A win is a win, and that’s really the only way Notre Dame can look at Saturday’s 50-33 over Syracuse. That’s the position the Irish (2-3) put themselves in after back-to-back home losses to Michigan State and Duke the previous two weeks.
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly purged defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder after the Duke defeat and promised he would be more hands-on with the defense and play more players who would play with more enthusiasm under newly installed coordinator Greg Hudson.
With the teams combining for 36 points on four scoring plays of 65-plus yards in the first five minutes, it started out looking more like someone unlocked a cheat code on a video game than an actual football game, but here are a couple noteworthy takeaways for the Irish.
Was there any defensive improvement? The initial eyeball test says no, but there actually were some positives. The new-look Fighting Irish defense allowed 489 yards of total offense, including 33 points and 363 passing yards to the Orange. It goes without saying that those numbers are anything but impressive.
However, Syracuse racked-up 214 of those yards in the first quarter alone. The Orange totaled just 208 yards and 3.5 yards-per-play over the next three quarters.
Syracuse also put 27 points on the board in the first half, but it’s only six points of the second half didn’t come until Eric Dungey’s five-yard touchdown run with 6:52 to play in the fourth quarter.
The macro look at the game shows a defense that still has a long way to go – and it does – but the micro view shows a defense that did make steady improvement – especially in the second half – as the game progressed.
The deeper rotation of players Kelly promised was especially apparent on the defensive side of the ball. Defensive lineman Jay Hayes, who did not play last week against Duke, finished with three tackles against the Orange.
Cornerback Troy Pride, Jr. also became the 13th freshman, a new record in Kelly’s seven seasons at Notre Dame, to play this season when he debuted in the first quarter. At one point in the first quarter the entire Irish secondary was comprised of freshmen, with Pride and Donte Vaughn at the corners and Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill at the safety spots.
Depth was tested even further for an already shaky secondary when Studstill was ejected by the replay booth in the first quarter for targeting.
Hudson’s enthusiasm was apparent on the sideline and he sang the Notre Dame fight song in the locker room at the team’s urging. The defense needs to clean up the five offside penalties, but some of that can probably be attributed to all the talk of “enthusiasm” Kelly was looking for from his team.
Can the running game carry the offense? Again, numbers here can be deceiving, but this time not in the way the Irish would want.
Notre Dame finished with a solid looking 37 carries for 183 yards and a 4.9 yards-per-carry average. Starting back Josh Adams had 102 of those yards on 102 carries and Dexter Williams chipped-in with 80 yards on just eight totes thanks in large part to a spectacular 59-yard touchdown run.
Here’s where things skew the wrong way for ND.
Williams’ touchdown run started on a play that was bottled-up as he went to his right and then cut back to his left and outran everyone to the end zone. Great individual play, but a fortunate one against a porous Syracuse run defense that ranks 101st in the nation against the run, allowing 204 yards-per-game.
Subtract Williams’ run and the Irish had 124 yards for a 3.4 average. Then subtract Adams’ longest run of 28 yards and it’s 96 rushing yards for a woeful 2.7 average. Two run plays totaled 87 yards while the other 35 totaled 96 against rush defense No. 101.
A win is a win, but there’s a lot more work to be done.