Sept. 30, 2016
By John Heisler
After three straight home dates, Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s 2016 Notre Dame football team heads back on the road for the second of three straight games against Atlantic Coast Conference competition—Saturday against Syracuse at the Meadowlands (and next up is North Carolina State). Here are five things to watch at MetLife Stadium:
1.Syracuse can throw the football (very well).
There’s no team among the remaining opponents on the 2016 Notre Dame football schedule with the aerial numbers produced so far by Syracuse. Want proof? Orange quarterback Eric Dungey ranks sixth nationally this week in passing yards (1,367)—and no signal-caller from any other future Irish opponent stands in the top 50. (By comparison, Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer is 23rd and Duke’s Daniel Jones is 24th.) Head over to the receiving-yards-per-game list. Syracuse’s Amba Etta-Tawo tops that chart at 176.5 yards per contest—and there’s no receiver from another future Notre Dame foe in the top 50 (Notre Dame’s Equanimeous St. Brown is 35th). Dungey stands 6-3 and weighs 207 pounds—while Etta-Tawo (a graduate transfer from Maryland) is 6-2 and 202. The Irish will have to find a way to deal with that combination—and no one to date has accomplished that. Etta-Tawo’s “least productive” game from a numbers standpoint still featured eight catches for 103 yards and two TDs against a very good Louisville team.
2. Syracuse plays at warp speed.
The Orange ran a mind-boggling 105 offensive plays in a loss to USF. No team anywhere in the country has run that many plays in a game so far in 2016. (By comparison, six other teams have one game in 2016 with 100 or more plays run.) Notre Dame’s high-water mark in that category in 2016 is 76 at Texas. The most plays run in the Brian Kelly era at Notre Dame were 104 against Pittsburgh in 2012—and that tied the Irish single-game record (also against Iowa in 1968). So the Irish will need their Under Armour track shoes to keep up Saturday.
3. The Irish defense is in transition.
Count on Notre Dame’s defense to look at least somewhat different Saturday. But exactly how that plays out remains to be seen. Brian Kelly has suggested there could be a few personnel tweaks and that he wants to get more players on the field and have his regulars play fewer plays. Those intents match up against the Syracuse offense that travels quickly enough from play to play that making defensive substitutions is not always easy. In fact, the Orange boasts of its ability—so far in 2016—to run a play for every 20.6 seconds on the clock. Count also on upgrades in the emotion and enthusiasm departments in the Notre Dame camp. Remember, too, that Kelly cut his teeth in the coaching business on defense. Before he became the Grand Valley State head coach in 1991, Kelly served four years as defensive coordinator and linebacker coach at Assumption (1983-86), two seasons as the Grand Valley State graduate assistant secondary coach and then two more (1989-90) as the Grand Valley defensive coordinator. Both these defenses need a boost—they rank 101st (Notre Dame) and 106th (Syracuse) in scoring defense and 103rd (Irish) and 111th (Orange) in total defense in this week’s FBS statistics.
4. The Irish like throwing it at MetLife, too.
The last time Notre Dame played Syracuse at MetLife Stadium – in 2014—the Irish put on an offensive show. Brian Kelly’s crew held the Orange without a touchdown until early in the fourth period of the 31-15 Notre Dame victory. Meanwhile, Everett Golson completed 25 straight passes over one stretch of the game and finished with 32-of-39 numbers throwing for 362 yards. Corey Robinson caught eight balls for 91 yards, and Will Fuller grabbed six for 119 and his two second-period TD receptions gave the Irish an early 14-0 advantage. Notre Dame finished that game with 523 total yards despite five turnovers. This time around DeShone Kizer and his teammates will face a Syracuse defense that had an easy time of it in allowing 143 total yards and defeating Colgate in its opener but then struggled a week later in allowing 845 total yards to a Louisville team that leads the country this week in averaging 63.5 points and 682 yards per game.
5. Expect to be entertained.
Six members of the Syracuse Post-Standard sports staff made their predictions for Saturday—and together they suggested the two squads would combine to score anywhere from 57 to 79 points. The Irish generally have been productive on the offensive end so far in 2016—with their own national rankings of 43rd in scoring (37.3 points), 46th in total offense (455.8 yards) and 28th in passing offense (292 yards per game). Notre Dame’s first month of football equaled a combined 70.7 points per game, while the four Syracuse games produced an average of 62.5 combined points.
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler follows the Irish football scene for Fighting Irish Media. Look for his Sunday Brunch piece, an inside recap of what happens against Syracuse as Brian Kelly’s squad continues its 2016 season.