Prister’s Preview: Notre Dame vs. Syracuse

Whereas Louisville ultimately had enough defense to shut down the Orange in the fourth quarter, ND will have to keep its foot on the pedal offensively to come out on top.

INSIDE NOTRE DAME-SYRACUSE

Who: Notre Dame (1-3) vs. Syracuse (2-2)
Where: MetLife Stadium (82,566); East Rutherford, N.J.
When: Saturday, Oct. 1, 2016; 12:00 p.m. ET (ABC/ESPN)
Syracuse head coach: Dino Babers (39-18 career, 2-2 at Syracuse)
Syracuse 2015 record: 4-8
Last meeting: 2014—Notre Dame 31, Syracuse 15 (MetLife Stadium)
Series record: Notre Dame 4-3

SYRACUSE FIRST-RATE

Overall ND/opponent rank: 10th 
Rank by position: QB (6th), RB (11th), WR/TE (3rd), OL (11th), DL (11th), LB (8th), DB (9th), ST (8th), C (10th)

2016 SYRACUSE SEASON REVIEW

It’s been feast and famine for Syracuse in its first four games, and mainly a feast for Louisville and South Florida, who combined to score 107 points in back-to-back weeks – 62 by the Cardinals in a 34-point win and 45 by the Bulls in a 25-point victory.

The Orange opened the season with a 33-7 victory over Colgate, a nine-win FCS team in 2015. The Eric Dungey-to-Amba Etta-Tawo (12 catches, 210 yards) connection was established against the Raiders while kicker Cole Murphy booted four field goals between 32 and 41 yards.

In Week Two, Louisville totaled a mind-blowing 845 yards of offense on 81 snaps as the Cardinals scored the first 21 points of the game. Syracuse scored the first 17 points against South Florida, and then surrendered the next 28 in a 45-20 loss. The Bulls possessed the football for just 22:12 on 64 snaps compared to Syracuse’s 37:48 with 105 snaps for 549 yards.

The Orange never trailed in the 31-24 victory over Connecticut last week, but didn’t secure the game until a Dungey touchdown run with 2:14 remaining gave Syracuse a two-touchdown lead. This time, it was Connecticut that ran 91 plays to Syracuse’s 66.

The Huskies possessed the football 38:29 to Syracuse’s 21:31. But the Orange totaled 407 yards through the air as Dungey completed 26-of-40 while averaging 15.6 yards per completion. Etta-Tawo caught nearly half (12) of the Dungey connections for 270 yards and two touchdowns.

KELLY’S CALL

“When you’re 1-3 at Notre Dame, everybody’s job is in jeopardy. It doesn’t mean you can’t be who you are. It just means that there needs to be a sense of urgency and that you need to be focused. You need to be on top of it and you need to go play the game the way it’s meant to be played.

“It’s not meant to be in any way a threat to our coaches. The reality is we all have to look at ourselves closely, myself included, and how we’re doing things. Are we doing everything in our power to be the best we can be? That’s the intent. It’s not a threat. It is a reality of the sense of urgency that everybody has to embrace.”
-- Brian Kelly.

IRISH ADVANTAGES

Syracuse’s anemic ground game: There’s a reason quarterback Eric Dungey has already thrown for 1,367 yards and nine touchdowns. Okay, there are three reasons: Dungey is a gunslinger, the receiving corps, led by Amba Etta-Tawo, is dynamic, and the Orange have great difficulty running the football.

Syracuse has averaged just 3.2 yards per carry and 124.8 yards per game on the ground with a mere three rushing touchdowns. Connecticut held the Orange to 62 yards rushing on 26 carries. Of course, Duke came into Notre Dame Stadium averaging 3.6 yards per tote and cracked the 200-yard mark while averaging 5.0 yards per carry.

Syracuse’s porous rush defense: After allowing 181.8 yards rushing per game last year and 4.8 per carry, the Orange are even worse. Through four games, they’re allowing 5.5 yards per carry and 209.2 yards per game, including Louisville’s 414 yards and seven touchdowns. South Florida averaged 6.7 yards per carry (35-for-234). So in the two losses, Syracuse has surrendered 648 yards on 76 carries. Opponents have scored 13 rushing touchdowns.

Red-zone opportunity (offense): Notre Dame’s red-zone offense has been outstanding through four games, converting 20 penetrations into 16 touchdowns. That’s 80.0 percent, which ranks 15th nationally. Syracuse, on the other hand, is 95th in defensive red-zone touchdown percentage at 69.2 (9-of-13).  

Red-zone opportunity (defense): The Irish haven’t exactly been stout when the opponent penetrates the Notre Dame 20-yard line. But the Irish held Nevada and Duke to just one touchdown in three trips into the red zone while Syracuse has converted just 11 penetrations of the 20-yard line into six touchdowns. For the year, the Irish defense is 95th in red-zone touchdown percentage. Texas and Michigan State were a combined 9-of-10.

Terrible takeaway: Syracuse has forced just four turnovers on 292 snaps – two interceptions on 139 pass attempts and two fumbles recovered on 153 rushing attempts. It should be noted, however, that the Orange have forced nine fumbles while the Irish defense is still looking for its first.

IRISH CONCERNS

Keeping the pace: Syracuse is capable of playing at a breakneck offensive pace. The Orange average 86.2 snaps per game. They had 105 against South Florida (yet produced just two touchdowns, including none in the final 51:40) and 93 versus Louisville (producing just 414 yards).

