When discussing matchups, the strengths of a team and analyzing football squads, special teams is often overlooked. For Syracuse, special teams had been quite solid, overall, throughout the 2016 season. In game five against Notre Dame, however, they had blunders that hurt the Orange's chances at pulling the upset.
It started after Syracuse was about to tie up the game. After the Irish needed only one play to get on the scoreboard, Syracuse marched down the field and capped off a scoring drive with an Eric Dungey run. The extra point, however, would foreshadow how the rest of the afternoon would go for the special teams.
On a low Cole Murphy kick, Jarron Jones blocked the extra point. The ball was deflected dozens of yards backwards, with players for both teams racing towards it. Notre Dame's Cole Luke scooped up the ball after outracing everyone, and had nothing but green in front of him. Instead of a point for Syracuse and a tie game, Notre Dame added two points to their total pushing their advantage to three.
Syracuse was able to respond on their next possession after another Notre Dame touchdown with a long scoring strike from Dungey to Amba Etta-Tawo. But special teams came back to bite Syracuse after that once again. This time, not on the extra point but on the kickoff.
Notre Dame wide receiver C.J. Sanders took the kickoff 93 yards to the house to extend Notre Dame's lead once again.
Later in the first quarter, with Syracuse trailing by 10 and facing a fourth and five near midfield, the Orange elected to punt. Sterling Hofrichter came on to attempt to pin the Irish deep in their own territory. Unfortunately for him and Syracuse, Hofrichter shanked the punt for only 13 yards. It gave Notre Dame excellent starting field position at their own 44.
The Syracuse defense responded, however, and forced a three-and-out.
At the end of the first half, Syracuse scored a touchdown to trim the Notre Dame lead to just six. After a Zaire Franklin interception, Syracuse had a chance to score to gain even more momentum heading into the locker room. Syracuse brought Cole Murphy out for a 40-yard field goal attempt. Certainly well within his range.
Murphy shanked the kick wide of the goal posts, keeping the margin at six.
With just under seven minutes to go in the game, Dungey rushed for his third touchdown of the game to cut the lead to 17. Syracuse lined up for an extra point that would have cut the lead to 16, making it a two possession game (two touchdowns and two two-point conversions). However, there was a bad snap that led to Hofrichter picking up the ball and being tackled.
In total, the Orange special teams cost Syracuse 14 points with the above blunders. Fourteen points on a 17 point margin.
“We lost special teams today," head coach Dino Babers said after the game. "It’s been one of our strengths. It was one of those things we knew we had to win today. I’m not throwing those guys under the bus. I think overall they’ve probably been our strongest unit, stronger than the offense, stronger than our defense the entire year, but obviously not today. We’ll get better.
"We just had some breakdowns. And then the things you have to remember is when we play teams like Notre Dame. We have guys on scholarship and non-scholarship guys on our special teams. They have four-star and five-star guys on their special teams. It’s going to happen when you’re playing teams like that.”
Now in the interest of full disclosure, the punt return unit was very good. Brisly Estime was dynamic and dangerous as a returner, averaging nearly 43 yards per return including one that directly led to a touchdown towards the end of the first half. So the net was -7 points from the special teams. But the point remains the same.
This year, as Syracuse is still getting their players that fit their systems into the program on the recruiting trail, the margin for error is slim. Especially when facing teams like Notre Dame and the deep roster with loads of four and five star talent within it. If upsets are to be pulled, the special teams units cannot have that many mistakes that put the team in an even bigger hole.
The good news for Syracuse is that Saturday seemed to be more the exception than the rule. The kickoff coverage unit had been superb prior to the Sanders touchdown. Hofrichter has had his inconsistent moments, but has certainly proven to be capable. Cole Murphy has been a reliable kicker in the past, and there's no reason to think he won't be again. Despite going one for four on field goals over the last two games.
Syracuse next plays at Wake Forest on October 8th for a 7:00pm kickoff. The special teams units will try to get back on track against the Demon Deacons.