Notre Dame begins its scheduling alliance with the ACC this weekend, as the Irish take on Syracuse this Saturday night in another primetime kickoff for the Irish. Second-year coach Scott Shafer’s squad is 2-1, coming off a disappointing two-touchdown loss to Rutgers that statistically could’ve played out like a blowout win for the Orange.
With the game moved to MetLife Stadium, the Irish play their first road game in another NFL stadium. And with Syracuse all-in on a game they’ve moved south, it’s of vital importance for Shafer and his staff from a recruiting standpoint in the Tri-State area.
The Orange are expected to be worthy adversaries in the two school’s first matchup since 2008, when Greg Robinson’s three-win squad came into South Bend and shocked Notre Dame on Senior Day. (Yes, I had to remind you.)
Joining us to get ready for Saturday night is John Cassillo of the wonderfully named Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician blog. John covers the Orange football team and the ACC, kind enough to answer some questions to get us up to speed.
Q: After escaping Villanova, blowing out Central Michigan and then losing by two touchdowns to Maryland, are there any truths to Scott Shafer’s team? Three different Saturdays, three very different results. Was Syracuse looking past Maryland?
I don’t think they were, to be honest. You take a look at the team’s stats on the game — 589 total yards, 26 first downs — and they obviously showed up to play against the Terps. They simply couldn’t execute in the red zone as a result of penalties and unimaginative play-calling once they got to Maryland’s side of the field. If they manage to punch one or two of those trips into the end zone (10 of 14 drives got to Maryland territory on Saturday), you suddenly have a much different ball game.
Q: The box score for the Maryland game is insane. Syracuse outgained the Terps by over 200 yards, and ran for 370 yards. Obviously a pick six and a -2 turnover battle kills you, but this game seemed over at halftime. How poorly is this loss sitting with not just the team but the Orange supporters?
The fan base is pretty aggravated, just because it showed that these sorts of miserable, self-defeating efforts still aren’t behind us. A running narrative among Orange fans is that despite our thankfulness for Doug Marrone and Scott Shafer bringing this program back to some sort of respectability, boneheaded penalties and mistakes seem to be the guiding narrative more often than not (even in wins).
As I mentioned in the previous response: this team was pretty close to making this one a much tighter game. That’s cause for frustration about what could’ve been, especially for someone like myself who re-watched the game again after to take a look at how the offense ran itself. Somehow, 24 out of 79 plays from scrimmage went for 10 or more yards… and we still lost by 14. That’s enough to drive any fan base up a wall.
Q: Turning the focus to Terrel Hunt, he seems like a dynamic playmaker on the ground. He’s leading Syracuse in rushing and averaging 7.0 a carry. His passing numbers seem rather modest, but considering he was ejected before halftime against Villanova, he’s far from a one-trick pony. Is Hunt the key to the game against Notre Dame?
Hunt’s the key to every game against every team. And that’s not to downplay our other players, or prop him up too much at all. Our quarterback is arguably our most effective runner, and if once he gets that part of his game going, it opens up some lanes for passing the football.
You saw the epitome of that philosophy against Central Michigan, when he was highly accurate and decisive. You also saw the other side of that coin when he overthrew at least five different passes against Maryland. This defense can make plays, so it’s up to the offense — Hunt, in particular — to find a way to score points. When they do so, SU usually stands a fair chance at pulling out a victory.
Q: Cameron Lynch is off to a really impressive start, putting up big stats from his linebacker spot. Notre Dame’s offensive line has gotten out of the gates slowly. How do you think Chuck Bullough is going to attack Everett Golson and the Irish offense?
Same way he attacks everybody else: blitz like hell, and hope it breaks down the opposing offensive line. Now, Golson has some mobility so that throws in an extra wrinkle (despite practicing against a mobile QB in practice every week, SU can’t figure out how to defend them in game situations), and could slow down the blitz at the onset.
In that case, expect a five-man rush on most downs (four linemen plus Lynch or fellow OLB Dyshawn Davis) with the other two linebackers falling back into coverage. The Orange linebackers aren’t particularly adept at playing in coverage, however, which means there will be opportunities in the flat and the middle of the field. SU will let Golson grab those early gains in favor of beating up that front line — which typically pays dividends later and forces very quick releases under pressure.
Q: One of the surprises of the season for Notre Dame has been the performance of Brian VanGorder’s young but talented defense. They’re giving up just 10.3 points a game and are in the Top 5 in turnovers forced. Do you get the feeling that this will be a battle in the trenches, with Syracuse going head-up hoping to run the ball straight at the Irish?
Syracuse’s run game is a nice mixture of power (Hunt, Adonis Ameen-Moore) and speed (Prince-Tyson Gulley, George Morris, Devante McFarlane, Ervin Phillips), so if a game is going to be won in the trenches, the Orange have a slight advantage there based on depth alone. However, Notre Dame is the first top-notch front SU has faced all season, so who knows if previous results are really indicative of future returns.
If Syracuse is locked into a low-scoring game, they stand a much better chance, as it takes the pressure off Hunt to make plays, and allows him to just calmly run this offense to his own liking. Don’t mistake the run-heavy attack with a slogging style, though. The Orange aim to run 80 plays per game and their read-option is a no-huddle, up-tempo attack that forces defenses to collect themselves quickly.
Q: It’s a home game for Syracuse, but it’ll be played in the Meadowlands. Notre Dame obviously travels well, especially when it comes to playing in the NY metro area. What is your hope for the turnout? Will this be a hostile environment for the Irish?
Syracuse and Notre Dame both have pretty large fan and alumni contingents in the tri-state area, but given the travel distance needed for typical season ticket holders to get down to this “home” game, I’d say ND holds an advantage in terms of fan turnout. No hostile environment’s expected for either team, as it’s more of a neutral crowd more reminiscent of bowl games.
A good portion of the Central New York-based fan base is pretty bitter about these games being moved away from the Carrier Dome (understandably), where they’d be a shoe-in to outdraw the competition. I’m not nearly as mad since I live outside of the Northeast, but I get the displeasure among local fans and students, for sure.
Q: Give me the perfect formula for a Syracuse upset. (The Orange opened as 13-point underdogs.) Do you expect them to pull it off?
The perfect formula for a Syracuse upset involves taking care of the ball, forcing turnovers and finding a way to turn early offensive success into touchdowns. This team’s biggest problem in the last season or so has been bogging down in the red zone, so if they can continue to quickly move the ball (on the ground, setting up the pass) and translate that into points, Notre Dame could start to feel a bit of pressure.
I think the Irish defense is too fast and physical for some of our typical play-calls (bubble screens, in particular), but if SU can mix things up a bit and try to keep Notre Dame off-balance (this is where Hunt’s legs play a huge role, too), they have a shot at the win. I don’t expect them to win, unfortunately. But I could see them finishing withing 7-10 points in a closely contested matchup.
For more from John, you can follow him on Twitter @JohnCassillo and read him here on the Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician blog.