the New York metropolitan area to take on the Orange, they’ll play an away game in front of a crowd that very well could be pro-Notre Dame.
Here comes the Pregame Six Pack. As usual, here are six tidbits, fun facts, leftovers or miscellaneous musings before Notre Dame battles Syracuse in another primetime affair.
As Notre Dame and Syracuse reunite in 2014, 100 years ago their battle help put the Irish on the national map.
With Notre Dame and Syracuse playing for the first time since 2008, it’s worth taking a quick look back at the six previous games between the two programs. While they’ve come mostly in clusters (a two-game series in ’61 and ’63, three games in ’03, 05 and ’08), the first meeting a century ago is a game of some historical importance.
Notre Dame historian Jim Lefebvre took a look back at the game, where Jesse Harper brought his team east looking for a battle, and emerged with a program-defining 20-0 win over a Syracuse squad that had stomped Michigan.
From Jim’s research:
The 1914 Notre Dame team traveled to Syracuse and beat The Orange 20-0 to solidify ND’s place among the football powers.
Notre Dame’s trajectory as a team that would play anyone, anywhere was set in 1913. After his hiring from Wabash College as ND’s head coach and athletic director, Harper set about creating a schedule that would take his squad to faraway places that simply didn’t appear on the schedule of other teams from the Midwest…
Referee and Chicago sportswriter Walter Eckersall observed: “Notre Dame’s decisive victory over Syracuse, 20 to 0…gives the Hoosier eleven an equal claim to the western championship with Illinois and Nebraska….The South Benders played good football against Syracuse…Notre Dame’s victory over the New York eleven, the team which decisively defeated Michigan, entitles it to recognition.”
The game Saturday night might not be one of the red letter matchups on the Irish schedule this year, but it certainly carries a bit of significance.
Matching up Notre Dame’s receivers with a suspect Syracuse secondary might be a game inside the game worth watching.
An early look at the matchup points your eyes to Notre Dame’s passing attack against the Syracuse secondary. But injury and depth issues for both teams could make this one of the defining matchups of the game.
Syracuse has lost defensive back Wayne Morgan for the game, the converted corner playing a key reserve role in all three games. Notre Dame will be without starting slot receiver Amir Carlisle.
On the Irish side, that opens the door for Torii Hunter Jr., who Kelly said had an excellent week of practice.
“Torii Hunter really progressed later in the week,” Kelly said, citing a breakthrough in playing through the injury. That should open up an opportunity for the skilled sophomore receiver to utilize a skillset that’s always excited the head coach.
“He’s got sure hands, great acceleration and he’s strong,” Kelly continued. “He’s gonna be a really good player. We’ve just gotta get him out there and get him going.”
In a football game that might be closer than many suspect, cashing in points in the red zone will be critical.
Much has been made about Notre Dame’s improvement in the red zone. The Irish will need to continue that efficiency in the scoring area, a region on the field where Notre Dame has a decided advantage over Syracuse.
“We try to play our best red-zone defense possible but they are a great offense,” Orange head coach Scott Shafer said during his weekly teleconference. “They’ve been spectacular in the red zone.”
Syracuse’s offense is going to need to improve in the red zone, where they’ll be facing another stout Irish defense in the scoring area. It’s worth looking back at the success Notre Dame has had in the red zone defensively.
The Irish rank fourth nationally this year, giving up just four scores. But since Kelly arrived in South Bend, the Irish are second in FBS in the red zone, giving up just 3.7 points per red zone drive. They are the best defense since 2010 in allowing touchdowns, giving them up at just a 46-percent clip.
Shafer bemoaned a few missed scoring opportunities that tipped the scales against Maryland. He’ll be facing a tougher test this weekend.
Notre Dame’s rushing defense will face a stiff test.
It’s good versus good on the ground, with the Irish defense facing a very good rushing attack in Syracuse. With quarterback Terrel Hunt running for 7.0 yards a carry and a deep running back depth chart behind him, the Orange will be the truest test this Irish defense has faced so far. Senior back Prince-Tyson Gulley’s career 5.59 yards per carry average trails only two guys named Ernie Davis and Jim Brown. So that’s a pretty convincing sign that he’s a big play waiting to happen.
There’s a rather elegant symmetry to it all with both Notre Dame’s rushing defense and Syracuse’s running offense ranked 19th in the country. But just as the Irish have done a great job playing defense in the red zone, the ability to stop the run has been a building block of Kelly’s program.
Even with a new system and a rebuilt front seven, the Irish defense is managing to live up to the reputation, a group that since 2010 is eighth nationally in points allowed. With Syracuse’s primary offensive attack coming on the ground, it’ll be interesting to see if the Irish can live up to their stingy ways. Notre Dame trails only Alabama in rushing touchdowns allowed since 2011, making this a key early season test for a young group that’s played brilliantly so far.
A resolution is coming soon for the five suspended players. Or at least Brian Kelly thinks it is.
There’s no official comment out of Notre Dame on the suspensions of DaVaris Daniels, Eilar Hardy, Kendall Moore, KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams. But Kelly believes that there’s a chance all of this could be wrapped up by next Thursday.
“I think in talking with a couple of the players I think they have scheduled hearings next Tuesday and Wednesday,” Kelly said Thursday before leaving for New York. “I don’t have confirmation on all five. But I know from what I hear first hand I know Tuesday and Wednesday. I’m hearing second hand that they’re trying to get them all wrapped up by Thursday of next week.”
That’s not to say that all five would be made available to play football, or that they’ll be allowed to. But Kelly did give consideration into allowing them to practice and attend meetings before deciding it was better to have the whole thing behind them before opening that door.
With one of the season’s largest distractions almost behind, the conclusion of all of this has to be welcome for all parties involved.
Brian Kelly thinks the bye week comes at a perfect time. Now his team needs to play like it.
We’ll see the fruits of two weeks of labor on Saturday night. The adjustments made to the offensive line are final; Ronnie Stanley will stay at left tackle while the rest of the line will be shuffled, with Nick Martin at left guard, Matt Hegarty at center, Steve Elmer at right guard and Christian Lombard at tackle.
But that’s not all that’s been accomplished. Expect the receivers to take a step forward and to see some more snaps for the young tight ends. The secondary had a chance to catch its breath as well, with captain Austin Collinsworth easing his way back on Saturday.
The potential influx of injured players and potentially seeing three assumed starters finally back in uniform late next week opens all sorts of possibilities. But none of those matter unless the Irish win this week, something Kelly knows all too well.
That’s why the head coach worked his team hard this week, delivering the following assessment.
“We are who we are. We’re a fairly young football team, we’re gonna be inexperienced in some areas,” Kelly said. “That’s not gonna change much. We’re gonna get better. But in the short term here are our strengths and weaknesses and let’s go to work on that. I think that’s what we tried to accomplish in the bye week.”
We’ll get a progress report Saturday evening.