EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Notre Dame was far from perfect during its 50-33 rout of Syracuse but it was good enough, something the Irish have barely been this fall. So while this victory over the Orange doesn’t save the season, it still marked a decent debut for new defensive coordinator Greg Hudson and let Notre Dame get off the mat following consecutive home defeats to Michigan State and Duke.
Here are three takeaways from Saturday afternoon at MetLife Stadium as Notre Dame moved to 2-3 with a road date at North Carolina State coming next week and Stanford in South Bend to follow.
Secondary Turns Over
There’s no official record for youngest secondary in school history, but unless the Irish start playing verbal commitments later this season it will be impossible for Notre Dame to go younger at the back end.
On some snaps against Syracuse, the defensive backfield was comprised exclusively of freshmen in Devin Studstill, Jalen Elliott, Julian Love and Donte Vaughn. On top of that, Troy Pride Jr. made his collegiate debut. And for the most part, that young group of defensive backs played older than their class.
Short of Studstill’s ejection for targeting, a call Brian Kelly fumed about after the game – “It was definitely not targeting somebody, but I mean, I don’t understand the rule.” – the young defensive backs did a decent job against the nation’s leading receiver in Amba Etta-Tawo.
The primary Orange target still finished with seven catches for 134 yards, although more than half that came on his 72-yard touchdown midway through the first quarter. He made just four catches for 37 yards during the second half.
Vaughn drew that coverage assignment most of the afternoon.
“We wanted Donte over there, we wanted some size, but we helped him a lot,” Kelly said. “He had help over the top, we had people underneath him, so Donte did what we asked him to do. He batted a ball. He’s a long, athletic kid, but we didn’t leave him on an island.”
Considering the pace of the Syracuse offense – the Orange ran 88 plays for 489 yards – the rotation could have been chaotic if Notre Dame tried to sub on the fly. Instead, the Irish went for more of a line change approach, subbing by the series.
Kelly hoped fresher players would help improve tackling and it appears that worked to an extent. The Irish were better in that department but still far from perfect.
Notre Dame played more than 20 different defensive players in real game situations on defense.
“We can only build on from here,” said safety Drue Tranquill. “It speaks to our potential, it speaks to a lot of our growth.”
Pressure Gets To Kizer, Sort Of
DeShone Kizer just passed for more yards than any Notre Dame quarterback in a winning effort. The fact that stat got glossed over for much of Saturday says a lot about where Kizer’s game is and where it might be going.
Or maybe in the case of MetLife Stadium, where his game might return next year.
Kizer finished 23-of-35 for 471 yards with three touchdowns, one interception and took two sacks. He also rushed for a touchdown. Only two Notre Dame quarterbacks have ever passed for more yards in a game, Joe Theismann’s 526 in a loss to USC in 1970 and Brady Quinn’s 487 in a loss to Michigan State in 2005.
Theismann needed 58 pass attempts to get that yardage mark. Quinn took 60.
By any measure, it was a banner day for Kizer.
It was also one with room for growth after the junior collapsed late in the second quarter. Facing 3rd-and-3 at the Syracuse 35-yard line, Kizer took an 11-yard sack to push Notre Dame out of field goal range. Two minutes later, he forced a pass that linebacker Zaire Franklin undercut with less than 30 seconds left before halftime.
That pick came immediately after Eric Dungey’s 14-yard touchdown pass to Ervin Phillips pulled the Orange to within 33-27. If Syracuse converted to close the half, Notre Dame could have been trailing at the break. Instead, the Orange missed a 40-yard field goal try.
“He tried to do too much,” Kelly said. “And he has a tendency to want to do too much, put too much pressure on himself. And he’s gotta stop doing that. I told him, you do enough.
“What I liked about him in the second half was that he dropped the ball down, took the easy completions, made the smart decisions and I think he needs to continue to do that. I thought the second half showed the kind of things I was looking for him to do.”
Ten different players made receptions for Notre Dame, two more than the previous season high. Equanimeous St. Brown led the way with four catches for 182 yards and two touchdowns.
“I think I had a pretty good day today,” St. Brown said. “We always try to take shots down the field. We have receivers that can go deep and get the ball.”
No. 2 Looks Like No. 1A
What was clear Saturday was that Dexter Williams passed senior Tarean Folston on the depth chart, at least for now. What’s less certain is if the sophomore can catch his classmate in the run game, making himself a co-starter with Josh Adams instead of just a change of pace.
Adams finished with 20 caries for a workmanlike 102 yards but Williams added a side of the spectacular with his 59-yard touchdown run that reversed fields and fit with Saturday’s video game style football. Williams finished with eight carries for 80 yards and one apparent injury when he got twisted in a pile in the second half, although he later returned to the game.
After limping off the field without the help of trainers, Kelly grabbed Williams around the neck with a smile.
“I told him he was indestructible,” Kelly said. “He said that’s a big word coach, stop using big words. I said you’re right. I’ll stop using big words.”
But Notre Dame won’t stop rotating backs. The question moving forward is how Kelly divides those carries and if Folston can get back into the mix.