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And In That Corner … The No. 12 Syracuse Orange at Yankee Stadium

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Entering the season, Syracuse would have been considered Notre Dame’s sixth-stiffest challenge, at best. This particular space lumped the Orange in as a “should-be win,” designating it as no higher than the eighth-toughest opponent awaiting the Irish.

That was wrong, all very wrong. At No. 12 now, Syracuse was overlooked and as a result, it may not be as well-known as it should be. To rectify that, here comes Stephen Baily of The Post-Standard and Syracuse.com

DF: Stephen, I cannot say I ever anticipated this game being, well, this game. Before we dig in, how long have you been on the Syracuse beat?

SB: I’ve been covering the team since the start of the 2013 season overall and since 2014 for Syracuse.com/The Post-Standard.

At 8-2 and No. 12 in the country, the Orange have put this game on the national radar as much as Notre Dame has. Be honest here — not that you won’t be throughout these answers, but this is the spot where you may have reason to change the past — what did you see as Syracuse’s 2018 ceiling back in the preseason?

Honestly, I would say nine wins in the regular season was the absolute ceiling I envisioned at the start of preseason camp. I did not expect Florida State or Louisville to be this bad and, while the team is markedly improved in important areas, Syracuse has also avoided significant injury and taken advantage of its softest schedule since joining the ACC. I thought the Orange would be better in Year 3 under Dino Babers and predicted 6-6 heading into Week 1.

This may be an unfair way to ask this, as some factors depend upon each other, but what percentage of this year’s top-15 performance would you credit to Babers, to senior quarterback Eric Dungey and to a schedule that has been reasonable, but has yet to feature No. 3 Notre Dame or No. 22 Boston College?

I think the majority of the credit goes to Babers (50 percent) for implementing systems and not only sticking to them, but building a roster and culture around them. Everything that goes into the inner-workings of Syracuse football ties into the mindset of winning football games in shootout fashion. From recruiting to conditioning to defensive emphases, everyone understands the ultimate goal and we’re seeing it all come together in Year 3 with a deeper roster.

I’ll say Dungey (25 percent) and the schedule (25 percent) get an even split of the rest, though it’s admittedly a weird way to divvy up credit as the defensive line and special teams play have been considerable factors in the team’s success this year. Regarding Dungey, he’s had an up-and-down season in which he was benched against North Carolina and nearly lost his job the following week. But the competition brought out the best in him. He looked significantly better passing the ball over the next two weeks, and when he’s trusting the timing of plays and throwing accurately, there isn’t a defense in the country that won’t be kept off-balance. He’s truly a monster in the open field.

The schedule has just worked out perfectly for Syracuse. The Orange caught Florida State on a down year and the absolute rock bottom for Louisville. UConn is trash. Seriously, this is a team that could easily be 10-0 if the defense would’ve been able to get a stop at Clemson and Dungey didn’t miss an overtime throw at Pittsburgh.

Let’s focus on Dungey for a moment. A four-year starter, he has never finished a season. Knock on wood, he may this year, even though a couple weeks ago it looked like he could be benched in favor of sophomore Tommy DeVito. Dungey has completed 60.4 percent of his passes, thrown 14 touchdowns against five interceptions, and averages 219.3 passing yards per game. On top of that, he has rushed for 690 yards and 12 touchdowns. I suppose I have a few questions, so first of all, can you (briefly) explain the DeVito situation from October?

So DeVito is a redshirt freshman who is probably the most decorated recruit of the Babers era — Elite 11, The Opening, Under Armour All-American. He split first-team reps with Dungey during camp and played the majority of the Florida State win after Dungey left with eye irritation. He’s played in about half the games this year, with FSU and North Carolina being the big ones. DeVito threw three TDs to lead Syracuse back against the Tar Heels.

That following week, Babers let the two quarterbacks compete throughout the week and only told them of his decision Saturday just before the North Carolina State game. Dungey looked like a completely different player, throwing for 400 yards and three touchdowns. At Wake Forest the next weekend, he completed 14 straight passes.

It’s pretty clearly Dungey’s job moving forward, but I do believe if Dungey reverts as a passer for more than a few drives, Babers won’t hesitate to turn to DeVito. Like I said, this team is built to win 50-30. If the offense isn’t scoring the ball, that’s a problem. The perceived margin for error is slimmer there than for most teams.

Syracuse senior quarterback Eric Dungey has experience as a four-year starter to go with both rushing and passing skills, making him the most-complete threat Notre Dame’s defense has faced this season. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)

Would you consider Dungey a true dual-threat quarterback, or is he a pass-first quarterback who happens to be able to run for chunks when available? Presumably, his scrambling played a role in some of his past injuries.

