Five things we learned: Notre Dame 31, Syracuse 15

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Earlier in the week, Brian Kelly was asked about his last time in MetLife Stadium. He almost chuckled to himself, wondering when Notre Dame’s humbling, one-sided defeat to Navy in 2010 would be drudged up again this week.

“I knew it would be brought up sometime,” Kelly said with a laugh. “For me it’s about Syracuse and getting back to New York, more so than the horrors of that afternoon.”

In some ways, Notre Dame’s 16-point victory is a symbol of just how far Kelly’s Irish team has come. But in many others, it sure felt a lot like the disaster Notre Dame found itself in last time they played in the Meadowlands.

In the Irish’s first official road test, Notre Dame piled up 523 offensive yards, out-rushed Syracuse, and won a relatively stress-free game. But the ghosts of demons’ past tried their best to rear their head Saturday night, with the Irish coughing up the football early and often, committing five turnovers.

As Ivan Maisel pointed out after the game, that the Irish still won comfortably is a credit to the program. Over the past two seasons, teams with a -4 turnover margin have only gone 1-28 against Power 5 conference programs.

“You can’t turn the football over and expect to win all your games,” Kelly said through gritted teeth to ESPN’s Heather Cox after the game. “We did some good things tonight… but five turnovers is just not going to get the job done.”

With work to be done before the Irish take on Stanford, let’s take a look at the five things we learned in Notre Dame’s 31-15 victory over Syracuse.

 

The Irish front seven passed a very big test on Saturday night. 

There were legitimate questions as to how Notre Dame’s defense would handle the ground game of Syracuse. But Brian VanGorder’s unit passed the test with flying colors, playing relentlessly as they battering Syracuse quarterback Terrel Hunt and bailed out the Irish offense through much of the first half.

Everett Golson’s pick six doesn’t help Notre Dame’s lofty scoring statistics. Neither does punter Riley Dixon’s 42-yard scamper.  But against an experienced offensive line and a talented set of running backs, Notre Dame dominated the line of scrimmage.

The Irish front seven held the Orange to just 93 yards on 29 carries, just 3.2 yards a touch for a very talented group of runners. Leading the way up front was Sheldon Day, who made two tackles-for-loss. Jarron Jones was a load on the inside as well. Linebacker Jaylon Smith continues his ascent, leading the team with nine tackles. Not far behind him was Joe Schmidt, flying all over the field.

Notre Dame’s youth once again made a huge difference. Freshmen Andrew Trumbetti and Grant Blankenship got some productive snaps, each contributing big plays. Kolin Hill came in as a pass rusher, chasing Hunt nearly every time he was on the field. Sophomore Isaac Rochell flashed dominance from his strongside defensive end position, as VanGorder’s defense took away the Orange’s preferred offensive scheme, challenging Syracuse to throw the ball down field.

 

Everett Golson may have nearly broken an NCAA record for accuracy. But it was still his worst game of the season. 

Through three games, football looked pretty easy to Everett Golson. For people who find talking about the Heisman necessary in September, Golson’s name was rightly in the premature conversation. His pin-point accuracy and efficiency with the football showed total command of Brian Kelly’s offense.

And then Saturday night happen.

Golson started the evening on the wrong foot, turning a great play into a very bad one by carrying the ball lackadaisically as it was stripped deep in Syracuse territory. He nearly lost another fumble on an overload blitz he should’ve seen. His nightmarish first half continued with a misread and interception aimed to C.J. Prosise and ended with a lackluster two-minute drill that ended with a botched spike, the ball slipping out of his hands, throwing points away as a replay overturn gave the football to Syracuse.

In between the mistakes there was plenty of good, including the tremendous accuracy that saw him get within a throw of an NCAA record. So while Golson’s 32 of 39 for 362 and four touchdowns was the most prolific passing night since Dayne Crist in 2010, it was marred by the lost fumbles and interceptions — with his pick six late in the fourth quarter the biggest head-scratcher of them all.

“I know my team expects more of me so I’ve got to come out and be better from the get,” Golson told Cox on ESPN after the game. “I came out and had a very sloppy first half and I was lucky it didn’t cost us as much as it should have.”

Kelly was unfortunately prophetic earlier this week when he talked about his concerns about Golson’s ball security as a runner.

“He’s very careful with the football, very conscientious throwing the football, we worry about how he carries the football,” Kelly said Thursday. “He carries it like he’s dribbling a basketball.”

