EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – In any other game and any other week, one might look at the 33 points and 489 yards total offense accrued by Syracuse and conclude that the Notre Dame defense stumbled badly
While it was far from perfect – add four more 70-yard touchdown drives to the Brian VanGorder epitaph – the progress made by Notre Dame’s defense in a transition week from hell was nothing short of significant.
“When you’re playing a team like that that spreads it, you have to get acclimated to positioning on the field, where the ball is at all times, and when it happens so quickly,” said Brian Kelly following Notre Dame’s 50-33 victory Syracuse (2-3).
“You can’t duplicate that in practice.
“Once (the defense) got the sense of receiver spreads, sets, calls and checks, they were able to duplicate it play-in and play-out. We were able to stop them from running the football and got them in some predictable down-and-distances.”
After allowing 27 first-half points (three offensive touchdowns and 324 yards), the Irish limited the Orange to just six points in the second half, including zero in the third quarter as Notre Dame turned a six-point halftime lead into a 17-6 scoring advantage in the second half.
Particularly promising was the Notre Dame defense’s ability to limit Syracuse to an incredible 3-of-15 on third down. The Orange had converted 48 percent of their third-down attempts coming into the game.
Syracuse still managed to snap the football 88 times, but Orange quarterback Eric Dungey couldn’t extend drives. The Orange were 1-of-7 on third down in the first half and 2-of-8 in the second half.
Of the Orange’s 17 series, nine were four plays or less (excluding the two-play, 14-yard touchdown drive late in the second quarter).
A steady stream of players on the defensive side of the football kept the Irish fresh through four quarters as Notre Dame’s tackling improved and the ability to slow down the Syracuse attack took hold. At 3.4 yards per carry (37-for-126), Syracuse was unable to fully supplement the passing attack.
YOUNG AND PRODUCTIVE
At one point, the Irish had four freshmen defensive backs on the field against one of the most dangerous passing attacks in all of college football. Yet Eric Dungey completed 31-of-51 for 363 yards, which means he averaged 7.1 yards per attempt and 11.7 yards per completion, which are numbers in this day and age that a defense can live with.
During a six-drive stretch in the second half, Syracuse had drives that ended in: a missed field goal, punt, punt, punt, punt and downs.
Eleven players made contributions in the Irish secondary, including Donte Vaughn, who locked horns with Amba Etta-Tawo all day and limited him to six catches for 62 yards (excluding freshman Julian Love’s blown coverage on Etta-Tawo’s 72-yard score).
Sophomore Nicco Fertitta, who was never expected to do anything but play special teams and encourage his father to keep writing massive checks to the University, finished with four tackles and looked to be the starter moving forward.
Five linebackers played and eight defensive linemen made notable contributions, including Jay Hayes and Jonathan Bonner, who couldn’t get more than a handful of snaps through the first four weeks of the season but made a positive impact against Syracuse.
It’s a philosophy the Irish will employ moving forward. It was a philosophy that flat-out worked against a tricky offensive scheme.
I solemnly pledge and take an oath that I will never, ever again talk about Notre Dame “establishing the run” during the Brian Kelly era. It will never happen.
As for mentioning two 100-yard rushers in the same game…We came close with Josh Adams totaling 102 yards on 20 carries and Dexter Williams netting 80 on eight carries, although 59 of those came on one play.
It doesn’t seem to make sense that Kelly avoids the run game out of the gate, particularly when a defense is so vulnerable to being physically manhandled. Against a team allowing 209.2 yards rushing per game, Notre Dame managed 19 carries for 47 yards in the first half.
Two sacks of DeShone Kizer distorted the numbers, but not by much. Of the 12 rushes by Josh Adams and Dexter Williams in the first half, eight were stuffs (two yards or less). This is against a team allowing 5.5 yards per carry.
But things loosened up a little more in the second half as the defense did its part in helping break the logjam, giving them the breathing room they needed to maintain a two-score lead from the 11:23 mark of the third quarter through the end of the game.
Due largely to Williams’ long touchdown run, the Irish finished with 37 carries for 183 yards (4.9 yards per carry).
PUTTING THE CHASE IN CLAYPOOL
Freshman wide receiver Chase Claypool is a candidate to play defense as well as offense and special teams because in the latter two, he impacts the game every time he steps on the field.
A three-way player?
Claypool has yet to fully impact the Irish passing attack. He did not make a catch against Syracuse and entered the game with just two catches for 39 yards through the first four games.
But the kid shows a natural penchant for making plays defensively via his special teams work. There are plenty of others for DeShone Kizer to maximize at receiver.
Whether it’s serving as the gunner on punt coverage, using his long, loping strides to cover kickoffs, saving punts seemingly destined for touchbacks, or making a tackle that three other players on the punt coverage team cannot, Claypool makes plays.
There was talk during the recruiting process of the 6-foot-5 Canadian perhaps ending up at safety. It seemed like a longshot because of his offensive prowess and what many might consider extreme length for the last rung of defense.
The Irish now appear to have plenty of safeties from which to choose, but come the off-season and spring, it might not be a bad idea to transition him to the defensive side of the football, where he shows game-changing ability – at least on special teams – every time he wears the Irish uniform.
Considering his incredible athleticism, it should translate well.