Syracuse football coach Dino Babers wouldn’t have had time Saturday to stop by the New York Yankee Team Store on the main concourse behind home plate at Yankee Stadium.
If he had, he might have seen the MURDERERS’ ROW apparel–with that tagline in all capital letters in reference to current Yankee big-ball hitters Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton and in deference to when that term applied in 1927 to names like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
Those shirts, at least Saturday, might well have applied to the University of Notre Dame defense which played in all caps all day long in dismantling 12th-rated Syracuse 36-3.
The Irish (11-0) bludgeoned ‘Cuse quarterback Eric Dungey, knocking him out of the game less than 10 minutes into the opening period, intercepted three first-half passes and generally squeezed every last drop of juice out of an Orange offense that had been averaging 44 points per game.
And the game wasn’t anywhere near as close as the score. It could have been 35-0 at halftime if not for some untimely penalties and an Irish attack that bogged down in the red zone a few times.
This had been a full week of New York-style media hype, but by nightfall the plaudits accurately applied only to Notre Dame.
“It’s narrowing down, it’s game time, it’s the preparation we’ve had, it’s competition mode now. It’s no longer anything else,” said Irish coach Brian Kelly to his team before the action started.
“You have to trust it and play fast and let it go. Fast and free and physical. You’ve got to go, okay? You’ve got to trust everything we worked on this week and then you’ve got to be disciplined. Everybody knows what they are supposed to do–go do it now.
“Trust in discipline—that will get our success, that’s what we’re looking for today.”
Notre Dame set the tone defensively with a three and out on Syracuse’s first possession. That translated into a quick 7-0 lead—thanks to an 18-yard Ian Book completion to Tony Jones Jr. on third and 16, a beautiful 27-yard gain on a crossing route by Chase Claypool and finally a nine-yard toss to Dexter Williams for the seven points.
Jalen Elliott intercepted Dungey on the first play of the ensuing Orange possession, leading to a 19-yard Justin Yoon field goal and a 10-0 lead.
Dungey’s day ended (with one completion in four attempts for 10 yards, plus two runs for eight yards) five plays into the next Orange drive, with redshirt freshman Tommy DeVito taking over (he’d completed 11 passes earlier in 2018 versus both Florida State and North Carolina).
An 83-yard Irish drive ended in another Yoon three-pointer–and by the end of the opening period Notre Dame led 189-59 in total yards. Book’s first period numbers said 11-of-15 passing for 169 yards.
The smallish Orange secondary simply had no answers all afternoon for taller Irish receivers Claypool (he finished with six catches for 98 yards) and Miles Boykin (seven for 76).
Irish safety Alohi Gilman intercepted DeVito on the first play of the second period. After a punt exchange, Book drove his team to the Syracuse one, only to trip dropping back from center and throw an end-zone interception.
Gilman wiped out that miscue with a second interception of his own, returning it 54 yards to the Orange nine. Jafar Armstrong went nine yards on the first play to make it 20-0. At one point the Irish held a 284-65 edge in total yards and a 238-14 advantage in aerial yards.
As NBC’s Mike Tirico noted late in the half, “Four pass completions and three interceptions–that doesn’t add up when you’re trying to upset the third-ranked team in the country.”
The Irish owned a comfortable 20-0 lead at the break–and probably should have been up a few more touchdowns–but Kelly was not content.
“Keep playing, keep playing, keep playing. Let’s get this thing done,” he said as he walked past his players into the locker room.
Before his squad retook the field, Kelly offered this: “We’re not going to take away from the first half defensively, but we’ve got to clean things up on offense. We know that and we will. That’s on us, okay?
“Defensively, outstanding effort in the first half. Now let’s close it out. Navy was a great first half and then we let our guard down. We are finishing this thing off. We dominated our opponent in the first two quarters and we’re going for four quarters.
