Oct. 2, 2016
By John Heisler
After consecutive home-field losses to Michigan State and Duke, Notre Dame returned to the win column Saturday by defeating Syracuse at MetLife Stadium in the New Jersey Meadowlands.
Here are some Irish takeaways from their 50-33 win over the Orange:
1. The Notre Dame defense made progress. The statistics weren't the whole story Saturday--and the Irish are still allowing 33 points per game--but the victory over Syracuse pointed Brian Kelly's crew back in the right direction. It was a complicated week, to say the least, given the new coaching assignments and the fresh wrinkles Kelly and newly installed defensive coordinator Greg Hudson added to the mix. Still, any live look-in at the raucous Irish locker room postgame suggested that the Notre Dame players absolutely bought in to Kelly's common comment that it's hard to win games in college football. The Irish enjoyed the heck out of their victory.
2. Back to work. Now that some of the defensive drama is in the rear-view mirror and the Irish are finished with worrying about the fast-paced Syracuse offense, the Notre Dame coaches can go back to building on the positives from Saturday. Kelly made good on his promise to play more people, as an amazing 27 players were credited with tackles. Safety Drue Tranquill led the way with a career-high 13 stops, while Nicco Fertitto made four of his own in his first major role in the secondary. Freshman cornerback Donte Vaughn spent most of the afternoon shadowing Orange receiving star Amba Etta-Tawo, making six tackles and keeping the Syracuse receiver from dramatically impacting the final result (Etta-Tawo had only 37 second-half receiving yards). Give the Irish defense credit for forcing nine Syracuse punts--four times on three-and-out scenarios. The Orange had one late 75-yard scoring drive, but other than that excursion Dino Baber's squad ran only 28 other second-half plays for 95 yards.
3. What a wild start. If the 62,794 fans in attendance had done their homework, they likely expected a high-scoring game--but who could have predicted exactly how wacky the start would be? There were five consecutive touchdowns to open the contest--and Notre Dame's DeShone Kizer had thrown bombs of 79 yards (on the first play from scrimmage) and then 67 yards to sophomore Equanimeous St. Brown within the first four minutes of the game. Throw in C.J. Sanders' 93-yard kickoff return--and Notre Dame accounted for three TDs in less than five minutes to open the action. In pinball-like scoring conditions, Kizer already had 356 passing yards by halftime. The first period alone featured a combined 339 yards of total offense by the two teams.
4. DeShone Kizer is a dynamic player. That statement doesn't necessarily qualify as a surprise--but it's worth noting that the junior Irish quarterback woke up today ranked fifth nationally in passing yards per completion (16.49), third in yards per pass attempt (10.38), sixth in passing TDs (14), ninth in passing efficiency (175.4), 12 th in passing yards (1,567) and even 19th in rushing TDs (six). No Irish quarterback has ever participated in a Notre Dame victory and thrown for as many yards (471) as Kizer did Saturday. And, if anything, the Irish offensive players would agree that they left all kinds of things on the table. If Irish fans think 654 total yards qualified as impressive, the game conditions suggested that pushing 800 or more was not out of the realm of possibility if Notre Dame had really stepped on the gas (Kizer and his mates ran the ball eight straight times late to use up clock).
5. Some normalcy now returns. A win over Syracuse doesn't solve everything, but at least Notre Dame this week in preparation for North Carolina State can seek some sense of routine again. Three defeats--several in heartbreaking fashion--had seemingly put the weight of the Irish football world on the shoulders of the Notre Dame players. Kelly was determined to lift that weight and he literally demanded that the Irish have more fun and enjoy their work. They complied--maybe no better exhibited than by Kizer's dramatic, exultant leap into the end zone on his second-period TD run.
Notre Dame senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been watching Irish football since he joined the athletics communication staff in 1978.