Yes, he’s a dual-threat quarterback. He’s consistently a weapon in the running game. If teams don’t account for him or decide to drop back and try to take away the vertical passing game (see Wake Forest), Dungey will take advantage. He’s bigger than he was in past years and has run over multiple defensive backs this fall. He’ll rack up yardage on designed runs (RPOs, draws and sneaks in short-yardage situations) and scrambling. He’s probably at his best in the scramble game when Syracuse goes with its four- and five-wide sets.

Speaking of such sets, one of Notre Dame’s greatest weaknesses this year is its nickel package. Neither senior Nick Coleman nor freshman Houston Griffith has been able to consistently fill the hole left by Shaun Crawford’s ACL tear. The Irish have survived that deficiency thus far, but they also have not faced an offense with four receivers with 387 yards or more, 28 receptions or more, and each with multiple touchdowns. This is an offense that lost its two leading receivers, and last year’s Nos. 3 and 4 are now Nos. 5 and 6. Where did this group come from? Should Notre Dame fans worry about Dungey’s third and fourth (and fifth) options?

This group is balanced across the board and features a bunch of guys who are willing and capable to simply handle their roles. Babers’ offensive approach is almost always built around what the defensive is showing. That’s why you’ll see the tempo offense halt for checks at the line of scrimmage. Playing off coverage against a 2×2 set? Here comes the bubble screen. Going to give Jamal Custis man coverage? Time for the fly. There’s a simplicity to it, but with wrinkles in motions and releases, Babers does a great job of creating matchups and exposing weaknesses. Just ask Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables.

Looking at the players themselves, Custis is the most physically gifted. At 6-foot-5, he has looked like an NFL guy for three years, but he’s only now stayed healthy and performed consistently enough to produce. Slot receivers Sean Riley and Nykeim Johnson are extremely efficient, shifty and great after the catch (particularly Johnson). Tight end Ravian Pierce is a weapon in the red zone. I guarantee you the Orange tries to slip him off an RPO look at some point Saturday, and the safety who has watched Dungey run all game will have to be ready to stay back.

In his third year at Syracuse, head coach Dino Babers has already matched his win total from the previous two seasons combined. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

This all comes just a week after Syracuse enjoyed Brian VanGorder’s defense to the tune of 54 points, but most of that came on the ground. While Dungey threw for 192 yards on 14-of-27 passing, the Orange ran for 326 yards on 55 carries. Which would Babers prefer, to run or to pass to a victory?

Babers will take whatever he’s given, but almost always tries to keep the threat of the ground game on the table. Honestly, Louisville gift-wrapped multiple red-zone possessions and penalized its way into a blowout. The Syracuse offense didn’t even have one of its better performance of the year, stalling out in the red zone multiple times.

Since we’ve talked about the receivers, here’s what you should know about the Orange run game. Junior Moe Neal is the top back. He’s got great burst and has become a simpler runner, rarely cutting more than once before hitting the jets. You’ll also see senior Dontae Strickland, the team’s best receiving and blocking back and true freshman Jarveon Howard, a bowling ball who is used most often in short-yardage and goal-line situations. When Syracuse is on the goal line, look out for a jumbo package featuring six offensive linemen, a tight end, two lead blockers and a back. One of those lead blockers is 280-pound sophomore fullback Chris Elmore, who was recruited by most programs to play defensive tackle.

I would usually have spent a question or two by now on the defense, but Syracuse’s does not impress much. This weekend certainly looks to be a shootout. Can you give me any reason to believe otherwise? I suppose it is a defense that has forced 25 turnovers this year (while Dungey’s offense has turned it over only 12 times).

You hit the nail on the head in regard to turnovers. This is a bend-but-don’t-break defense that wants to keep plays in front of it and force teams to earn points. A 15-play drive means 15 opportunities to force a turnover. That unit as a whole, but particularly the secondary, has been opportunistic in regard to ball disruption, though it all starts up front. Redshirt senior defensive tackle Chris Slayton is a monster, drawing regular double-teams to open up 1-on-1 chances for defensive ends Alton Robinson (nine sacks) and Kendall Coleman (seven).

Two of Syracuse’s top four corners are banged-up in junior Scoop Bradshaw and redshirt freshman Ifeatu Melifonwu, though Babers expects them to be active Saturday.

Before we get to a prediction, let’s return to my initial question. If a top-15 standing was not a preseason expectation, what are the Orange hopes for November at this point? Peach Bowl or bust?

Win out and a Peach or Fiesta Bowl spot seems all but guaranteed. If not, there’s a chance the Camping World Bowl takes a 9-3 Orange team, but there could be more travel-friendly fanbases in play as well. 8-4 seems like a near-lock for the Pinstripe Bowl, which would be disappointing for some considering Syracuse has played in the game twice, but could present a fun matchup with Penn State.

