Yes, but as projected in the preview, it was indeed by default. Syracuse ran for 97 yards on 29 carries offensively (and 42 on one fake punt). Those numbers weren't good enough to compete with Notre Dame for 60 minutes but the Orange offensive front did something no other opposing unit had done previously -- they handled the Irish pass rush in a manner that gave their quarterback a fighting chance.
Terrel Hunt hit on 22 passes for 294 yards, was not sacked, and was only officially hurried twice, though my game notes found six.
Notre Dame will face a difficult challenge up front next week when Stanford comes to town, but it's likewise true the new-look Cardinal offensive line has not yet reached the performance level of its predecessors from 2010-2013.
It's time we realize Notre Dame's defensive front is much stronger than projected -- at least as long as Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones remain in good health.
2. Will Notre Dame's O-Line Machinations Matter?
First the bad, because it was more obvious: The Irish front five yielded five tackles for loss including a vicious sack of Everett Golson, plus multiple instances in which Golson abandoned the pocket early, due to either real or perceived pressure.
Without the benefit of Monday's forthcoming film review, it appeared Nick Martin struggled a bit in his starting debut as a left guard (though Christian Lombard and Steve Elmer bear the lion's share of responsibility for Golson's sack). The unit was flagged for two penalties, false starts on Lombard and Ronnie Stanley.
Conversely, the group paved the way for 161 yards on 41 carries and afforded Golson quality protection on his 72-yard touchdown toss to Will Fuller, a pattern that saw Fuller run a deep post across and more than 50 yards downfield.
Though the longest gain of the day by an Irish running back was just 14 yards (Tarean Folston), the offensive front offered enough of a consistent push to help convert all eight of the team's 3rd down designed rushes into first downs.
In comparison to game's past, the Irish offensive line definitively offered its best overall effort of 2014. By the harshest critic, it was a necessary step forward. Regardless, Harry Hiestand's unit will have its hands full Saturday in South Bend.
3. Can Torii Hunter Ease the Absence of Daniels and Carlisle?
Still to be determined, as Hunter didn't enter the contest until midway through the final quarter, but the redshirt-freshman made his debut count, taking a jet sweep for five yards on his first career touch and on the ensuing snap, his first reception for a 13-yard score.
"Good start. Any time you can catch a touchdown on your first time getting the ball, you have something good going," said Golson of Hunter who received a hero's welcome from his teammates after the score. "He was just happy. Kind of a like a kid in a candy store almost."
It amounts to a crucial first step in Hunter's development, which was the realistic goal entering the contest. Even with Carlisle's impending return (this week in uniform or next week as the player we remember), Hunter's addition to the fray will bolster the Irish passing game, one predicated on balance and threats from every position, every angle, and every level of the passing tree.
A qualified yes, with only Bryant experiencing some ebb to the collection's flow vs. the Orange.
-- Shumate's practice-field penchant for solid open-field tackles has finally translated to Saturdays -- on two of his three stops my defensive game notes included, "Shumate there immediately" following short gains through the air. He brings a much-needed thumper to the back line.
-- Okwara has been better than expected (much better than my projection) -- the best of the team's *three regular defensive end competitors, each of which will return for the 2015 season. He finished Saturday with three tackles and two unofficial pressures. Among his three stops was a tackle for no gain and another after one yard.
(*The other two, starter Isaach Rochell and freshman Andrew Trumbetti, are on the rise as well.)
-- Robinson produced the best outing of the featured quintet, earning an Irish Eyes game ball after a career-best eight receptions for 91 yards and a leaping touchdown. Targeted 10 times on the day, six of his eight grabs resulted in a first down or touchdown. As head coach Brian Kelly noted post-game, the big-play threat is developing into a well-rounded wide receiver -- ahead of schedule.
-- Prosise was lauded post-game for his work as a perimeter blocker, the key component Kelly in the Irish game plan.
"C.J. Prosise was huge tonight. his ability to stabilize the sam linebacker, the nickel on the perimeter was huge for us," said Kelly. "And then Will Fuller held his own against their corner. And if we were going to get overwhelmed at that position, we would not have had some of the success we had, so blocking was key for us at the wide receiver position tonight."
-- Bryant officially led the Irish with 55 rushing yards on 11 carries, though 10 of his attempts occurred after the Irish had already mounted a 21-3 lead with 5:59 remaining in the third quarter. Bryant also suffered a drive-ending fumble at the Syracuse 28-yard line. It occurred on his sixth consecutive carry after accruing 30 yards prior to the miscue. The Irish fed him the rock, and he didn't cherish the possession of it.
Bryant was unexpectedly tentative in his relief of Amir Carlisle as the lead kick returner, managing tip-toeing returns of 17 and 16 yards, respectively.
Running backs coach Tony Alford spent time with Bryant in close conversation following his fumble, both on the sidelines and post-game. A bright future exists for the redshirt freshman -- Bryant's a handful to bring down in short-space -- but "future" remains the operative word as we enter Game Five of 2014.