Irish prepare for high-octane Orange attack
Renee Griffin | Friday, September 30, 2016
The Notre Dame defense, in the midst of an overhaul, will face a unique challenge when Syracuse brings its tempo-driven offense, led by a quarterback on the rise and one of the nation’s top receivers, to MetLife Stadium on Saturday.
With 1,387 yards passing already this season, Orange sophomore signal-caller Eric Dungey is No. 6 in the NCAA in that category. His team, in turn, is ranked No. 7 in overall passing offense by managing 371.8 yards per game.
While the 1-3 Irish are coming off a crushing loss to Duke, Syracuse (2-2) defeated Connecticut 31-24 last Saturday with production that exceeded their already high numbers. Dungey threw for 407 yards, picking apart the defense of Huskies head coach Bob Diaco, the former Irish defensive coordinator who preceded Brian VanGorder and guided the 2012 Notre Dame defense that went undefeated in the regular season.
Amba Etta-Tawo, the Orange’s star senior wideout, was on the receiving end of 12 of Dungey’s throws, including two touchdowns. By the end of the day, he had broken a school record with 270 yards, giving him 706 yards on the season — the most by any receiver in the FBS.
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said Etta-Tawo will require special attention from the Irish secondary, which is in a state of flux after severe struggles against the Blue Devils. Kelly said he spoke with Diaco after Etta-Tawo burned Connecticut’s best cornerback over and over again.
“They keep throwing it to him and throwing it to him and throwing it to him,” Kelly said. “He’s a really, really good player. Because they play so fast, it’s difficult to run multiple coverages to him. … He can run over the top of you, and he’s also got a great catching radius.
“ … I talked to Bob, they had their best corner on him, but he’s 5-9. The kid was in great position, [Etta-Tawo] just went up over him two or three times and took the ball from him.”
Kelly also noted the skill of Dungey and his ability to excel within the Orange offensive system.
“The quarterback is one that throws out a lot of different arm slots, can get the ball down the field,” Kelly said. “They like to push it vertically. They’ve got a nice, quick game, good screen game, will run the ball effectively if you’re too soft in the run game.”
“Quick” may be an understatement in describing the hurry-up offense implemented by first-year Syracuse head coach Dino Babers.
Over the first four games of the season, the Orange have averaged 20.5 seconds per play, according to the Syracuse Post-Standard. In their 45-20 loss to South Florida on Sept. 17, they matched the ACC record for most plays run in a single game with 105 — though the 20 points Syracuse scored in that game was also its lowest mark of 2016.
The loss to South Florida came a week after No. 3 Louisville lit up Syracuse’s defense in a 62-28 victory over the Orange. Babers said the win over Connecticut helped get the team back on track after the two consecutive defeats.
“Obviously we’ve had our ups and our downs, and we’re not as consistent as we would like to be,” Babers said. “I think that losing seven starters from the opening lineups … that’s had a lot to do with it, but to see the young men coming to practice every day and giving their all and having the right enthusiasm and putting the right effort into the daily practices to give us an opportunity to win on Saturday, I think they have definitely been doing their part.”
Babers said he expects his offense will have to adjust on the fly against the transitioning Irish squad, which he compared to an “angry mama bear that’s been wounded” following the loss last week.
Kelly, meanwhile, said Notre Dame is aware that the defense’s ability to limit the production of Syracuse’s up-tempo attack will be key on Saturday.
“What we’ve got to do, obviously, it’s pretty clear,” Kelly said. “We’ve got to keep the points down.”