1 – Tackle. That is all: If Notre Dame doesn’t tackle better than it did against Texas and Michigan State and Duke (and yes, even in its win over Nevada), the Irish defense will surrender a minimum of 30 points today against Syracuse. The persistent reality of shoddy tackling has put undue pressure on the Irish offense to score upwards of 40 points in an effort to seize control of any contest.
If the teams are tied entering the final 15 minutes, and even if the Irish have a touchdown edge but not possession late, it’s Advantage Orange.
2 – Get Back to Ballin’: Junior safety Drue Tranquill’s comment to that end Wednesday was telling. And though he was speaking only for the defense, it doubtless applies to both sides of scrimmage:
“A lot of guys out there are so locked up and tight, just thinking about ‘Oh man, I have to make this and that check’ We want to pull out the talent that got the guys here. We want to see that explosiveness in guys playing free, making plays in open space. I think that’s what he means. Getting back to the basics of ballin’.”
Head coach Brian Kelly offered a similar refrain Thursday night, noting, “We’ve added a little bit too much ‘Check this, Check that.’ Run the damn play. Let’s go…we (still) want to get out of bad looks. I don’t want negative plays. But I want to be ‘relatively correct,’ I don’t want to be ‘absolutely correct.’”
Here’s to being right sometimes – but fast and confident at all times.
3. Amba Etta-Tawo: Do the name’s Canaan Severin, Devin Cajuste, John Burt, and Donnie Corley ring a bell? That quartet, dating back to early and late last season, plus early and mid-September, torched Irish secondaries for an aggregate 26 receptions, 477 yards, and three scores – combining for an astounding 23 first downs along the way.
Enter Syracuse senior Amba Etta-Tawo. You can bank on 15-to-20 targets aimed at the ultra-productive pass-catcher, and you can count on anywhere from eight, to 10, to 12 receptions against the Irish.
Buoyed with confidence in Syracuse’s new offense and blessed with size and speed, Etta-Tawo presents a coverage conundrum.
“He's targeted with the football,” said Kelly. “You know the ball is coming his way vertically and they do a great job with their read routes so if you try to play 10 yards over the top of him, he'll pull it up and catch it, and he's a big, physical kid. He'll have a run after the catch.
“If you try to play press and man-to-man he's got great length and catching radius that he can take the ball right off the top of your helmet. You have to factor into your game plan a very gifted and talented player.”
How Notre Dame’s defenders handle Etta-Tawo after the catch, and how they combat him on third down and in the red zone, will determine the outcome of the contest.
4. 3rd-and-anything-but-Short: “You've got to understand we're playing a team that goes extremely fast, extremely fast. So there can't be any confusion. A defense (has to be) comfortable in knowing what they're doing and how they're doing it. So we're going into a situation here where we have to get lined up. We have to know exactly what we're doing and how we're doing it.”
Can that be accomplished during the same week a defensive coordinator is terminated?
If confusion continues to reign, Syracuse – like Texas and Michigan State and Duke before them – will post their season-best FBS opponent point total vs. the Irish. To avoid that fate, the Irish defense will call upon a timeless football adage – one that applies regardless of the opponent’s style of offense:
Win on 1st Down.
“We can’t let them carve us up for 7 or 8 yards on first and second down,” offered Irish middle linebacker Nyles Morgan. “We have to put them in longer third-down situations.”
5 – New World Order: Since the outset of the 2014 season – 30 games ago – there has been a grand total of six contests in which Kelly and the Irish were not in playoff contention.
Their record in those contests including the Music City and Fiesta Bowls? 1-5, with 225 points allowed.
That’s the case again today, and while the reeling Irish are likely to play fast, loose, and aggressively early, how will they respond if punched in the mouth in the second and third quarters – as they were continually by the Blue Devils last week – against a team and coaching staff not likewise subjected to the two-month job interview that begins for the Notre Dame program on Saturday?
“I think there's an attitude that guys are just fed up, that we've had enough,” said senior captain Mike McGlinchey. “We've had enough losing. We've had enough not playing to the potential that we are capable of and the standard that we have set here.”
The reasonable standard – that of championship contention – no longer exists. Not until next fall.
Win and move onto next week. That’s all that remains the same.