EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – If this was modern-day football, the game called for a trip back in time. Three yards and a cloud of dust was boring, but this was a downright affront to one’s football sensibilities.
The first 30 minutes of Notre Dame’s 50-33 victory over Syracuse Saturday at MetLife Stadium represented all that is bad with today’s college football. More scheme, more big plays, yet another example of how the basic fundamentals have given way to sling it and let’s see what happens.
An over-coached game can look badly over-cooked.
But for a beleaguered football program that had to cease handing out the No. 1 jersey – Michigan passed them in all-time winning percentage following Notre Dame’s 1-3 start to the ’16 season – the final 30 minutes and the end result provided a lift Notre Dame so badly needed.
For those who just looked at the score and/or got caught up in the abomination that was categorized as major college football in the first half, the Irish actually walked away from this football mutation as a better team and with the first foothold on defense in a couple of years.
“It wasn’t an easy week to prepare,” said head coach Brian Kelly after he and athletics director Jack Swarbrick plunged the program into chaos – call it a necessary evil -- by pulling the plug on defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s tenure with the Irish.
“It’s probably not the matchup you want when you’re making a change defensively. This offense is very difficult to prepare for. It’s very similar to an option (offense) in terms of trying to get acclimated to them. Once we did, our group did a nice job.”
After the teams combined for 36 points in the first five minutes – a pace that would have produced 432 points over 60 minutes – Notre Dame’s battalion of defensive players, many of them fresh out of boot camp, found some common ground.
The Irish limited Syracuse to less than 100 yards passing in the second half, sabotaged an offense converting 48 percent of its third downs by pitching a 3-of-15 performance at the Orange, and held them to six points over the final 30 minutes. Just four of 88 Syracuse plays exceeded 20 yards.
Those are rather remarkable accomplishments against an offense as problematic as this.
At various points of the game, Notre Dame had four true freshmen playing defensive back under a coordinator who most Irish fans didn’t even realize was part of the family until the news last Sunday that VanGorder had been dismissed.
Greg Hudson, the former nondescript Irish linebacker from the mid-‘80s whose 11-year run as a defensive coordinator went up in flames at Purdue, had joined forces with Kelly, defensive assistants Mike Elston, Keith Gilmore and Todd Lyght, and literally two dozen defensive players to gum up Syracuse’s offensive operation.
“We have so many young players that can’t sustain 70, 80 plays,” Kelly said. “They’re going to be good for 20, 30 plays, and we need to keep rolling guys in. We’ve got a lot of depth. We’ve got a lot of really good players that deserve to be on the field. That’s the kind of defense this is going to be.”
With a lean toward more three-man fronts, limited schemes, a shift to a veteran (Cole Luke) at nickel back, and a steady flow of fresh bodies, progress was made under difficult circumstances.
“I wasn’t crazy about going against this offense,” Kelly said. “I would have much rather been going against something different because of their tempo and how they spread you out. With all our freshman DBs, that’s not always the greatest matchup.”
But the Irish coped. While DeShone Kizer was throwing for the most yardage (471) in the history of Notre Dame victories, and Equanimeous St. Brown was threatening the single-game mark for reception yardage by halftime, the defense was carving a niche.
Notre Dame allowed three touchdowns on Syracuse’s first five drives, and then just one over the next 10 Orange possessions. Of its 16 offensive drives – excluding a two-play, 14-yard touchdown possession – nine Syracuse series were four plays or less.
Syracuse quarterback Eric Dungey and his bevy of dangerous receivers were corralled over time. Notre Dame’s tackling – an abomination through the first four games – improved over the course of the afternoon. They got another sack (that’s two!). They forced their first fumble of the season.
Lo and behold, they actually had reason to smile as they left the outskirts of the Big Apple and turned thoughts to Notre Dame’s first-ever trip to Raleigh, N.C., to play North Carolina State.
A SIGH OF RELIEF
“It was an interesting week, but I think we checked a lot of boxes,” said captain/defensive end Isaac Rochell. “Playing so many guys definitely helped, and it encouraged guys that don’t normally play to be engaged in the game. That gets others guys to not have to play 90 snaps.”
Junior safety Drue Tranquill, a stabilizing, galvanizing personality who was benched by his old boss a week earlier, played heavier minutes in the second half after watching a bunch of rookies taking snaps together in the first half.
“We knew we were struggling,” Tranquill said. “We knew losing our leader, our defensive coordinator, could have been a huge distraction and could have knocked a lot of guys off their game.
“Instead, the response I saw was, ‘Let’s do this for each other. We work too hard for us to go out there on Saturdays and not perform.’”
Kizer, who’s been lugging around the weight of the world in recent weeks, got some rest, lightened up, and made a whole bunch of plays through the air, averaging 20 yards per completion.
“You would expect this week to have been chaotic, but it’s the best week of practice I’ve ever been a part of,” Kizer said.
“It was cold out there and the California freshmen were freaking out like usual. Typically, those practices go downhill. But the energy we had all week carried into the game.”
Kizer and his offensive mates continued a couple other trends: the inability to put teams away and the struggle for consistency in the ground game against a vulnerable opponent. They go hand-in-hand.
Leading 47-27 after Dexter Williams’ spectacular reverse-field run for a 59-yard touchdown, the Irish had two opportunities to win the game by four touchdowns. Notre Dame’s response? Back-to-back three-and-outs totaling 11 yards on six plays. The Irish scored three points over the final 23:26.
The running game has never been a priority for Kelly, and it shows. Williams’ long run put lipstick on a rushing attack that was stuffed nearly half of its 37 attempts.
Two steps forward, one step back is an earmark of Notre Dame football.
NEXT ON THE AGENDA
The journey back to respectability has barely left the hangar. At 2-3, Notre Dame has taken a mere step.
A trip to North Carolina State presents a new/old problem. The Wolfpack play at Carter-Finley Stadium, which makes it a true road venue. The Irish have lost eight of their last 11 games at true road venues.
Then it’s on to Stanford in Notre Dame Stadium, followed by a bye week, and then the undefeated Miami Hurricanes. Heretofore, progress will not be measured by anything that happened in East Rutherford. That just stabilized the footing; now it’s on to greater but not overwhelming challenges.
North Carolina State, 3-1 with wins over William & Mary, Old Dominion and a defensively-sound Wake Forest, as well as a loss at East Carolina, hasn’t really delved into the true 2016 season.
Stanford, after opening with Kansas State, USC and UCLA, was bulldozed by Washington. You know they’re better than that. There’s a degree of physicality that is required to play the Cardinal, and the Irish have yet to prove full possession of such a trait.
Miami just snagged a hard-fought, two-touchdown road victory at Georgia Tech, although the Yellow Jackets have lost 11 of their last 15 games and the Hurricanes have had an easy September path.
These are not powerhouses. These are not proven commodities, although Stanford has stood the test of time, even if the 2016 version is yet to fully evolve.
Even a sudden surge – Kelly’s teams at Notre Dame have won at least eight games in the three seasons in which the Irish suffered at least two losses in September – will not qualify this team as a legitimate Top 25. The value of a November slate of Navy, Army, Virginia Tech and USC is difficult to assess.
But for a team/program that faced an unsettling set of circumstances preparing for and overcoming a pain-in-the-butt offense like Syracuse, it was a very good week.
When’s the last time that was true? One seven-day increment at a time.