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Notre Dame-Syracuse 2016: Yet Another Challenge for Irish Defense

Sept. 28, 2016

By John Heisler

The site just happens to be MetLife Stadium in the New Jersey Meadowlands, also home to the NFL New York Giants and New York Jets.

The opponent just happens to be Syracuse, a 2-2 team under first-year coach Dino Babers that figures to inject itself into the storyline of the weekend in great part because the fast-paced Orange offense ranks seventh nationally (and leads the Atlantic Coast Conference) in averaging 371.8 passing yards per game (and also averages 496.5 yards in total offense per week).

Notre Dame players and coaches have had some eye-catching numbers to consider this week:

–Syracuse quarterback Eric Dungey is averaging nearly 30 completions per game.

–Receiver Amba Etta-Tawo leads the nation with 176.5 receiving yards per game.

–Dungey threw for 407 yards against Connecticut, becoming only the fifth Syracuse quarterback to hit the 400-yard mark.

–Etta-Tawo set a Syracuse single-game mark Saturday with his 270 receiving yards.

–In the season-opening win against Colgate, the Orange signal-callers combined to complete 40 of 46 throws, an ACC record for completion percentage based on a minimum of 40 attempts.

–Junior receiver Ervin Phillips tied the single-game Syracuse reception mark with 14 against Colgate.

–Etta-Tawo is only the third ACC player to account for multiple 200-yard receiving games in the same season.

–The Orange averages 86.3 plays per game on offense, compared to 62.6 a year ago.

–Syracuse tied an ACC single-game record by running 105 plays against USF.

–The Orange averages an offensive play every 20.6 seconds of possession time.

That’s the latest test for a Notre Dame defense that will be under new leadership this week.

In as new Irish defensive coordinator is Greg Hudson, a former Irish football player (he also played baseball) and a former defensive coordinator at Purdue, East Carolina and Minnesota and a former assistant head coach and linebacker coach at Florida State. Also a one-time Notre Dame graduate assistant football coach (1993), Hudson joined the Notre Dame staff last summer as a defensive analyst. Out is Brian VanGorder, relieved of his duties Sunday after two and a half seasons in the Notre Dame defensive coordinator role.

What does that mean for Notre Dame’s defense, not just this weekend but in other games to come?

Bank on plenty of eyeballs being affixed to the action at MetLife when the Irish defense takes the field.

Not surprisingly, Irish coach Brian Kelly has played it close to the vest this week when it comes to detailing potential changes.

Here are some of his more cogent comments:

–“This team clearly understands the direction that we need to go. We’ve made the changes that I felt were appropriate to start to move us in that direction. I don’t believe that’s going to take much time at all. I expect it to happen this Saturday against Syracuse.”

–“What we’ve got to do, obviously, is pretty clear. We’ve got to keep the points down.

–“We’re going to play with enthusiasm on defense. We’re going to play with the passion that I said was missing. We made the changes we needed accordingly to bring that back. That will begin to show itself. You’re going to see a lot more players playing. There is going to be some depth, some camaraderie. We need to get that morale up on defense, and we will do that with a lot more players involved in what we’re doing on a day-to-day basis.

–“It’s going to take a style of defense that I’m much more accustomed to, the way I want to play defensively, and we’ll pull from the library, which we already have. And then our defensive staff will call the game, and it certainly will be something that I will have some say in as well.

–“You can’t take somebody that’s had no reps and give them 70 on Saturday. That’s impossible. But what we can start to do is put a depth chart together that gives a young man a look at saying, `I’ve got a shot here. I’m part of the solution.’ There are going to be a lot of those guys that are going to feel like they now can be part of the solution.

–“It (the defense) is overused. We’ve got some guys out there that are dog tired trying to do things and they got too many reps. We’ve got too many good players sitting behind them watching. We’ve gotta get them in the game, we’ve got to trust them and we’ve got to coach ’em and that’s on me.

