After making the most decisive move of his tenure in South Bend, Brian Kelly’s team responded. And while the 50-33 win over Syracuse wasn’t pretty, there’s no need for a 2-3 team to display style points.
The Irish won with an offense that marched up and down the field and with a defense that did a good job—after a very rough start—of limiting the damage the Orange offense could do. They won by scoring on special teams, by making explosive plays and by getting some critical red zone stops.
With a month that may have been one of the worst of his coaching career, Kelly challenged his team and they responded, beginning October on the right track, earning an absolutely critical win that gets the Irish out of a funk.
“I just liked the way the kids played and prepared all week. It was a tough week. They came out here with a purpose and that’s a tough team to prepare for, when you make a change as we did on defense,” Kelly told ESPN after the game. “I’m proud of the way our guys played today, in particular, the basics of football were held up. We’ve got to do some things better in special teams and finish off some drives, but all in all it’s good to get a win.”
Let’s find out what we learned.
The defense found its footing.
It didn’t start out pretty. Syracuse marched down the field on its first series, scoring a touchdown on just eight plays in just over two minutes, covering 75 yards in big chunks. Making things worse, star receiver Amba Etta-Tawo made Julian Love his latest victim, the Orange matching Notre Dame score for score as the 72-yard touchdown catch had fans bracing for the worst.
But the defense recovered. And even after Devin Studstill was ejected on a questionable targeting call, the young Irish defense rallied. They forced punts on five of the next six possessions. They got after quarterback Eric Dungey. And they made Syracuse earn their yards and points, holding up in the run game.
Greg Hudson provided a needed spark and the Irish came out in the second half looking like a different unit. They held the Orange to just seven second-half points, a shocking performance that helped make the victory feel downright comfortable. After battling back from the fast start, the mental toughness displayed by the defense was absolutely impressive.
Equanimeous St. Brown broke the game open. Notre Dame’s sophomore receiver made the game’s first five minutes feel like a track meet. Taking his first two catches to the house, St. Brown’s afternoon was one of the most explosive in school history—and he didn’t catch a ball in the second half.
The lanky sophomore continues to emerge as the team’s go-to receiver, with Kizer targeting St. Brown in one-on-one coverage and making Syracuse pay. With good enough deep speed to get behind the Orange defense, St. Brown continues to develop his skills, all while building some much-needed chemistry with his starting quarterback.
St. Brown and Kevin Stepherson supplied three touchdowns of 54 yards or longer, two underclassmen providing the deep-threat firepower to a passing attack that is finding its footing without Will Fuller in that role. The ability to score quickly—something St. Brown is showing he can do—will be key to the team’s success moving forward.
Dexter Williams provided the game’s big play on the ground, and avoided what could have been a big injury.
A week after Kelly credited Williams for being the only player on his roster who was playing with passion, the sophomore back took another step forward when he made a game-breaking run midway through the third quarter. The 59-yard touchdown was the longest of his career, and showcased his ability to make something from nothing, not to mention some elite speed as he ran away from the Syracuse defense and into the end zone.
Williams earned the No. 2 job at running back, taking over for senior Tarean Folston. He also avoided what looked like a potential big leg injury, walking off the field under his own power and even returning to the game, avoiding anything major.
While Josh Adams did have a 100-yard afternoon, it was Williams that helped make the ground game more than just okay. And in doing that, he showed his teammates that the coaching staff was willing to award opportunities to the players who earn them.
Even putting up 50 points, the Irish offense left a lot on the field.
Coaching hard after a win is much easier. So expect Brian Kelly to do just that this week, knowing that his team managed to gain 654 yards of total offense and still didn’t look all that efficient.
Notre Dame failed to punch in a touchdown inside Syracuse’s two-yard line. They settled for three Justin Yoon field goal attempts. And the Irish’s struggles on third down were masked by their four explosive touchdowns.
Even quarterback DeShone Kizer sounded like a guy unsatisfied, crazy considering he threw for 471 yards and three touchdowns.
“It’s the sloppiest 50 point performance I’ve ever been apart of,” Kizer said postgame.
Brian Kelly spent most of his time this week working with the defense, a rare appearance on the other side of the LaBar practice fields. With a true road game set for next weekend in Raleigh, expect Kelly to wander back to the offensive side of the ball, with Irish offense needing to be more efficient.
After a bold program-shaking weekend, Notre Dame’s head coach proved he can still pull the right strings.
Last weekend’s press conference outburst had many wondering how the Irish roster would react. Could a team already sporting a major confidence problem withstand a leadership shakeup on the defense and a head coach who took dead aim at his players?
The answer turns out to be yes.
Because any worry that Kelly could’ve lost his roster by speaking critically of their effort was eliminated when the Irish went out and played like a different team. The passion was there. The excitement was as well. And the team rallied around Greg Hudson, the new full-time assistant earning the game ball at his alma mater, an honor that reportedly had him so proud that he was near tears.
To think that Kelly, a man who built this program brick by brick, would misread his team’s response was kind of silly from the start. But after seeing the team get big plays from players young and old, from his offense, defense, and special teams, it’s clear that Kelly’s rare public outburst, one that likely was rooted more in frustration and candor than any motivational tactic, hit its mark.
Because his roster responded. And probably more importantly, his defensive tweaks paid off.
The Irish flashed their depth, with previously underutilized defenders like Jay Hayes, Asmar Bilal and Elijah Taylor seeing plenty of time. In the secondary, the Irish continued to get younger, yet came together after a rough start, holding the Syracuse offense to just 4.3 yards a play on the Orange’s last 52 snaps after giving up a harrowing 14 yards a play on the first 11.
One winning Saturday certainly doesn’t fix everything, and there’s more work to be done. But with a scheme that had already exposed the flaws in Brian VanGorder’s system and a must-win game on the line, Kelly rode his roster hard and they responded.