syracuse preview

Irish-‘Cuse Preview: Big Apple Showstopper

To play off a Lady Gaga song title, the Notre Dame football team may well be on the edge of glory with two-regular-season contests to go.
Yet, maybe it’s fitting that the 10-0 and third-ranked Irish must first see how well their act plays not far from the lights of Broadway when Brian Kelly’s crew revives Yankee Stadium memories of days gone by Saturday as Notre Dame returns to the Bronx to face 12th-rated Syracuse (8-2). It’s the first time the Irish have faced a ranked opponent in Yankee Stadium since the famed 0-0 tie with top-rated Army in 1946. 
Notre Dame finishes the regular season away from home after the final Irish home contest clinched a second straight 10-win season Saturday night versus Florida State.
“I thought we got off to a great start–our guys had a lot of energy,” said Kelly. “We were excited playing for our seniors’ last home game. We got a big interception early, a strip, a fumble and a blocked PAT that all resulted in 12 points. To capitalize and get off to a great start was really good.
“I think what we have to do better is continue to play with that kind of energy, but probably dial it in a little bit better in terms of fundamentals and technique. I really like the effort–it’s great.”
With successful road trips behind them to Wake Forest (in Ian Book’s first start), Virginia Tech (a prime-time win in a historically challenging atmosphere), Navy (in San Diego) and Northwestern (the Big Ten West champion), the Irish know the sort of challenge that awaits them in the home of Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton.
“(Syracuse head coach) Dino Babers has done a great job,” says Kelly. “I think what he’s done here is show a consistency in his approach and player development. They haven’t changed who they are. They’ve stayed the course.
“This is a team that we saw in 2016—with a lot of similar players from ’16, they’re just better. They’re better on the offensive line, they’re better on the defensive line. The quarterback is a veteran player who has seen it all, and a lot of the credit goes to Dino for building the program up to where it is.
“They deserve to be where they are–and he’s got good players that have stayed with it.
“The offensive line is a veteran group. He’s got four guys there that are four-year starters for him, so they’re playing well together. They know the scheme, they know what’s expected of them and, because of that, are very familiar with what is going on.
“They’ve got a four-year starter at quarterback with Eric Dungey—and he’s a guy that does a lot of great things for them. Not only does he run the offense, he’s fearless. He’s big, he’s strong. If the play breaks down, he’s scoring a run. And he certainly can throw the football extremely well. He has seen it all, and he’s got great intangibles and great leadership.
“When you have a guy that is fearless and has that kind of toughness, he’s going to do whatever he needs to do to find a way to make something happen. He’s not a guy that’s going to make poor decisions. He’ll try to make a play here or there, but he’s 225 pounds so he’s a big kid, too.
“I’ll give you an example. It’s third and three or third and four in the zone read, and he keeps it and there’s a guy standing right there. You catch and tackle him, and he’s going to fall forward for four yards. He’s just a tough guy. And that toughness kind of envelops that entire offense. It’s not a finesse spread offense. There is a toughness to it, and I think it comes from him.
“I think one of the things they’ve done well is they’ve upgraded at the running back position to the level where they’ve got some home-run threats with Moe Neal–plus Dontae Strickland, a big downhill guy. They really have done a nice job there.
“They’ve got a tight end now that can help them in the running game. So he’s got some talent now to surround Dungey. Sean Riley reminds me of Greg Dortch at Wake Forest–great speed, a home-run guy and big special teams threat when he touches the football. (Jamal) Custis is a great match-up guy. I think he’s 17 yards per catch, and Taj Harris is a 6-3 guy.
“So there are plenty of players to surround Dungey and an offensive line that’s veteran. They do what they do, and they do it really well. They’re like the triple option, right? You try to come up with a scheme against it, they’ve seen it. So you better be fundamentally sound. You better do what you do really well because they’re going to do what they do—and they’re doing a great job. They’re averaging 44 points a game, so they’ve done a nice job there.
“From a defensive standpoint, we’ve seen a difference in this defense in a very, very short period of time, and it starts with the defensive ends. Two guys that can legitimately come off the edge and rush the passer and then an inside guy in (Chris) Slayton who does a really good job with his hands, gets off blocks. But (Alton) Robinson and (Kendall) Coleman are two edge players that force you to pay attention to them. So they’ve done a really nice job of upgrading the athleticism off the edge of their defense.
“The linebackers are young, but they’re playing really well. I think (Ryan) Guthrie at the mike position is playing downhill, extremely athletic. (Christopher) Fredrick is a really good boundary corner that can play man to man–and they’ve got a lot of depth back there.
“So it will be a great challenge. The special teams are going to be huge. Both the punter and kicker are as good as we’re going to see. Riley is a lot like Dortch in terms of opening up the game in special teams. So you better be on it in terms of special teams, offense and defense. It’s one of the top 10, 12 teams in the country, and they have certainly earned that.”
As Kelly told his team after the Florida State game, it’s two down and two to go in the Irish bid to finish successfully in November.
“We’ve been able to add pieces to the offense. We lost a really good player in (captain) Alex Bars, yet we seem to be growing on the offensive line. So you’re adding pieces as the season goes.
“Everybody would say, ‘How do you play better in November?’ Stay healthy. Who wouldn’t want to be back in September when you’re feeling great and you’re a hundred percent and you’re fresh? So I think health has a lot to do with it. Our guys are in a good spot when it comes to their health, and we’ve taken great pains to make sure that the recovery process has been a point of emphasis this year.”