Keeping in mind Syracuse upset No. 2 Clemson last year and nearly pulled off the same feat this season, can it draw anything from those experiences? What do you expect from the Orange on Saturday?

I expect a team that will be mentally engaged and equipped with a solid game plan. I expect a close contest featuring big plays on both sides of the ball and a real emphasis from the Orange defense to get after Ian Book. No one will be overwhelmed by the opponent or the stage. But when push comes to shove, I think a Notre Dame-heavy crowd and outdoor venue make life tough on Syracuse’s offense down the stretch. All of its big wins during the Babers era have come in the Carrier Dome; in fact, before the Orange won at Wake Forest two weeks ago, the team had gone eight straight ACC road games without a win. So I’ve got Notre Dame winning a close one. I went with 41-37 in our predictions, for whatever that’s worth.

Where Notre Dame was, is and will need to be vs. Clemson: Defensive line

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The biggest difference between Notre Dame reaching the College Football Playoff this season and finishing 2-2 in November a year ago is not its improved quarterback play; Alabama remained in title contention for years before finding a worthwhile quarterback. It is not the influx of playmaking at safety; questionable safety play has not prevented Clemson from making a run this year.

The biggest difference is a dynamic, physical defensive line. It was a good one in 2017, but it was not as deep or as dangerous as it has shown to be this season. To have such development at the most important position in college football, well, that’s how you get to 12-0.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
By no means was little expected of this defensive line. It returned every piece from a year ago but for part-time starters Andrew Trumbetti and Jay Hayes, and even if he had not transferred, Hayes would have been a rotation player at the most this season. Such was the obvious development of junior end Khalid Kareem. Even in the preseason, it was clear the line was genuinely two-deep, and the starters were of top-tier quality.

If they played to those abilities, then envisioning an unbeaten run from the Irish made more sense. And Jerry Tillery has. Kareem has. Julian Okwara has.

A parlor game of sorts has emerged as they have met expectations — combining for 23.5 sacks and innumerable quarterback hurries counts as meeting expectations. Who first realized how good this defensive line could be? Back in August, position coach Mike Elston raised a few eyebrows by claiming it would be better than 2012’s. Head coach Brian Kelly argued last week those thoughts may have first arose in the spring.

“We had probably an inclination in the spring that was coming together,” Kelly said. “Their offseason work gave us a good indication that we had some things that were going to continue on that same path. We saw some real good signs.

“You could see the percolation of those guys. You were seeing Khalid kind of start to show himself last year late and then in the spring Julian to start to show himself. … Maybe you have to strain a little to see it, but from the inside we could start to see that stuff come together.”

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
That all presents like none of this has been a surprise. Okwara has been. He was expected to be good. He has, at points, been SEC-esque. (The at points qualifier prevents that from being hyperbolic.)

Tillery slowed in November. The opening-week loss of sophomore Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa put an undue amount of stress on Tillery’s legs. Freshman Jayson Ademilola eventually picked up some of those snaps, but only a small amount and only as the season progressed. Tillery carried a significant load this year, and presuming this month restores some life to his limbs, he could return to September’s form come Dec. 29.

Kareem fought a sprained ankle all season, one that will likely heal this month. Hayes dealt with a shoulder stinger that kept him out of one game and apparently limited him in a few more.

These nicks are where the depth kept the Irish in the Playoff chase all season. Yet, well, this gets ahead of ourselves. So first, the pertinent stats:

Khalid Kareem: 39 tackles with 10 for loss including 4.5 sacks; 5 pass breakups, one forced fumble.
Julian Okwara: 37 tackles with 11.5 for loss including 7 sacks; one interception, one pass breakup, one forced fumble.
Jerry Tillery: 30 tackles with 10.5 for loss including 8 sacks; three forced fumbles.
Daelin Hayes: 29 tackles with 4.5 for loss including 2 sacks; one pass breakup, one fumble recovery.
Jonathan Bonner: 20 tackles.
Ade Ogundeji: 20 tackles with 2 for loss including half a sack; one pass breakup, one forced fumble.
Jayson Ademilola: 17 tackles with one-half for a loss.
Kurt Hinish: 12 tackles with 2 for loss including 1.5 sacks.
Jamir Jones: 11 tackles with one for loss; one fumble recovery.

WHAT NOTRE DAME WILL NEED AGAINST CLEMSON
Those four to play well and those four in particular. The alignment of Okwara – Tillery – Kareem – Hayes was the package Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea trotted out on any given passing down. As an example, think back to the Pittsburgh game. Notre Dame managed just one sack: It came on the Panthers’ last gasp when Kareem broke through the line seemingly untouched.

He did so because the offensive line was spun by a stunt from Hayes.

