Notre Dame got back on track last weekend with a victory over UNLV. But the Irish face a much stiffer test this weekend as they travel to Syracuse to face the Orange at the JMA Wireless Dome. Syracuse started the season 6-0, surging into the top-15 and shocking many observers after they were picked to finish last in the ACC Atlantic in the preseason coaches poll.
Though they lost last week against Clemson, they proved they could play with the best of the best. The Irish have a chance to get a statement victory, but they’ll have to overcome a formidable Syracuse team in order to do so. Here are some keys to a Notre Dame victory.
Win the possession battle
In each of Notre Dame’s seven games thus far, the possession battle has dictated the outcome. In each of the Irish’s four wins, they had the ball more than their opponent and vice versa for their three losses. This may seem like a fairly intuitive statistic, but it points to Notre Dame’s underlying approach: the Irish win games by keeping the ball on the ground and their defense off the field. Junior quarterback Drew Pyne has been solid. But he also hasn’t been the primary reason for most of the victories so far.
This will be especially important against the Orange, a team that will also be seeking to keep the clock moving when they are on offense. Syracuse’s defensive line is thin, meaning that Notre Dame’s depth at running back will be a significant advantage for the Irish.
The success of the run game will likely determine Notre Dame’s fortunes, so head coach Marcus Freeman and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees would be well advised to keep the ball on the ground and ride the hot hand, whether it's sophomore Logan Diggs, sophomore Audric Estime or junior Chris Tyree. When the run is established, this also opens up the passing game for Pyne.
Make Shrader beat you through the air
Garrett Shrader is second in the ACC in completion percentage, trailing only UNC’s Drake Maye by less than a percentage point. But he ranks near the bottom of the conference in pass attempts among qualified quarterbacks. He is certainly a credible threat through the air, but his running ability is equally if not more valuable. In short-yardage situations, he is just as likely to beat you with his legs as with his arm.
Leading rusher Sean Tucker got just 10 touches in the loss against Clemson Saturday. And while he is likely to see more action against the Irish, Shrader is actually the team’s second-leading rusher. To slow down the Orange offense, Notre Dame must limit Tucker and Shrader’s early-down success on the ground and force them into third and long situations where the Irish defense is best equipped to get a stop.
Limit big plays
Big plays have been an issue all season for Notre Dame. UNLV further exposed that last weekend. Notre Dame had built up a big early lead, so it didn’t affect the outcome of the game. But it is still a concerning trend. UNLV had several big gains that led to scores, including a 74-yard run in the first quarter and multiple 20-plus-yard passes.
These mistakes didn’t come back to punish Notre Dame last week. But if they make them again against Syracuse, it may be a different story. Syracuse has several explosive players on offense, including Tucker and wide receiver Oronde Gadsden II, who leads the team with 37 receptions and 593 yards. If the Irish can make the Orange work for every yard, the outcome will likely be positive. But allowing one or two big plays could tip the balance of the game.
Force a turnover (or several)
Notre Dame currently sits near the bottom of FBS teams with a -6 turnover margin. The Irish have forced just four turnovers and have lost 10, which puts them tied for 117th in the country. The Orange are just the opposite, with 13 forced turnovers and seven lost for a plus-six margin.
The Irish offense had a relatively easy job against UNLV last weekend because they routinely started in great field position. Two blocked punts and a fumble recovery made the offense's life much easier. They’ll need to take care of the football if they want to beat Syracuse. And forcing one or two turnovers could flip the game in their favor quickly.