Insider’s Preview: Syracuse

What challenge awaits Notre Dame this weekend at MetLife Stadium? Irish Illustrated caught up with Mike McAllister of Cuse Nation for an inside look at the Orange.

Pete Sampson: I’m curious about first-year head coach Dino Babers because even just watching them against Louisville, it’s an entertaining product. Where have you seen Babers put his fingerprints on the program in his first year, especially offensively?

Mike McAllister: It’s about the culture and it’s about offense. That seems to be the thing that people talk about with Dino Babers, that fast-paced offensive tempo. But to me it’s largely about culture change, especially this year. It’s getting rid of the, I don’t want to say losing mindset and the players expected to lose, but for the past 15 years Syracuse has been in position where success has been rare. Changing the mindset of players and attitude of the program to where it expects to win and expects to compete.

And then also completely changing the systems on both sided of the ball. That’s a major thing. We’ve seen some success on offense, but it’s been inconsistent. But when you have that drastic of a change when you have polar opposite schemes year over year, then you have growing pains. With the offense you have some success here and there, but then they also can’t get out of their own way. And then you’ll see touchdown, touchdown, touchdown on three drives in a row. That’s happening every game. Defensively, it’s almost the same thing. You see a couple drives where Syracuse looks impenetrable and the system works, and then you see another series where the opponent can move the ball right down the field.

Basically, you see flashes of when everything becomes more consistent and guys are here who have been recruited for his system that this could be really fun to watch and go to another level.

PS: The matchup that gets my attention is Notre Dame’s secondary against that offense. Syracuse is fourth nationally in plays run and top six in completions, attempts and passing yardage. Basically, that means your secondary better tackle. What does the Orange have there, starting with quarterback Eric Dungey and receiver Amba Etta-Tawo (12 catches, 270 yards, 2 TDs last week)?

MM: I thought Etta-Tawo would be a good fit in this offense, but no one saw this coming. Most people thought that receiver Steve Ishmael would be the No. 1 guy because he put up big numbers last year. It’s been Etta-Tawo.

He was a three-star recruit out of Georgia who went to Maryland and had some early success as a freshman. Had a couple 100-yard games, including one against Syracuse. But he never rose up the depth chart there. He struggled with drops in games and practices, so never made a move. When Maryland made a coaching change he decided to leave. Syracuse needed speed and this offense is receiver friendly. It’s just been a perfect fit (40 catches, 706 yards, 5 TDs).

Really had a great off-season too and you’ve seen the drops decrease. Not perfect, but nothing egregious. He’s a threat on deep balls, screens, short stuff, posts, square ins, everything. That connection goes back to the summer with Eric Dungey, really working hard to develop chemistry. Even though Etta-Tawo will only be here one season, he should shatter all of the school’s receiving records.

PS: Is the philosophy offensively just that they’re going to go so fast that you can’t keep up and it doesn’t matter if the fundamentals aren’t great?

MM: That helps with the learning curve on offense, but you can’t get away with pace helping a defense. That’s why the learning curve is bigger there. But offensively, if your guard misses a block on a defensive tackle, the ball is out of the quarterback’s hand so quickly that you don’t get hurt by it. All of that plays into why the offense has had some success, but it’s also played into the consistency issues.

If there’s an issue to note, it’s the inaccuracy of Eric Dungey at quarterback, not hitting guys in stride, not being consistent enough. For the season he’s 117-of-179 (65.4 percent) for 1,367 yards, nine touchdowns, three interceptions.

PS: Injury-wise on defense, how hurt is Syracuse? Are they just in a rebuilding mode anyway so it doesn’t make much difference?

MM: They are rebuilding, but you want better guys out there. Syracuse is missing starting defensive tackle Kayton Samuels, who’s been pretty good for them this year. Multiple guys in the secondary are out, starters Antwan Cordy and Juwan Dowels are out for the season. Those are two of the better guys and Cordy is probably their best defensive back. Kielan Whitner, the starting safety at the beginning of the season and he’s missed the last couple games. Daivon Ellison has started in his place, but he’s 5-foot-8. That’s an issue against bigger receivers. In 1-on-1 matchups, that’s a problem. He is a good tackler, though. The team is already not deep, even when healthy.

PS: So what do they do well defensively? Is there something that might be an issue for Notre Dame?

MM: The linebackers are pretty good in how they move sideline to sideline. In 3rd-and-long you’ll see starting linebacker Jonathan Thomas move down to defensive end and rush the passer. They’ve got some linebackers who move well. Zaire Franklin is the leader of the defense. Had probably his best game at Syracuse last week with 14 tackles and a deflection that led to a pick-six. Had a couple tackles for loss too. I think he’s growing into the defense as a read and react guy. Linebacker is where the strength is. The defensive line and the secondary, those are concerns.

PS: How much has your perception of this game changed in the last month?

MM: I think it’s changed somewhat for me. When the schedule first came out, everyone saw four guaranteed losses: Florida State, Clemson, Louisville and Notre Dame. Notre Dame hasn’t been as good as expected, but I don’t think Syracuse fans go into this game thinking Syracuse is more talented than Notre Dame. People still aren’t expecting all that much. For me, I think the score will be closer Saturday than I thought in August.

Obviously I see Syracuse getting more comfortable in their schemes on both sides. On top of that, if you have an upset where one team is so much more talented than the other, there are usually issues with the favored team not playing up to their level. I wonder about Notre Dame’s motivation at 1-3 and out of the playoffs with no conference title there. If Notre Dame comes in flat, I think that’s where Syracuse can put game pressure on Notre Dame to keep it close. Ultimately, because Notre Dame is so good offensively, I think a mobile quarterback like DeShone Kizer is kryptonite to Syracuse. That’s where Notre Dame has a big upper hand and why they win the game.

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