That package offers four genuine pass-rushers. The argument could be made Tillery is the least of the bunch in that regard, and he led Notre Dame in sacks this season.

If those four get extended run against the Tigers that means two things: Clemson’s run game — ranked No. 8 by advanced metrics, the best the Irish have faced this season — has been kept somewhat in check; and thus, Lea’s pressure packages may have a chance to frazzle freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WILL BE
Losing both Tillery and Bonner will sap this unit of quite a bit. Even if not often noticed, Bonner handles his role well enough to allow the rest of the line to shine. Replacing them will fall to Tagovailoa-Amosa and fellow sophomore Kurt Hinish with assists from Ademilola and fellow freshman Ja’Mion Franklin.

Otherwise, this could again be a vaunted unit, especially if both Okwara and Kareem return for their final seasons of eligibility. Consider that likely but not quite a foregone conclusion.

Friday at 4: Notre Dame’s unbeaten season yields many wrong preseason predictions

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When wrong, admit it voluntarily. When right, acknowledge it only as necessary. And when it came to preseason predictions, I got a lot wrong about Notre Dame’s 2018. If there is any redeeming thought, it is that at least I expected a win total of more than 9.5. Otherwise, the Irish running game let down a number of projections and Clark Lea’s defense was buoyed by unforeseen contributors.

Friday at 4 (Aug. 17): 40 Predictions, 1-20 with an offensive focus
Friday at 4 (Aug. 24): 40 Predictions, 21-40 with a defensive focus and season-long expectations

Many of these preseason predictions were settled by Notre Dame’s off week in October and discussed then, so those may not be delved into as much at this point …

Revisiting (offensive) predictions from Notre Dame’s preseason (Oct. 17)
Notre Dame’s defense spurs it past preseason big picture predictions (Oct. 18)

1-3) Notre Dame and Michigan will not break 41 total points unless the score is inflated by a defensive or special teams touchdown.
RESULT: Even with a Wolverines kickoff return for a score, the final tally was exactly 41. That’s three in the correct column, and this strong start is misleading.

4) Senior kicker Justin Yoon will make the biggest kick of his life.
RESULT: Not yet, so mark it as incorrect, but if the Irish are to upset Clemson, one figures it will be a close game.

5) Notre Dame will trot out a trick play featuring sophomore quarterback-turned-running back Avery Davis’ arm.
RESULT: Incorrect, and given Davis’ (lack of) playing time as the season progressed, this verdict will not flip in the Playoff. It should be noted, senior receiver Chris Finke did nearly attempt a pass against USC before wisely tucking the ball for a one-yard loss.

6) Irish running backs will exceed last year’s totals of 24 catches for 134 yards.
RESULT: Nailed it to the tune of 37 receptions for 456 yards, highlighted by junior Tony Jones’ 51-yard score to seal the unbeaten season at USC, part of a 6-catch, 105-yard day for the running backs.

7) Those running backs will lead the way to averaging between 214.5 and 224.5 rushing yards per game.
RESULT: The want is to blame Pittsburgh for this falling short. That day’s 80 rushing yards certainly played a role in the season-long average falling to 190.9. But even removing that game does not yield enough of a bounce, as Notre Dame averaged only 200.5 in the other 11 games. Want to adjust for sacks? Fine, 208.1 in the other 11.

8) Finke will match his career totals of 16 catches for 224 yards and two touchdowns.
RESULT: 47 catches for 547 yards and two touchdowns.

9) Two freshmen receivers will exceed Michael Young’s 2017 totals of four catches for 18 yards and a score.
RESULT: While Kevin Austin does have five catches for 90 yards, no other freshman receiver has cracked the stat sheet. If Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s hints of a freshman speedster breaking through against Clemson prove true, this could switch sides of the ledger, but it is marked incorrect until such is seen, and such is unlikely to be seen.

Chase Claypool finished with 48 catches for 631 yards and four touchdowns in the regular season, all very much career highs. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

10) Junior Chase Claypool will not finish second in receptions or receiving yards.
RESULT: That is exactly where Claypool finished.

Just five football weeks ago, this seemed locked in as accurate, which goes to show how strongly Claypool finished the regular season. To pull from then, “Claypool is currently fourth in catches with 23 and third in yards with 261. … This Claypool projection was a subtle way of saying 2018 would be boom-or-bust for Claypool. That has been the case, but to such an aggravating extent, one can already expect another offseason of storylines discussing Claypool’s inevitable and supposed maturation.”

11) Fifth-year tight end Nic Weishar will catch at least three touchdowns, furthering his penchant for receptions in the end zone and nowhere else.
RESULT: Weishar finished with two scores … on three catches. Right in spirit, wrong by letter.