Eric Dungey/Zack Mahoney: The lanky 6-foot-3, 207-pound Dungey, a sophomore, is creative in getting the football to his receivers. He’ll throw it on the run and test the last rung of defense at any time. He’s averaging 341.8 yards passing and has gained 150 yards on the ground (while losing 83 in sacks) with a pair of rushing touchdowns. He’ll throw the football from any arm slot, which means he’ll try to make a connection under just about any circumstance. He and his receivers also are deadly in the quick game.

There have been reports this week of an unspecified injury to Dungey. If Mahoney is called into action, he has experience after playing in eight games last season with four starts. Although he completed just 46.2 percent of his passes in ’15, seven of his 54 completions went for touchdowns.

Etta-Tawo et al: Amba Etta-Tawo, the 6-foot-2, 200-pound graduate transfer from Maryland, wasn’t even on Irish Illustrated’s pre-season First-Rate list of Syracuse receivers (and we still had them ranked third). He has taken the ACC by storm, snagging 40 passes for 706 yards (17.6) and five touchdowns, including a 12-catch, 210-yard, one-touchdown performance against Colgate and a 12-catch, 270-yard, two-touchdown game against Connecticut. He had eight catches each against Louisville and South Florida, including a pair of scores against the Cardinals.

Syracuse has several receiving threats in addition to Etta-Tawo -- slot receiver Ervin Philips (36-289-2) and Brisly Estime (14-147-2), and 6-foot-2, 210-pound Steve Ishmael (17-171-0).

Fast starts: Syracuse didn’t trail over the final 52:45 against Colgate, led 17-0 after the first quarter against South Florida, and led 14-0 against Connecticut just 4:12 into the game. Louisville scored the first 21 points against Syracuse, but the Orange were within two touchdowns by the end of the third quarter.

NOTRE DAME VS. SYRACUSE PREVIEW

“Orange is the new fast” is Dino Babers’ motto, and so far, Syracuse has lived up to the acclaimed pace. Only Cal, Houston and Ohio University have run more than Syracuse’s 345 plays in four games, and now it’s Notre Dame’s turn to deal with crisis management.

It would be tough enough if controlling the Syracuse pace were the only issue on Notre Dame’s to-do list. The Irish, at 1-3 and without fired defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, are focused on trying to find a way to win a game and shake this September funk that has left them sputtering out of the gate.

Former Notre Dame analyst and 11-year coordinator Greg Hudson has been entrusted with pulling the defensive operation together as Brian Kelly rallies the troops, leans more heavily on long-time assistant coach Mike Elston, and focuses on the most basic of defensive concepts, starting with tackling.

“Look, we can’t cover everything,” said Kelly following Thursday’s final practice before Saturday’s noon kickoff in MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. “They’re going to play fast.

“We know what the plan is. We know what we need to do to slow down a very good offense that has the ability to push the ball down the field with talented receivers. Our guys clearly know what the plan is. Now we’ve got to go execute it.”

Babers will make that difficult. The quarterbacks, whether it’s ailing Eric Dungey or experienced backup Zack Mahoney, get rid of the football quickly, will throw off the read-option fake, will fling it past the last line of defense, or widen the defense with quick-outs.

The Orange will slow the pace when the defense presents a look that requires a check-with-me glance to the sideline. But if the Irish go basic defensively in the post-VanGorder interim, Syracuse’s pace will quicken.

Fortunately for the Irish, the Syracuse defense is – believe it or not – worse than Notre Dame’s. Louisville netted an unfathomable 845 yards total offense with the Lamar Jackson-led attack. South Florida netted 454 yards and normally close-to-the-vest Connecticut threw for 281 yards.

Injuries have cut into both sides of the football for Syracuse. Last week against UConn, the Orange played without center Jason Emerich, right guard Omari Palmer and left tackle Cody Conway. Conway and Palmer are first-year starters, as is right tackle Jamar McGloster.

Veteran defensive tackle Kayton Samuels missed the Connecticut game. The secondary is banged up as well without Antwan Cordy (No. 2 tackler in ’15) and Juwan Daniels (team-high five PBUs last year).

For the Irish, this is more about them than Syracuse. Opportunities await in the ground game for Josh Adams, Dexter Williams, DeShone Kizer and Tarean Folston. The best way to protect an uncertain defense is to pound the football, although Notre Dame should be able to have its way with a receiving corps that is capable of creating as much anxiety as the Syracuse pass-catchers.

The Irish must be aware of not only Syracuse’s fast pace, but it’s penchant for jumping out early on the scoreboard as it has done in three of its first four games. Although this isn’t considered a true road game, the Irish have made a habit of falling behind by double digits away from Notre Dame Stadium.

If the Irish can control the pace (and the football), limit Syracuse’s snaps (UConn allowed the Orange 66 plays from scrimmage), and maximize the clear strengths that are still in place despite the slow start, this is a game that should ultimately tilt Notre Dame’s way.

It likely will take 60 minutes since Syracuse’s attack will be relentless in its approach. Despite scoring the first 21 points and ultimately scoring 62, Louisville couldn’t shake the Orange until the fourth quarter.

Notre Dame’s defense likely won’t be able to stem the tide like the Cardinals did, so it’s important for Kizer to bounce back from one of his less-than-stellar performances. It’s his nature to respond. He will do so in a shootout that ultimately favors the better overall team despite a rudderless defensive coaching staff.

Pointspread: Notre Dame by 10½; over-under 74½  
Prister’s Prediction: Notre Dame 47, Syracuse 34
Season Record: Straight-up 1-3, vs. points 3-1, over/under 0-4


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