Oct. 2, 2016
By John Heisler
The Notre Dame football program has seldom had a more complicated or intriguing week.
Midseason coaching changes will do that-not to mention a serious interest in changing the karma that had seen the Irish drop two successive home games in outings that proved as frustrating as they were disappointing.
As much as tackling and coverage and pass rush all played key roles, Irish coach Brian Kelly had maybe more interest in ensuring his players enjoyed themselves.
Cue that 1964 Beach Boys hit “Fun, Fun, Fun.”
That’s what comes from a 50-33 triumph over Syracuse in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
Even with no Notre Dame band on site, the Irish players on their own decided to head to a group of fans behind their bench to sing the alma mater while joined arm and arm-and Kelly and quarterback DeShone Kizer after postgame television interviews couldn’t wait to join them.
Fast forward to the Notre Dame locker room about 3:50 on Saturday afternoon.
The Irish had not won the Super Bowl–though there was a bit of an NFL vibe to the day with the teams playing in the home of the New York Giants and Jets, with former Giants coach Tom Coughlin flipping the coin and with former Giants (and Irish) star Justin Tuck and current Giants player (and former Irish) Romeo Okwara watching from the sidelines.
Once inside the locker room, there was hooting. There was hollering. There was dancing. There was shouting and laughing. If Kelly wanted his team to find some enjoyment in their hard work and sacrifice, he absolutely saw that reaction on Saturday.
The game ball went to the defensive team room, and new defensive coordinator Greg Hudson led a ridiculously fast-paced rendition of the Victory March.
“I’m tired of hearing myself talk,” offered Kelly to his players before the game. “So let’s end on this. Let’s play some football. It’s been too long for all of us to not play the kind of football we know we are capable of playing. We’re going to play that way today. Enough said.”
Exactly 1,143 combined total yards and 11 touchdowns later, Kelly had his wish come true.
No one cared that this single football game won’t go into the vault as some sort of work of art. That was never the point.
And whatever the defensive challenges posed by a Syracuse offense that eschews huddles in favor of zinging the ball all over the field, Kelly was far more interested in proving some points that went beyond any X’s and O’s drawn up on the backboard.
So here’s how the Irish went about enjoying themselves on a cool, overcast afternoon:
–For a second straight week Notre Dame started insanely fast. One play from scrimmage equaled a 79-yard scoring pass to Equanimeous St. Brown. (Syracuse also gave up a first-play score in its loss to Louisville.) When Kelly noted after the game that he thought the Irish found some matchups they liked, he was selling his offense way short. Kizer and St. Brown did it again after a Syracuse score-and less than five minutes into the contest Notre Dame had run four offensive plays and led 23-13. Phew!
–The Irish generally held Orange receiving star Amba Etta-Tawo in check. His early 72-yard TD reception came when Irish rookie defensive back Julian Love fell down. Syracuse signal-caller Eric Dungey put the ball in the air 51 times and completed 31 for 363 yards-but those are middling numbers by Syracuse standards. Kelly wanted his defense to get a sense for the pace and then find a way to settle in-and the Irish did just that.
–Notre Dame took over the football game in the third period because the Irish defense held Syracuse to 17, 10, 18 and one yard on the first four Orange possessions after intermission. Kizer capitalized on a 54-yard throw to freshman Kevin Stepherson-and then Dexter Williams, seemingly hemmed in in front of the Syracuse bench, reversed his field, zigged left and ended up 10 yards ahead of the Orange defense on a 59-yard scoring dash. That put the Irish up 20 points and Syracuse in a tough spot. And if the Irish hadn’t gone three and out on two other third-period opportunities, all the numbers might have been worse for the Orange.
–Despite Dungey’s efforts, the Irish felt like they could shut down the the Syracuse run game-and that happened. Dungey himself proved to be the most effective Orange rusher of the afternoon with his 17 carries for 49 net yards and three rushing scores. Beyond that Dino Baber’s team managed only 76 other ground yards on 20 tries. Notre Dame held Syracuse scoreless for more than 23 minutes to begin the second half.
–Kizer completed passes to 10 different receivers, Josh Adams quietly and effectively ran for 102 yards of his own (and had 52 receiving yards) -and the defense responded with seven tackles for lost yardage and a Nyles Morgan sack.
“I’ll repeat what I said at halftime to the offense,” said Kelly after the game. “We appreciate the way you do what we ask you to do. From this point forward there should be no pressure on you, no pressure in terms of all these expectations of playing at Notre Dame
“We’re all here for the same reasons, okay? We want to be challenged to competitive greatness because that’s why we came here. We should all hold ourselves to high standards, both coaches and players. But we shouldn’t play that way that prevents us from being the best we can be.
“Just play this game with heart and passion and not with indecision and hesitancy. Go just play. We respect the way you do it on a day to day basis and how hard you work. Nothing was more evident than in the way you prepared this week under less than ideal circumstances. You didn’t get distracted, you bought in in very short order and you came out and you won a football game on the road.
“So, moving forward, don’t have anything that holds you back from being the best you can be. Let’s continue to have fun like this winning football games.
“We can only get better from here. Everybody knows the way we started the game and finished the game were two different football teams. We evolved as the game went along. They ran the ball to end the game. We can continue to build on that on defense.
“On offense, the second half was how we can play and continue to play-free and loose with talented players doing their job and not trying to do to much. That’s something to build on.”
With that the Irish players-who had been told that morning that once they won they could determine who would lead the squad in singing the Victory March-demanded that Hudson come center stage.
In a perfect world the Beach Boys might have entered stage left.
It was an emotional day-and, as Kelly noted to his squad, it’s one brick.
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler surveys the Irish football scene on a regular basis for Fighting Irish Media.