12-13) Greg Dortch and Bryce Love will each score two touchdowns against the Irish.
RESULT: It’s almost like defensive coordinator Clark Lea did not want these predictions to succeed. The Wake Forest receiver and Stanford running back combined to score only one more time than you did against Notre Dame’s defense this season.

14-15) The Irish will play in primetime at Virginia Tech, after the Hokies’ “Enter Sandman” has fulfilled the hype that put it on a universal college football bucket list.
RESULT: If not for the easy predictions, there might not be any correct.

16) Junior quarterback Ian Book will attempt fewer than last season’s 75 passes.
RESULT: Is there a world where 280 is fewer than 75? Asking for a me.

17) Sophomore offensive lineman Josh Lugg will start multiple games, as Notre Dame will not enjoy the  health up front of a year ago.
RESULT: Sophomore Aaron Banks stepped in for the injury to fifth-year left tackle Alex Bars, not Lugg. Wrong by the letter but right by the spirit, again.

18) Multiple freshmen offensive linemen will play.
RESULT: Nope. Only Jarrett Patterson did, no matter what concessions the NCAA offered this season regarding eligibility concerns.

19) DeShone Kizer will not have a good year.
RESULT: Again, the obvious spurred this batting average toward Hall of Fame, yet bankrupting, levels. And with a change in coaching staffs in Green Bay, the former Irish quarterback will likely have a new home by summer.

20) The Florida State weekend will include a 30th anniversary celebration of Notre Dame’s 1988 title team.
RESULT: There was not much ‘88 discussion at any point this season, perhaps out of fear of jinxing the current undefeated run.

21) Freshman defensive tackle Ja’Mion Franklin will manage at least eight tackles with 0.5 behind the line of scrimmage.
RESULT: Those numbers would have matched Kurt Hinish’s output in 2017, but a torn quad ruined any chance Franklin may have had. Classmate Jayson Ademilola stepped in, easily eclipsing Hinish’s debut season, with 17 tackles and 0.5 for loss. Thus, another incorrect by letter, but the thought was in the right place.

Senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery led Notre Dame with eight sacks, the most by a single Irish player since 2012 when end Stephon Tuitt racked up a dozen. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

22) The Irish will have multiple players with at least six sacks.
23) Junior end Khalid Kareem will lead Notre Dame in sacks.
24) He will have at least eight, marking the most in the program since 2012.
25) And the defense as a whole will match 2012’s 34 sacks.
RESULTS: Senior tackle Jerry Tillery led the Irish with eight sacks and junior end Julian Okwara managed seven, part of a group that managed 31. Despite being largely on the right track here, the verdicts that matter still count just 1-3, barring a three-sack performance in the next game (or two). If Notre Dame is to notch another win, defensive line pressure figures to be a key piece of that upset.

26) The Irish will give up more than 20 points more than three times, but the defense will still allow fewer than 21.5 points per game, both being 2017’s marks.
RESULT: Got one! Wake Forest (27), Virginia Tech (23), Navy (22) and Northwestern (21) all broke 20, but the season average remained just 17.2 points against per game.

27) Again using last season as the initial measuring stick, Notre Dame will allow fewer than 369.2 yards per game. In fact, let’s lower it to 350.
RESULT: Two in a row! The final figure … 331.5, the lowest since 2012’s 305.5.

28) This was a very specific projection expecting opposing running backs to score in the passing game, but here’s the thing …
RESULT: Hardly anyone scoredin the passing game against the Irish, who gave up just seven passing touchdowns this season.

29) Freshman linebackers Shayne Simon and Bo Bauer will not preserve a year of eligibility. Freshman quarterback Phil Jurkovec will.
RESULT: Check.

30) A Notre Dame safety will intercept a pass, unlike in 2017.
RESULT: How does five sound?

31) Simon will make 10-plus tackles.
RESULT: If only that had read Bauer. Simon finished with four, while Bauer reached 10. The idea was it would be a freshman linebacker, so there’s that consolation prize.

32) Fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill and senior linebacker Te’von Coney will combine for 220 tackles.
RESULT: Tranquill’s 76 plus Coney’s team-high 107 equal 183. Even a two-game Playoff run would not likely include 37 more.

33) The Yankees really let down their fans this year. You can gather the result by that sentiment.
34) At least Big East basketball in Madison Square Garden still lives up to all expectations. Again, the result is obvious.

35) Nationwide win total unders … Texas Tech under 6.5 (5), Washington State under 5.5 (10), Arizona State under 4.5 (7), North Carolina under 5.5 (2).
RESULT: This is going to sound like a reach, but there are records of this thought process — An added investment in that North Carolina belief actually made this a profitable set.

