Notre Dame crushes Syracuse to finish unbeaten regular season, ACC title game next

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Ian Book made sure he would end his career as Notre Dame’s starting quarterback without ever losing at home. The Irish did not need every one of his five total touchdowns, but they needed more from the three-year starter than expected in a 45-21 win against Syracuse on Saturday.

Book led a Notre Dame flurry at the end of the first half to turn a 7-3 deficit into a 24-7 lead and ease any unnecessary tension in both the Irish locker room and the sparsely-attended stands. The two-time captain began the surge with a 28-yard scramble into the end zone before finding fifth-year receiver Javon McKinley on the next drive for the first of McKinley’s three touchdown catches. The two would connect once more before the half, a leaping touchdown seconds before the break, to seal the game’s result even if the Orange (1-10, 1-9 ACC) seemingly hung around a bit longer.

Book finishes his career at Notre Dame Stadium at 15-0 as the starter, leading the crux of a 24-game home winning streak and a 16-game overall winning streak, both active. A 285-yard passing performance, in a way matched by his 53 rushing yards on eight carries, put the finishing touches on his last afternoon in South Bend and pushed the senior class’ record at home to 25-1.

“He just continues to get better,” head coach Brian Kelly said. “He’ll probably tell you it wasn’t his ‘A’ game. It was probably a game where he played good, he wants to play better, but that’s the great thing about him.

“He hasn’t played his best game yet in his eyes, but he still accounted for five touchdowns and threw some great balls.”

The turnover-riddled contest — even usually ball-secure Book lost a fumble and threw an interception, both plays involved in moments of immediate reciprocity between the two teams — also featured dropped passes and more penalties than would normally be expected from the No. 2 team in the country with a berth in the ACC championship game already secured.

But perhaps that ACC assurance played a part in the Irish (10-0, 9-0 ACC) starting slowly against undermanned Syracuse. In due time, though, talent shined through. McKinley more than made up for his dropped touchdown pass on the first drive. Sophomore running back Kyren Williams eventually found enough running space to break loose for 110 yards on the day to reach 1,011 yards on the season. Freshman running back Chris Tyree broke loose for a 94-yard score late in the fourth quarter when Notre Dame actually intended to simply milk the clock, placing him third all-time in longest Irish rushes, behind only Josh Adams’ 98-yard score in 2015 and Dexter Williams’ 98-yarder in 2018.

Though the defense gave up two long runs, and one blown pass coverage, for scores, the underlying stats indicated Notre Dame dominated throughout the day. Even the halftime score of 24-7 was misleading, given the Irish had outgained Syracuse 311 yards to 174 at that point, had controlled possession and averaged 8.4 yards per first down. In the end, Notre Dame outgained the Orange 568 yards to 414, while continuing a season trend of ball control with 33:50 time of possession, and averaged 6.4 yards per first down, two more than Syracuse managed, not to mention 7.4 yards per play, one more than the Orange did.

The play was sloppy, but once the mistakes were in the rearview mirror (such as McKinley’s recurring case of the drops), the Irish cruised to their second unbeaten regular season in the last three years and fourth consecutive 10-win season.

“If we look at the entire season, this was obviously special,” Kelly said to NBC. “Our guys and what they overcame this season to go undefeated, and over four years to go 25-1, is just an incredibly consistent performance week-in and week-out.”

Notre Dame has next week off after the ACC canceled the makeup trip to Wake Forest. The Irish will face Clemson in the conference championship game on Dec. 19 after the No. 3 Tigers topped Virginia Tech on Saturday to seal their half of the rematch of the Nov. 7 double-overtime classic Notre Dame victory.

STAT OF THE GAME
Whether or not Book gets the national credit he should, he will be recognized in the Irish record books for a long time to come. He has now won more games as the Notre Dame starting quarterback than any other passer in history. Reaching 30 is more than a testament to having more games on the schedule than Ron Powlus (29), Tom Clements (29) and Tony Rice (28), hence why Book also currently sits at No. 2 in all-time winning percentage (.909), behind only Johnny Lujack (20-1-1, .932).

“To be able to have this be my last home game and step back for a second and to never have lost at home, it is really a team award, though, rather than an individual award,” Book said of both marks. “I’m just really thankful to be part of this special team. …

“I couldn’t have done it by myself. There’s a lot of people who have helped get me to this point. When I got here, all I wanted to do was just play quarterback. I wasn’t thinking about breaking any records, or never losing at home. Again, it’s just a special, special night.”