That’ll need to be cleaned up this week, with the tough Stanford defense coming to town. But before we get too rough on the senior quarterback, Golson’s record-setting night pushed his overall record to 14-1, statistically better than Johnny Lujack. Even during his struggles, he’s one of college football’s brightest stars.

 

Sophomores Will Fuller and Corey Robinson proved that their time is now. 

Both Will Fuller and Corey Robinson had monster games on Saturday night, with the sophomore duo seizing control of the wide receiver depth chart with Amir Carlisle out. Fuller’s six catches for 119 yards and two touchdowns was the breakthrough game many have been waiting for.

Meanwhile, across from Fuller, Robinson racked up eight catches for 91 yards, showing the type of versatility many hoped to see from the lanky pass catcher.  Not the receiver you’d expect to be showcased in the short passing game, Robinson still managed to be productive, galloping for some chain-moving first downs and building on his solid Purdue game.

Perhaps most promising was the way Notre Dame used both players. Fuller’s touchdown on the inside screen opened up the scoring, a nice reminder of the explosive burst that the sophomore from Philadelphia possesses. And the 75-yard touchdown pass should serve as a reminder to opposing defenses. Across from him, seeing Robinson targeted in the red zone on a well executed fade pass was music to the ears of many Irish fans clamoring for that since the 6-foot-5 receiver’s been been on campus.

After being largely anonymous through the season’s first three games, Chris Brown chipped in six catches for 57 yards, including a nice 23-yarder. But after be used mostly as specialist so far, Kelly opened up the passing game for Fuller and Robinson and the duo emerged as big time threats.

 

Welcome to Notre Dame, Torii Hunter Jr. 

Depending on how long Amir Carlisle’s knee keeps him out, the Irish might have found another option in the slot emerge. That’s because 634 days after breaking his leg at the U.S. Army All-American Game, Torii Hunter Jr. made his debut one to remember.

Hunter went largely unnoticed in the first half, with C.J. Prosise handling most of the slot receiver duties. But the Texas native finally got his chance in the second half, utilized in a different way than we’ve seen from either Carlisle or Prosise.

Kelly sent Hunter sweeping across the formation twice, getting two carries for 13 yards. But the highlight of his night was making a tough catch in traffic for a touchdown, spinning after the completion to finish a perfect play design.

After a year spent rehabbing a broken femur and the start of his sophomore season delayed after a serious groin injury, that Hunter was making an impact in more than just Trick Shot Wednesday competition was a sight acknowledged by more than just his head coach.

“[Hunter was] pretty good,” Kelly said, when asked to critique his play. “You can tell his teammates like him, too. They were pretty excited.”

We shouldn’t get too excited about modest production like the numbers Hunter put up. But it’s worth noting how Kelly used him, finally giving the slot receiver the football as a runner, really the only receiver to do much of that.

So as Stanford prepares for Notre Dame and Carlisle works his way back to health, the Irish might have one more weapon that needs to be accounted for.

 

There’s plenty of good to take away from this win. But as the Irish head into the most difficult month of their season, let’s hope Saturday night was a wakeup call. 

If there’s anything disappointing about Saturday’s sloppy performance, it’s that it was so utterly predictable. Most Notre Dame fans were looking past Syracuse, a team that may have been 2-1 but struck zero fear into the hearts and minds of many looking forward to next weekend and the trip to Tallahassee.

But if Notre Dame wants to be the team that it believes it’s capable of being, mediocre performances like Saturday night need to be erased quickly.

We’ve hammered Golson enough. But an early fumble from the offense’s leader got the game off on the wrong foot. A fumble by Greg Bryant, who danced far too much trying to make something happen on Saturday night, does nothing to get him more reps. And let’s not forget Tarean Folston’s fumble, a play that Syracuse could’ve taken back for points if Will Fuller didn’t make a silly presnap penalty.

If doing the little things right is key to a team’s success, expect most of this week to be spent perfecting the finer points. Notre Dame’s two-minute offense was a complete fire drill. That the Irish weren’t able to get their receivers lined up in a proper formation makes zero sense.

Again, that Kelly’s team was able to shake off all the mistakes and still breeze to an easy victory says quite a bit about the emerging talent on this football team. But for Notre Dame to stake a claim at a spot in the College Football Playoff, mistake-filled Saturdays like this just can’t happen.