36) Nationwide win total overs … Virginia Tech over 8 (6), Vanderbilt over 4.5 (6), Northwestern over 6.5 (8), Michigan State over 8.5 (7), TCU over 7.5 (6), Arizona over 7.5 (5), Oregon over 8.5 (8).
RESULT: The two correct — Vanderbilt and Northwestern — were believed as strongly as the previous Tar Heels thought was, but not strongly enough to make 2-4 acceptable.

37) Notre Dame will not reach the top five at any point in 2018.
RESULT: That’s “Playoff-bound” Notre Dame now …

38) The Irish will win more than 9.5 games.
RESULT: Remember when time was spent wondering if Notre Dame could beat three of Michigan, Stanford, Virginia Tech, Florida State and USC?

39) Notre Dame will play in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day.
RESULT: Only one loss away from being accurate.

40) At least 15 of these 40 will be wrong, the Prognosticator’s Paradox.
RESULT: Try 23.

Though, four could conceivably flip Dec. 29 (Nos. 4, 9, 11 and 25) and five more were right in spirit, but not precise enough to count as winning wagers (Nos. 5, 17, 21, 24, 31).

How about a surefire 41st? In a season this fun, this devoid of controversy, little is better than being wrong. This drink is to being wrong often.

Where Notre Dame was, is, and what it needs vs. Clemson: Offensive line

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All the ingredients were there for Notre Dame to have a poor offensive line this season, at least relatively speaking. Only so much can be expected when two All-Americans hear their names called in the first nine picks of the NFL draft, when an esteemed position coach also heads to the NFL and when a presumptive All-American tears his ACL in the first half of the season.

Yet, this Irish line has been good enough to support this unbeaten push to the Playoff, though by doing so, the line’s greatest challenge now awaits.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
The loss of fifth-year left tackle Alex Bars cannot be overstated. The Irish line was not playing excellently through the season’s first third, but it was playing no worse than satisfactorily and its concerns were limited. The four sacks allowed against Ball State were as much a symptom of a questionable offensive game plan and its execution than they were a sign junior right guard Tommy Kraemer was not going to work out as a full-time starter.

The solid core of Bars and fifth-year center Sam Mustipher, an eventual All-American in his own right, made it easier for Notre Dame to compensate elsewhere. Entering the year, that qualification was expected to apply to junior left tackle Liam Eichenberg, but with Bars at his side, he wrought no worry. Instead it was Kraemer and to a lesser extent sophomore right tackle Robert Hainsey.

Getting beaten by Michigan’s ends is hardly a fault; few lines in the country could conceivably slow down both Chase Winovich and Rashan Gary. No other threats of that level lingered on the Irish schedule. Planting a running back or tight end to help out against singular dangers — Florida State junior end Brian Burns comes to mind — would be the preferred strategy proven time and time again a year ago. But then Bars got rolled up on against Stanford.

In retrospect, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly may have revealed the awaiting issues when discussing Bars’ injury just the day after it occurred. Kelly wanted to offer nothing but praise of senior Trevor Ruhland, but the differences between him and Bars were too stark to leave unmentioned.

“We don’t have to alter our game plan or calls when Trevor’s in,” Kelly said. “He’s very reliable.

“He doesn’t have the size, necessarily, as Alex does, but he brings some other strengths to the position. … He’s a really solid player.”

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Thus the one spot of mild concern became two, one on each side of the line, otherwise known as one too many to patch with a running back or tight end while still maintaining the structural integrity of Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long’s scheme.

Ruhland played well, but he was also needed to shore up right guard for Kraemer. Perhaps it is the workload, maybe he needs time on the sidelines to think through what he is seeing, who knows — Kraemer was not quite handling his first season as a full-time starter. So Notre Dame moved Ruhland over to a timeshare at right guard while promoting sophomore Aaron Banks into the starting lineup at left guard coming out of the October off week.

“[Banks has] been emerging over a period of time,” Kelly said. “Certainly when [Bars] went down, it created more of a focus on the position itself. Tying to duplicate that kind of size and quickness that Alex has is very difficult.

“We felt like Aaron has accelerated his game to the point where we feel comfortable starting him at the left guard position. Still have a lot of confidence in Ruhland and Kraemer … but we think our best chance at playing at the level that we need to puts a 6-5, 325-pound lineman that pass protects very well, moves his feet very well, and plays with explosiveness — now gives us two really big, physical, athletic players on the left side.”

Sophomore right tackle Robert Hainsey and the Notre Dame offensive line allowed only 19 sacks this season. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

Banks has largely delivered. Some credit there should probably go to Eichenberg who has handled his tasks as a first-year starter stepping into a position manned by three straight top-20 NFL draftees across the last eight years. The concerns remain the patchwork right guard spot of primarily Kraemer and some Ruhland, and a bit revolving around Hainsey in the run game, his handful of false starts this season overblown in their practical effect.

