What, and Who, to Watch

O'Malley offers a quartet of questions in need of answers inside MetLife Saturday night.

1. Is the Syracuse O-Line (and thus, its offense) the best the Irish defense has faced?

Isn't it by default?

Rice was undermanned up front and had a quarterback that could run, but he passed at a rudimentary level. Michigan's offensive line has been among the nation's worst for just over a calendar year, and it's a rudderless ship. As for Purdue? Would a Boilermaker's offensive player breech Notre Dame's two-deep?

Syracuse can move the ball on the ground, both with a host of runners and the deceptive stylings of six-foot-three, 235-pound quarterback Terrel Hunt.

"I like to refer to it as natural elusiveness," said Irish cornerback Cody Riggs of Hunt's ability to gain chunks on the ground. "Some guys have that knack for using their bodies well and getting away from defenders. He may not be quick, he may not be the fastest, but he knows how to set defenders up and get his way."

"It's important to win on first and third down, because they're a running football team," Riggs added.

Sophomore linebacker Jaylon Smith offered an additional quandary when facing a player such as Hunt.

"You start with the quarterback. Very explosive and elusive at that," said Smith. "He's always willing to make a play. From a vision perspective, he's now into the equation, maybe more than what a normal quarterback would be.

"At that he's a bigger quarterback. A physical presence."

Hunt ranks fifth nationally in rushing yards among quarterbacks, 91 per contest. He produced 375 all-purpose yards against Maryland for an Orange attack the compiled nearly 600 yards of total offense in defeat.

Hunt though hasn't faced a defense near the quality of Notre Dame's. In turn, the Irish have faced offense's that were severely hamstrung, either on the ground, through the air, on the sidelines, or all of the above.

We'll know more about defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder's group as midnight approaches Saturday.

2. Will Notre Dame's O-Line Machinations Matter?

The names remain much the same, but Irish fans not paying attention to the week's events will be surprised to see four players starting in new positions Saturday night. However each has played (with three previously starting) in those roles before.

The lone holdover of the group is, not coincidentally, its best player this fall, left tackle Ronnie Stanley. Nick Martin (C to LG), Matt Hegarty (backup RG to C), Steve Elmer (RT to RG) and Christian Lombard (RG to RT) will try to improve an offensive front that is best described as underwhelming through three games.

Including sacks, the Irish averaged 1.7 yards per carry against Michigan. The Irish running backs just 2.4 vs. the Wolverines and 3.4 vs. Purdue. Without a 56-yard run by backup quarterback Malik Zaire against Rice, long after the contest had been decided, the Notre Dame rushing offense would have produced at a 3.8 yards-per-carry clip to date.

And pressure on quarterback Everett Golson has been the norm.

Something had to change.

The goal, according to Kelly, was to get stronger inside with Elmer and Martin (and unstated, to put Lombard in Elmer's pass protection role at right tackle where he's struggled).

Was this alignment explored as an option in August camp? Can the new look line coalesce in time for Saturday night, and can it improve exponentially by the time Stanford's nail-chewing front seven hits South Bend next week?

Syracuse's movement up front will provide a quality test.

3. Can Torii Hunter Ease the Absence of Daniels and Carlisle?

12 targets, 11 receptions, two touchdowns. Converted running back Amir Carlisle's surprising hot start as a slot receiver was among the lead story lines through two games. But a sprained MCL suffered Sept. 13 against Purdue removes Carlisle from the equation this week and likely next Saturday against Stanford.

Already without top target DaVaris Daniels this season, and not yet able to work the freshmen pair of Justin Brent and Corey Holmes into the game day rotation, offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock finished the Purdue contest with just four competitors ready for action.

Enter Hunter, out since early August with a groin tear.

"Torii Hunter really progressed later in the week," said Kelly of his redshirt-freshman. "I think he might’ve broke through (Wednesday) when he went up and had to extend up in the air and he came down on his left side, one-legged, and came up without any ill effects.

"There has to be that moment where, after a knee, you stick your foot in the ground and it doesn’t give on you and you kinda go through that mentally that you’re ready to go after a knee injury. I think (Wednesday) he went up for a ball and after that catch, it looked like he had kinda broken through that barrier because he looked pretty good."

The 2013 Irish Scout Team Player of the Year, Hunter was withheld as a freshman as he recovered from a broken femur suffered in a January 2013 all-star practice.

Kelly noted Thursday that Hunter had made great strides over the past summer.

"He’s got sure hands, great acceleration and he’s strong. He’s got a strong base. He’s gonna be a really good player. We’ve just gotta get him out there and get him going."

4. Will These Five Continue to Rise: Elijah Shumate, Greg Bryant, Romeo Okwara, C.J. Prosise, and Corey Robinson?

None of the quintet was included in our previously published "Rank and File" column that detailed the team's 10 best players to date. Each though was in the honorable mention category or among the up-and-comers. Shumate starred against Michigan and was solid vs. Purdue -- he now carries himself as a starter, not a stopgap measure or "future" contributor.

Despite limited opportunity, Bryant accounted for gains of 16, 17, and 17 yards from scrimmage in Indianapolis, adding a 29-yard kickoff return. His breakout appears imminent -- though more carries are essential.

Okwara produced his best career outing against Purdue and has recorded a tackle-for-loss in each contest this season. Prosise and Robinson have combined for eight receptions in excess of 15 yards through three games.

Each was considered a pre-season X-factor in need of a major step forward. Each appears to have begun his career ascent, but greater challenges lie ahead.

Consistency ranks at the top of that list.

Overview

In our summer preview series, we identified a predicted 4-0 start for Notre Dame as "mandatory" in order for the Irish to contend for a major bowl this fall.

Now but 60 minutes of football away, the Irish have nonetheless exceeded expectations, moving into the national consciousness in the process.

The Orange should prove Saturday to be Notre Dame's toughest September test, but they're admittedly the fourth in a string of one-dimensional offenses VanGorder's unit has faced.

Short of 200 rushing yards coupled with a turnover-free game -- while creating two of its own -- Syracuse won't have enough to pull off the neutral-site upset.

Notre Dame 34 Syracuse 20


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