Kelly’s Irish have logged all the frequent-flier miles they can handle, yet Notre Dame’s head coach likes his team’s approach.
“All year we have avoided any unwanted, extra travel. We have not visited stadiums on Friday on the road–we’ve gone right to the hotel. We’ve changed up that routine, which saves us a good hour. It gives us more time at the hotel for rest, stretch, nutrition, recovery. So we’ll practice here on campus Friday and then head to New York.”
Kelly and his staff routinely recruit the New York area hard—and they also understand the subway alumni concept as far as Irish fans.
“Oh, it’s real. When we talk about subway alums, your first thought is New York City, New Jersey. But it’s everywhere. It’s those that love Notre Dame and have never been there. I remember doing an event with the Staten Island alumni club a few years back. There were 250, maybe 300, people in the room and maybe a half dozen were Notre Dame grads. It just goes to show the support for the University and for the values of Notre Dame.”
Meanwhile, Babers understands what his Syracuse club faces Saturday:
“We’re really excited about our opportunity to go outside conference play and play one of the top teams in the country. Obviously it’s going to be a very challenging task–and we’re looking forward to the opportunity.”
The Orange head coach appreciates how his current unit has progressed after 4-8 campaigns in Baber’s first two seasons in 2016 and 2017.
“This 2018 class in Syracuse lore, they’re going to have their names etched in stone around here for a while,” he says. “They returned us from the past–they’ve brought us to the present. And now we’re a winning football team. They’ve gone through two head coaches, a bunch of coordinators, a bunch of guys leaving and not staying, a bunch of selfishness that became unselfishness, a bunch of individuals that became a family. And I can’t speak highly enough about the 2018 seniors and every accolade they acquire–they’re justifiably due.
“Have faith without evidence–belief without evidence. That means there’s no evidence. I can’t show you anything. But I just need you to have faith with what we’re doing and it’s going to be okay.
“I can’t thank those guys enough for standing behind me and blocking out the noise and just constantly looking forward and having that faith. And now we have an opportunity to do some things, and maybe if we end the season right maybe even some more things.
Babers likes the way his players have reacted after consecutive midseason road losses at No. 2 Clemson and Pittsburgh (that one in overtime).
“They just stay together—it’s a really tight unit. They do a lot of things together. They really wanted to be the first class that got us back on a winning note. They didn’t want to be the 2017 class that had one great
upset win. They didn’t want to be the 2016 class that had one great upset win. They wanted to do more.
“I think as the season started and we got a couple of wins, that they really wanted to have that done. They
wanted more. Then we had the two situations in the middle of the season where we lost two games where we
led in the fourth quarter in both of those games. And then they had an opportunity to decide which way they were going to go.
“They decided they weren’t going to go the way of 2017 and they weren’t going to go the way of 2016. This is a
family. And these guys are very close and they play for one another.”
Babers knows the Notre Dame defense will pose a fierce challenge for Dungey and the Syracuse offense:
“When you talk about Notre Dame’s defense, it’s outstanding. And they’ve shut down major offenses that run the football and major offenses that throw the football. They’ve gone against four tempo teams that didn’t even look like tempo teams against them; they’ve done so well against them.
“When I look at them, I really don’t see any chinks in their armor anywhere. They’re a very, very complete unit. They’re very deserving of the ranking that they have. And the only thing I can say about my quarterback is I’m glad that he’s a senior and he’s got some experience because he’s going to need all the pictures that he’s seen to go against this Notre Dame defense.”
Babers also understands his own defense is going to have to be a major factor for the Orange to win.
“I think our run defense is something that maybe they’re going to try to exploit. I think our pass defense is
something that we’re really good at.
“We’ve just got to see what they want to do. They’re the champs–we’re the guys that are just trying to contend. They’ve got the belt.
“They’re going to try to do something and we’re going to try to stop them. It pretty much just comes to that.
“We’ve played highly ranked teams before. And we’ll find out what we’re ranked after this game is over, whether we’re where we’re supposed to be–or maybe too high or not ranked at all.
“But I think it comes down more to the football game than rankings, just two teams wanting to go against each other.
“One team is really, really good and has everybody behind them and rightfully so–and another team just trying to show everybody that maybe they belong.”
Here are more notes and quotes on the Irish and the Orange:
–These two teams met for the first time 104 years ago in Syracuse (Notre Dame won 20-0).
–After sitting out the Florida State game last weekend due to injury, quarterback Ian Book is expected back this week for the Irish with his nation-leading .745 pass completion percentage. He rates fourth nationally in passing efficiency.
–Syracuse rates seventh nationally at 44.4 points per game. The Irish have averaged 39.3 over their last seven victories.
–Notre Dame finished unbeaten at home in 2018 (6-0) and 2015 (6-0) after doing that only once (1998) between 1990 and 2011. The Irish have now won 11 in a row at home overall.
–This is the ninth time a Notre Dame team has started 10-0.
–This is a Shamrock Series game for Notre Dame—a concept that began in 2009 when the Irish took a potential home game to a neutral site (the first came in San Antonio versus Washington State.)
–These teams met once previously at Yankee Stadium (1963 in a 14-7 Syracuse win).
–Syracuse at No. 12 (AP) has not been ranked this highly since 1998.
–Syracuse quarterback Eric Dungey has averaged 294.3 yards of total offense per game in his career (fourth in the FBS).
–Syracuse already has scored at least 50 points five times in 2018.