Gauging the line’s effectiveness in the ground game is difficult, given the up-and-down production of late. Each of the following stats is true, once again proving how easily statistics can be manipulated to fit any storyline:

— The Irish averaged 200 rushing yards per game (sacks adjusted) this season, the third-highest mark of Kelly’s nine years at Notre Dame, trailing only last year’s prolific attack and 2015’s high-powered offense.
— The Irish averaged 209.4 rushing yards per game (sacks adjusted) since inserting Banks into the starting lineup following the off week.
— If removing a 365-yard explosion against an apathetic Florida State defense, that latter figure drops to 170.5.
— Three of the five games in question were far below the 200 mark, averaging 142.5 yards (still sacks adjusted), and even that is inflated by some garbage time breakaways against Syracuse.

Notre Dame still runs the ball whenever Long wants to. The most flexible of selections results in 34.3 attempts per game in those three games of struggles (at Northwestern, vs. Syracuse, at USC), hardly giving up on the ground attack. It just is not breaking defenses that way, and some of that lackluster production comes from the offensive line not getting inherent push.

WHAT NOTRE DAME WILL NEED AGAINST CLEMSON
Its best performance of the year.

There is an alternate universe where Bars does not get hurt, plays left tackle, and Quenton Nelson returned for a fifth season. The left side of that line against this Tigers defense would have triggered exultations from football purists best left undescribed. Alas, this is not that universe. The Irish have not enjoyed such fortune; only Clemson has.

By any measure, this opposing defensive front is better than any Notre Dame has faced to date.

“They have all the pieces,” Kelly said earlier this month. “They have the long, athletic edge player with the physical two-gap inside player. They don’t have just the one kind of player that most defensive lines have, a one-dimensional player. They have them across the board. … There’s no weakness across the front four.

“So you can’t pick a particular guy and say, we’re going to run at him or we’re going to run away from or we’re going to slide the protection to him. If we slide it over here and we leave him one-on-one, that’s a problem. … If there’s a one-on-one across the board, they are all problems. That’s what makes it difficult.”

Ranking the top players across the country in a neat top 50 is an exercise for debate and clicks, but there is still a reason ESPN puts three Tigers defensive linemen in its top 12. They are that good.

Of the defenses the Irish played since turning to Banks, only Northwestern (No. 19) and Florida State (No. 30) hold pertinent rush defense rankings by advanced metrics. The former held Notre Dame to 121 yards on 40 carries, while the latter gave up 365 yards on 50 rushes.

There is a big jump from No. 30 to No. 1, bigger than 29 spots indicate, but if the Irish can run for 200 yards, they would be the first ones to do so against Clemson since the 2016 national championship game. The Tigers still won that, 35-31, despite giving up 221 rushing yards to Alabama, but it took every ounce of offensive production Clemson could muster to outpace the Tide.

As much as keeping junior quarterback Ian Book upright and only mildly hassled, the offensive line’s Dec. 29 performance will be measured by the push it gets on running plays. Long is going to call them regardless.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WILL BE
Returning four starters next year will not be a bad spot to start, though losing Mustipher is a blow not to be overlooked. A three-year starter at center, he handled protection calls without any second-guessing. Whether it is Ruhland, Hainsey or an underclassmen who steps in for him, there will be a learning curve in that regard.

Where Notre Dame was, is, and what it needs vs. Clemson: Receivers and Tight ends

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The obvious, shortened version of this thought process ties every piece of the receivers’ and tight ends’ development to the shift in quarterbacks. That change certainly aided their production, but so did their development.

A year ago, Brandon Wimbush’s inaccuracy was exacerbated by repeated drops from the likes of Chase Claypool and Alizé Mack. Some of those passes were not perfectly on target, but many hit the target in the hands and yet fell to the turf.

This season, Claypool made twisting grabs contested by defensive backs. Mack held onto passes despite immediate hits. The receivers and tight ends improved on their own, improvements made more evident by Ian Book’s aptitude distributing the ball.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
While discussing the quarterbacks a couple days ago, this space featured a quote from Irish head coach Brian Kelly following the victory in week two against Ball State. In it, Kelly claimed Notre Dame’s leading receiver had nine catches entering 2018. It was only hyperbolic in that senior Miles Boykin had 12 last season and 18 in his career. If Kelly were speaking specifically to Boykin’s regular season output in 2017, nine was indeed accurate.

It remained quoted as nine, rather than with a usual parenthetical correction, because it so aptly underscored the Irish inexperience at receiver and tight end entering this season. Whether Boykin had nine or 12 or 18 receptions, it was not many.