“It starts in the third period. You’ve got to do it now. You don’t wait around, you don’t give them an inch. Let’s put this team away. Let’s send a message in the 11th week of the season what we are as a defensive football team. This is that opportunity. Let’s finish this thing off the right way–and offensively, let’s pick it up a gear.”
Notre Dame’s defense obviously took that message to heart. Syracuse’s three third-period possessions all were three and outs equating to nine plays for a combined minus-eight yards.
The Irish added another Yoon field goal (tying Kyle Brindza’s Notre Dame career record at 57), then Book hit a fourth-and-one throw to tight end Cole Kmet before finding Claypool for a 10-yard TD and a 29-0 advantage.
Syracuse ran off an 18-play final-period possession, only to bounce a field-goal try off the left upright.
With Brandon Wimbush at quarterback (he had a 35-yard run down the Syracuse sideline), Williams ended the Notre Dame scoring with a 32-yard dash.
The Orange field goal came with 10 seconds left after a 59-yard possession against Irish reserves.
Book did what has become his usual thing, throwing for 292 yards and a pair of scores. Williams ran for 74. The Notre Dame pass-catchers dominated that aspect of the game.
The defense (make that DEFENSE?) accounted for 11 lost-yardage plays (six sacks, two by captain Drue Tranquill) by 10 different players. Linebacker Te’von Coney had a dozen tackles, Gilman eight and Tranquill seven.
Syracuse had 13 offensive possessions and eight of them produced 17 or fewer yards.
The Notre Dame players celebrated in the locker room with a little Frank Sinatra and a semi-raucous rendition of “New York, New York.”
“Thirty-six to three—great win!!” Kelly offered once it ended.
“Great plan, and we talked about trust and discipline. Defensively, incredible job in terms of trusting the plan, sticking with it and having great discipline. And then flying around and playing physical football—that’s the piece, right? We talked about how bad you want it. I’ll tell you this, if you watched this football game on TV, there was no mistake about how bad you wanted it out there today. That was impressive.
“Offensively, we moved the ball up and down the field, but we’ve got to clean up the mistakes, right? But 470 yards of offense and 36 points? You can’t walk away from that. But we have got to get better in the red zone. There are great things we still can achieve.
“But defensively—that’s the story today. A team averaging 44 points a game has to settle for a field goal at the end of the game. But you did not give up a touchdown—great effort, congratulations.
“It was a great plan to keep Syracuse off-balance. We can do a lot of things moving the football up and down. And special teams, that was the best I’ve seen all year of guys running and getting after people. It was impressive.
“That football team left here thinking Notre Dame is in a different class. You dominated the 12th-ranked team in the country.
“We’ve got one left now, and we go from goals to being successful. The only thing in the middle of that is how bad you want it.
“One more step.”
Babers suggested Notre Dame is “a better team than people think they are.”
He added, “We weren’t old enough, mature enough to handle this football team. (Notre Dame) turned the game from chess to checkers.”
At different times Babers referred to Book as a “jackrabbit” and noted he was “slippery like an eel.”
The Irish came into the contest completely confident in what they planned to do on defense, and it wasn’t anything complicated. They just played their game.
Explained Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea, “We had players that were attentive to detail in the plan and went out and executed the plan. When we focus and play together for four quarters, we have a chance to play really good defense.”
Said Kelly to the media, “Defensively, our plan was outstanding and we executed it flawlessly.
“You are who you are this late in the football season. All we want to do is play our best football in November.”
Did Kelly have a message to offer outsiders on his team?
“We’re playing pretty good football right now,” he said.
ESPN analyst Jesse Palmer later Saturday night called the Irish victory “the statement win of the day.”
No one in Saturday’s audience disagreed.
In a city that loves its Broadway hits, the Irish on Saturday earned a rave review.
They’re still building a Murderers’ Row of their own.
Make that MURDERERS’ ROW.
John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame. He is the author, co-author or editor of 12 books (one a New York Times bestseller) and editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series.