–“(The defense) will be the system that’s in place and it will have more of my stamp on it. Greg (Hudson) has been empowered to bring the energy, the enthusiasm, the passion, the morale, the camaraderie. I need those things from Greg. I want our kids to be excited when they step on that field against Syracuse. I’ll worry about the implementation, the scheme. I’ll take care of that for him right now. As he gets more comfortable with what we have and what our system is about, then he will be much more involved in what we do.

–“Right now, we’ll write the music and he (Hudson) be the lead singer. He’s going to be out front, but he just got here. He’s learning everything as well.

–“We’re playing a team (this week) that goes extremely fast. So there can’t be any confusion. A defense that is comfortable in knowing what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. So we’re going into a situation here where we have to get lined up. We have to know exactly what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. So first and foremost, they have to feel so confident in what they’re doing and how they’re doing it in this kind of speed that we’re going to see with this kind of offense. So if you want to check the first box, that’s No. 1. And we’re going to play a lot of players. How do you get those players in the game when they’re playing so fast? No. 2 is keeping the points down, and that means doing things that we haven’t done before, quite frankly.

–“He (Hudson) has got passion for Notre Dame. He loves Notre Dame. I’ve been able to observe him in an analyst role and his demeanor, just all of the things that I’m looking for in our guys.

–“We have some guys that are overexposed in those positions of tackling, and that will change. I’m not laying it all on fatigue, but we have to be smarter. We’ve got other players that can be in the game at that time. We’ve got to manage our players better. That’s on us. That’s on me. Yeah, we gotta continue to coach tackling, but we’ve got to manage our players better. We have some young guys out there and we can’t overexpose them.

–“He (Hudson) is going to adapt to what I want to run. His style is going to be Coach Kelly’s style. What he’s going to bring is the love of Notre Dame, along with a staff that has Notre Dame former coaches on it and they clearly understand what we’re missing, and what we’re lacking.”

Kelly has been clear in noting that he, his staff and his roster all must live with the fact they are part of a 1-3 football team right now. That means facing the reality that the numbers say the 2016 Irish defense to date ranks 103rd nationally in total defense (454.0 yards allowed per game), 96thin rushing defense (201.0), 87th in passing yards allowed (253.0) and 101st in scoring defense (33.5). The Irish rank 126th in team sacks and 100thin turnover margin.

Even with all that, Notre Dame’s three defeats have come by a combined 14 points (4.7 per game). One loss came in double overtime, and the Irish arguably had late opportunities in all three contests to potentially change the outcome.

This week’s circumstances present plenty of questions for Syracuse coaches and for future Irish opponents:

–What will Kelly’s impact on the defense ultimately be?

–When Kelly talks about wanting his players on defense to play looser and with more passion, how will that translate on the field?

–When the Irish hint about personnel tweaks, how will that play out?

–How will Hudson’s previous experiences as a coordinator impact the Irish–not just this week but in weeks to come?

Actually, the 2016 Irish offense has proven to be a major attraction as well, with Notre Dame through four games scoring the most combined points since 1949–and with quarterback DeShone Kizer averaging 320.5 total offense yards per week and 274.0 passing yards per contest.

Yet defense figures to be the watchword this weekend.

Notre Dame’s opening game in 2016 at Texas drew a 6.4 television rating (10.945 million viewers), making it far and away the highest-rated game of the Labor Day weekend. The Nevada game earned a 1.6, tying for the fourth-highest number for the day. The Michigan State game drew a 2.9 (4.987 million viewers), also the fourth-highest contest on that Saturday, Then, this past weekend, the Irish game versus Duke drew a 1.7, the sixth-highest rated contest of the day.

Expect no shortage of interest Saturday as the Irish attempt to slow down the Orange.

Senior associate athletics director John Heisler follows the Irish football scene for Fighting Irish Media–and he has been doing that since joining the Notre Dame athletics communications staff in 1978.