On second inspection, Notre Dame did some very impressive things in their 31-15 victory over Syracuse. But the head-scratching mistakes that revealed themselves in the season’s fourth game also gave us our first sign of some flaws that many had hoped this young team was past.
Offensively, the Irish’s 523 yards had the Irish positioned for another 40+ point output. Of course, their five turnovers had the team staring defeat in the face. Defensively, Brian VanGorder’s unit was relentless, shutting down a tough Syracuse ground game. But the Irish pass defense showed cracks, with four different Orange receivers catching passes of 25 yards or longer.
With Stanford on the horizon and October likely to determine this team’s fate, let’s get to the good, the bad and ugly of the Irish’s 31-15 victory.
The short passing game. For as good as Everett Golson looked during the season’s first three games, Notre Dame’s short passing game hadn’t been that effective. But that changed on Saturday, with the Irish going to the screen and quick game to loosen up the Orange’s defensive scheme.
While much was made of the Irish’s dink-and-dunk approach, that Golson was so capable and accurate — completing 25 straight passes — adds another dimension to the Notre Dame offense.
A key component to the quick game is excellent blocking by the Irish wide receivers. After not necessarily doing the best job of that early this season, solid blocking allowed chain-moving gains by Corey Robinson. The Irish also got the running backs involved with screens, with a few well designed passes going to the backs as well.
With running likely tough against Stanford as well, quick passes could be the key to opening things up.
The run defense. A very strong performance for the Irish defense, with great team tackling really supporting the whole unit. When the team’s opposing punter is the leading rusher, you know you’ve done something well.
That Notre Dame was able to all but shut down Syracuse on the ground says quite a bit. But more importantly, we’re starting to see the wake that the Irish D-Boys are leaving behind, with big time physicality leaving Orange quarterback Terrel Hunt struggling to play his usual role in the run game. Thank cornerback Cole Luke for a big stick, hardly the first guy you’d think of when it comes to laying the wood.
Setting up for a smashmouth weekend, watching the Irish go toe-to-toe with Stanford’s offensive line will be very interesting. But after four games, you couldn’t ask for Notre Dame’s rush defense to be playing any better.
Enhanced creativity. Notre Dame came out of the bye week with a few new wrinkles, likely giving Stanford and Florida State a few more formations they’ll need to prepare for in the weeks to come. We saw a zone read pass, taking a page out of Auburn’s play book. We also saw some multiple tight end formations, with Tyler Luatua spending quite a bit of time on the field.
The Irish also put multiple backs in the backfield, making more than a few Notre Dame fans very happy about the idea of getting more snaps for the Irish trio. The debut of the jumbo set was perfect, the tight formation looking like a perfect power formation, until Will Fuller went over the top for 72 yards and a touchdown.
It’s worth noting that Notre Dame’s touchdown pass to Robinson was another perfect example of great scheme. With trips to the short side of the field, the Irish spent first down running it up the gut to no avail. But lined up with trips again and Robinson by himself split on the wide side of the field, the fade route touchdown was both great setup and execution.
Will Fuller & Corey Robinson. Let’s hand it to the kids. Both sophomore receivers were excellent, with Fuller providing two gigantic plays for touchdowns among his six catches for 119 yards. Fuller’s 72-yarder was the perfect play after softening up the Orange coverage, beating Syracuse over the top and almost waiting for Everett Golson’s long throw to get to him.
It’s going to take a while for me to get used to watching Robinson catch quick screens, but Corey more than doubled his output on the season with his eight catches for 91 yards. His catch while being interfered with for a touchdown was something Irish fans could get used to watching.
Matthias Farley. Those who tried writing Farley off after a disappointing 2013 season were completely wrong. He’s been one of the team’s best defenders, a playmaker who seems to have found his niche playing a hybrid cornerback position. Credit goes to Kelly and Brian VanGorder for understanding he’s not a traditional safety, switching his positions this spring, a move that’s been critical to the Irish’s success.