Notre Dame senior receiver Miles Boykin entered the season with 18 career catches for 334 yards and three touchdowns. He has more than doubled each of those in 2018 alone, pulling in 54 passes for 803 yards and eight scores. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

When Boykin established himself as the leading receiving in spring practice and even more so in the preseason, it seemed to serve as a reminder of Claypool’s continued inconsistencies. When sophomore Michael Young suffered a hamstring injury in August, it seemed to lower the ceiling on the passing game even further, pulling the only-known speed threat and replacing it with Chris Finke’s good hands, but not much more.

Book changed those perceptions, but arguably not as much as the receivers themselves did throughout the season.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Let’s continue to use Claypool as the driving example, and let’s acknowledge a mistake in analysis from yours truly. At Northwestern to start November, Claypool had a catch on the second Irish drive, gaining 16 yards and a first down. A possession later, he pulled in another for 19. Both were quality, physical plays. Then he went silent for more than a quarter, targeted just once. Claypool was no longer getting separation as he had to begin the evening.

The halftime score of 7-7 left one wondering how Notre Dame would find needed offensive output. One colleague posited it would come from Claypool. This response? “He already has his two big catches for the day. He’s good.”

To that point, Claypool had not strung together consistently-good performances at any point in his career. Last season he exceeded three catches just twice, and they were separated by six weeks. Through this September and October, he had established five as his lofty ceiling, reaching it in each of the two weeks preceding the trip to Lake Michigan. Expecting Claypool to break out in the second half of a close game was a hope based on little evidence.

Then he put together six catches for 95 yards in that half alone. Two weeks later, a similar stat line came in Yankee Stadium. Claypool has not yet shown a reliable ability to reach his best, but in Book’s last five starts, the junior receiver’s floor became five catches for 60 or so yards. That is production the Irish will gladly take.

“He has really ascended this year,” Kelly said following that Northwestern showing. “… The way he practices, anybody who has been around the game knows the great players are great practice players. The way he practices now carries over to the way he plays, and it’s showing itself in his maturity and the way he practices.”

Similar growth has been seen from the rest of Notre Dame’s primary passing targets.

Boykin’s breakthrough came as September turned to October, making 11 and eight catches in back-to-back weeks, each breaking triple digits and reaching the end zone. Before last year’s Citrus Bowl heroics, Boykin had never made as many as three catches in a game. At this point, he has done so in eight straight. Senior Chris Finke has gone from only one game with multiple catches in 2017 to managing such in every game in 2018.

Miles Boykin: 54 catches for 803 yards and 8 touchdowns.
Chase Claypool: 48 catches for 631 yards and 4 touchdowns.
Chris Finke: 47 catches for 547 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Alizé Mack: 34 catches for 349 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Cole Kmet: 14 catches for 151 yards.
Michael Young: 7 catches for 138 yards and 1 touchdown.
Kevin Austin: 5 catches for 90 yards.
Nic Weishar: 3 catches for 10 yards and 2 touchdowns.

If Notre Dame senior tight end were to match his two touchdowns scored against Florida State when the Irish face Clemson on Dec. 29, that would bode very, very well for the chances of extending his collegiate career by a game. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

WHAT NOTRE DAME WILL NEED AGAINST CLEMSON
This newfound consistency, plus a big play or two from the tight ends. That is where a mismatch may be found.

Such an added dimension has been lacking in part because the receivers have played so well, in part because sophomore Cole Kmet has battled a lingering ankle injury, and in part because it is a difficult aspect of the game in general, let alone for a first-year starting quarterback without the greatest deep ball.

Kelly has spoken of slipping in a speedy freshman to create a deep threat and put pressure on the Tigers’ safeties.

“We’re looking for maybe one speed guy that could do some things for us in a limited role,” Kelly said last week. “… We’ve got a couple guys on audition. We’ll see if it’s a gong show or if there is someone that can up and do something.”

The thought feels manufactured, something to motivate the freshmen through this month and possibly make Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables think for a night. There is a reason it has not happened yet this season, and that is the Irish know what they may have at tight end.

“Chris Finke was clearly established at that position (where a freshman could step in),” Kelly said. “Our ability to use a tight end as the next guy in at the position in terms of how we were going to run our offense …”

In other words, Finke is backed up by Kmet, not by freshman Braden Lenzy or Lawrence Keys. Kmet’s or Mack’s athleticism and size could put a Tigers safety in a compromised position, creating a 30-yard shot downfield against the defense that ranked No. 11 defending those this season.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WILL BE
A tricky question to ponder until knowing whether Boykin and Claypool head to the NFL or not. Finke is staying, Mack is going, and fifth-year tight end Nic Weishar is out of eligibility. The decisions affect the position’s experience, not as much its depth, considering 11 receivers and six tight ends (counting Mack and Weishar) currently populate the roster with two more receivers expected to sign National Letters of Intent in less than a week.