To put the 30-win accomplishment in forward-thinking terms, even if the Irish lose their next two games, it would take a three-year starter, remaining healthy, rattling off two 10-win seasons and then an 11-win year to top Book’s record. Considering Notre Dame has won 10-plus games in three straight seasons only twice in its history (1991-93 and 2017-2020), that would be quite an ask for a future quarterback.

Some may argue there are more games these days, so it will happen eventually. Yes, it will happen eventually, all records do fall (except perhaps Lujack’s), but it took 46 years for someone to break Clements’ record of 29 career wins. Book will hold this for some time, quite some time.

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
At some point Notre Dame was going to break open this home finale. The talent differential between the Irish and the Orange was too vast to remain close for long, particularly given Syracuse’s roster management issues.

But that exact point came on a 3rd-and-10 late in the second quarter when Book threw wide of sophomore running back Kyren Williams. What appeared to be yet another stalled drive, the root of Notre Dame’s problem as it trailed 7-3, and a chance for Syracuse to then build its lead before receiving the second-half kickoff, changed when a flag flew. Orange defensive end Kingsley Jonathan had roughed Book, granting the Irish a first down.

It took three quick chunk gains of 18 yards (pass to Tommy Tremble), 11 yards (pass to McKinley) and 28 yards (Book’s scamper) for Notre Dame to take a lead it would not relinquish.

Rather than Syracuse ball with the lead and five minutes before halftime, the Irish tacked on two more touchdowns before the break to kickstart the trouncing. The last of those may have been the most surprising, a downfield shot to McKinley with only six seconds remaining in the quarter that illustrated just how much his body control has developed this season, as has Book’s understanding of it. Describing McKinley’s catch as Claypool-esque would be generous but not altogether inaccurate.

“If they were in man, we were going to throw the fade to McKinley in the corner,” Kelly said. “McKinley went up, made a great catch and a touchdown. As Ian came running back off the field, he says, ‘I can’t believe they pressed him and gave us that touchdown.’

“We’re at that stage now where Ian doesn’t believe that if you press McKinley, that anybody can defend him and he’s going to put the ball where it needs to be.”

EMBELLISHED STAT OF THE GAME
Despite only allowing faculty and staff and their families to attend, and many of them not relishing a cloudy day with mid-30 degree temperatures, Notre Dame Stadium avoided a record-low attendance figure, at least officially. It would not have taken much longer than the quick first quarter (34 minutes) to count enough of the heads spattered across the stadium’s lower bowl to logically disprove the announced crowd of 6,831 fans.

But that is the number that will be put just above the 1932 Drake game’s 6,663 fans.

The lack of students on campus also meant there were no band or cheerleaders around, a reality that jarring than expected when a recorded national anthem preceded the Irish coming out of the tunnel.

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
9:32 — Notre Dame field goal. Jonathan Doerer 25 yards. Notre Dame 3, Syracuse 0. (12 plays, 73 yards, 5:28)

Second Quarter
9:55 — Syracuse touchdown. Anthony Queeley 18-yard pass from Rex Culpepper. Andre Szmyt PAT good. Syracuse 7, Notre Dame 3. (10 plays, 62 yards, 4:07)
3:18 — Notre Dame touchdown. Ian Book 28-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 10, Syracuse 7. (5 plays, 72 yards, 2:18)
1:30 — Notre Dame touchdown. Javon McKinley 21-yard pass from Book. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 17, Syracuse 7. (1 play, 21 yards, 0:08)
0:06 — Notre Dame touchdown. McKinley 28-yard pass from Book. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 24, Syracuse 7. (6 plays, 68 yards, 0:32)

Third Quarter
11:20 — Syracuse touchdown. Sean Tucker 40-yard rush. Szmyt PAT good. Notre Dame 24, Syracuse 14. (5 plays, 57 yards, 2:14)
6:32 — Notre Dame touchdown. Book 18-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 31, Syracuse 14. (8 plays, 53 yards, 3:23)
1:07 — Notre Dame touchdown. McKinley 26-yard pass from Book. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 38, Syracuse 14. (3 plays, 68 yards, 1:03)

Fourth Quarter
6:25 — Notre Dame touchdown. Chris Tyree 94-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 45, Syracuse 14. (2 plays, 87 yards, 0:52)
5:33 — Syracuse touchdown. Cooper Lutz 80-yard touchdown rush. Szmyt PAT good. Notre Dame 45, Syracuse 21. (2 plays, 81 yards, 0:52)