Farley’s interception was a huge play for the Irish defense, short-circuiting the Orange’s drive after halftime. He made five tackles on the evening and has turned into a great team leader as well.
* How important has freshman Daniel Cage been? A guy many thought was a leftover recruit has come in and played key snaps on the interior of the defensive line. That was Cage in the middle of Notre Dame’s fourth-down stop, the freshman getting lower while winning at the point of attack.
* Romeo Okwara is doing a nice job growing into the defensive end job. He made his presence felt quite a bit on Saturday, never getting there for a sack, but being quite disruptive. The 15-yard penalty on Okwara was ridiculous, considering you could use his technique in a football manual.
* Starting across from him, Isaac Rochell has been all that’s been advertised as well. It’ll be fun to watch Rochell battle against Syracuse, one of the top offensive lines the Irish will face this year.
* Andrew Trumbetti and Grant Blankenship both made big plays as well. How great has Mike Elston been with this defensive line?
* That could’ve been Sheldon Day‘s most productive game of the year. He was everywhere.
* Good to see Chris Brown making contributions in the pass game.
* That’s three blocked kicks for Jarron Jones in his career. I guess it helps to be 6-6 and 315 pounds, huh?
* Want to smile? Check out this video after Torii Hunter scored his first career touchdown.
Turnovers. The last time Notre Dame turned the ball over five times they melted down in losses to Michigan and USF in 2011. That the Irish lost three fumbles is likely more freakish than a trend, but it’s certainly one that needs to be cleaned up immediately.
Inevitably, Golson is going to throw interceptions. But terrible ones like the pick six he gift wrapped can’t be part of that equation.
The poor game dropped the Irish from No. 1 in the country in turnover margin to No. 16. One game isn’t cause for great concern, but it’s something that demands immediate attention.
The Penalties. Notre Dame committed eight penalties for 80 yards, topping their yardage total on the season, buoyed by multiple 15-yard penalties. In what amounts to a pretty mild away game, the Irish need to do better keeping their composure and playing clean outside of Notre Dame Stadium.
Big chunk pass plays. These aren’t the ones Irish fans like, but rather the big gainers Syracuse hit Notre Dame on, starting with the opening snap of the game. The Orange receivers connected with Terrel Hunt a few times for big yards, with Hunt doing a better job of throwing the deep ball down field than completing anything underneath.
A few of these completions fall into the “good coverage, better throw” category. But with Ty Montgomery coming to town this week, expect the Cardinal to take a shot or two down field. So Cody Riggs and Cole Luke need to buckle down in coverage, especially if they’re going to be out on islands this Saturday.
Two minute drill. For an Irish offense that can move the ball and score in a hurry, not having their composure during the two minute offense isn’t going to cut it. Even if Everett didn’t lose the handle on his spike attempt, the Irish’s young receivers didn’t seem to know where they were going as the offense was trying to hurry to align and snap the football.
Expect this to be cleaned up this week, and hopefully before it’s needed.
* Memo to Greg Bryant: Not every run is going to the house. Put your foot in the ground and get up field. And hold onto the football. And stop tap dancing as a kickoff returner. Because you’re still the team’s best running back, but not if you play like you did on Saturday.
* Time for Tony Alford to spend some time with his young backs this week before Stanford comes to town. Tarean Folston got away with a fumble thanks to a procedure penalty on Will Fuller.
* I wonder if Scott Shafer saw something in Scott Booker‘s punt return team that made the fake punt work so well. The Irish defenders all had their backs to the punter getting back to block as he ran freely down the field.
This might have been the ugliest win of the Kelly era, quite an accomplishment considering that it was a two-plus touchdown victory. But this game can be a huge momentum builder if it refocuses the football team, something Kelly talked about postgame.
“They knew they did not play the kind of football necessary to win each and every week. This game will get you beat week in and week out,” Kelly said. “But I’m a much better teacher after a win.”
Expect a long productive week before one of the season’s biggest games.