The Irish couldn’t run the football in the first half with Josh Adams and Dexter Williams combining for 12 carries for 49 yards, eight of which netted two yards or less.
It was a much better effort in the second half, although it still took a 59-yard run by Williams to push the Irish up to 183 yards rushing on 37 attempts for an impressive-sounding 4.9 yards per carry. Subtract that 59-yard run and the duo – in the absence of a banged up Tarean Folston – combined for 27 carries and a respectable 123 yards (4.5).
Here’s the thing: Syracuse allowed 209 yards rushing per its first four games and 5.5 yards per carry.
Adams cracked the 100-yard mark for the second time this season (106 vs. Nevada) after crossing the century mark four times in his rookie season. It was a career-high for Williams, who had 59 yards on eight carries against Nevada.
Notre Dame netted 136 yards on 18 carries in the second half (7.5), and 77 yards on 17 carries (4.5) excluding Williams’ lengthy run. The ground game was 2-of-5 converting 3rd-and-shorts.
Statistically, it proved to be a pretty effective rushing attack. But the Irish didn’t get a lot of push against a Syracuse front that’s been getting pushed around for years. The 59-yard run saved the grade from being much worse.
Notre Dame failed to convert on six of seven third-down passing attempts. DeShone Kizer overshot a wide-open Kevin Stepherson for a certain long touchdown. Kizer was sacked twice -- once near the end of the first half that took the Irish out of field-goal range -- and was intercepted in the final moments of the first half.
Everything else was pretty spectacular. In fact, Kizer was challenging for the NCAA record for yards per completion at one point after a barrage of deep balls turned into touchdowns. In fact, it took just one snap for the Irish to score on a 79-yard touchdown pass to Equanimeous St. Brown. A mere 3:19 later, St. Brown waltzed into the end zone on a 67-yarder. Stepherson was the recipient of a 54-yarder midway through the third quarter.
Ultimately, Kizer broke the Notre Dame passing record in a victory with 471 yards on 23-of-35 passing. (Brady Quinn threw for 467 yards in a 2006 victory over BYU in 2005; Joe Theismann threw for 526 in a 1970 loss to USC.) Kizer averaged a spectacular 20.4 yards per completion and 13.4 per attempt. The Irish absolutely abused Syracuse cornerback Cordell Hudson.
The wealth was spread generously. St. Brown had four catches for 182 yards and two touchdowns. Torii Hunter, Jr. and C.J. Sanders each had four catches.
A total of 10 different players caught passes, including running back Josh Adams (two for 52, one of which went for 44 yards) and one each by tight ends Durham Smythe and Nic Weishar. Miles Boykin had a drop, but made two catches, one of 25 yards.
Syracuse entered the game averaging just 3.2 yards per carry and 124.8 yards rushing per game. Notre Dame held the Orange to 3.4 yards per carry and 126 yards. Statistically, that says the Irish held Syracuse to status quo.
But considering Syracuse’s fast-paced attack spreads out a defense and threatens to create creases in the running game, the Irish did a very solid job. Dontae Strickland had just 43 yards on 12 carries (3.6). Freshman speedster Moe Neal, who had a 49-yarder in his collegiate debut against Colgate, managed just three yards on three carries. Even quarterback Eric Dungey did limited damage running out of the drop-back game with 49 yards on 17 carries (2.9).
If you take away Syracuse’s long run of the day – an 18-yarder by Strickland – the Orange had just 108 yards on 36 carries, which is three yards per carry on the nose.
This kind of offense never quits, so to be able to limit the Syracuse passing attack to 13-of-23 for 98 yards in the second half was a huge victory for Notre Dame’s young and inexperienced secondary.
There were numerous occasions, particularly in the first half, when the Irish had four freshmen on the field in the secondary. The older players were on the field more frequently in the second half, although freshman Donte Vaughn did much more than hold his own against the virtually unstoppable Amba Etta-Tawo, who torched another freshman – Julian Love – for a 72-yard score in the first half.
Etta-Tawo’s other six catches netted 62 relatively harmless yards. Inexperienced sophomore Nicco Fertitta filled in admirably after Devin Studstill was tossed from the game for a questionable targeting penalty.
As expected, slot receivers Ervin Philips and Brisly Estime (10 catches for 86 yards) were pesky, and Steve Ishmael caught five passes for 67 yards, including a 36-yarder. But by limiting the Orange to just 3-of-15 on third down, less than 12 yards per reception and seven yards per attempt, the Irish did what Connecticut – a fine defensive program – could not. (Note: Statistically, Louisville and South Florida were about on par with the Irish.)
Notre Dame managed just one sack and no interceptions. Dungey turned pass attempts into 49 rushes and three rushing touchdowns. But in the second half, Syracuse netted just 165 yards on 42 snaps for a mere 3.9 yards per snap. That’s one helluva effort considering how many youngsters were running around in the Irish secondary.
Highlights included C.J. Sanders’ third return for a touchdown in 18 games, this time a 93-yard kick return that capped the scoring in the wild first quarter, and Jarron Jones’ blocked extra point that Cole Luke scooped and scored for two points. Chase Claypool also continued his brilliance on special teams by keeping a Tyler Newsome punt out of the end zone that Nick Coleman downed at the one.
But after allowing a kick return for a touchdown by Duke a week ago, the Irish coughed up a 74-yard punt return by Brisly Estime as Greer Martini, Scott Daly and Coleman all missed tackles before Claypool saved the day. Two plays later, however, the Orange were in the end zone to pull Syracuse within six points at halftime.
Kicker Justin Yoon had a chance to turn it into a real solid day for himself with a 31-yard field goal in the second quarter, a 39-yarder in the fourth, and a day-capping 39-yarder with 1:11 remaining, only to pull his third attempt of the day to the left.
Notre Dame benefitted from Cole Murphy’s missed 40-yard field goal after hitting 7-of-10 through four games.
If the Irish coaching staff deserved failing grades for the team’s sense of urgency deficit against Michigan State and failure to respond to a dire situation against Duke, nothing but praise for Brian Kelly and his troops against Syracuse, particularly when you consider the adversity facing the squad this week with a coordinator change and an infusion of a whole bunch of players who were either young, inexperienced or both.
The first half was an abuse to one’s football senses as the game resembled some bizarre version of the beautiful game founded upon physicality and discipline. Five minutes into the game, 36 points had been scored, or a combined 432-point pace over 60 minutes.
But by the time the Irish headed toward their locker room after the game, they had handled a multitude of issues and won a game by 17 points following a week of chaos. The offense totaled 654 yards and the defense had stemmed the early tide. For the first time in a long time, there looked to be hope and the beginnings of a defensive foundation.
The collapse on punt coverage is maddening and inexcusable for a program of this magnitude. If a change at defensive coordinator is warranted, it is as well on special teams.
But considering everything this team had to go through with back-to-back losses, a 1-3 start, and the loss of a coordinator, credit Kelly and his gang for keeping the ship afloat and eventually sailing on some pretty smooth waters.