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Padanilam: Why did it take so long?

| Saturday, October 1, 2016

After a half of football between Notre Dame and Syracuse, it appeared as though the same narrative that has defined the Irish this season would continue to play itself out: The offense would put up its points, the defense would give them right back, and big mistakes in crucial moments would cost Notre Dame the game.

The Irish (2-3) scored three touchdowns of at least 65 yards in the first half. Junior quarterback DeShone Kizer passed for over 300 yards and accounted for three scores total by the break.

But the defense had also surrendered 324 yards to the Orange (2-3, 0-1 ACC). In the final minute of the half alone, Notre Dame made several crucial mistakes that threatened to give Syracuse all the momentum heading into the break. The special teams unit allowed a 74-yard punt return that set up one touchdown. Then, Irish head coach Brian Kelly decided to throw the football with under 30 seconds remaining on the clock rather than run the half out, and the result was a Kizer interception that set up another scoring chance for the Orange.

Freshman cornerback Donte Vaughn, left, and senior cornerback Cole Luke make look to tackle the ball carrier in Notre Dame's 50-33 victory over Syracuse at MetLife Stadium.Grace Tourville | The Observer
Freshman cornerback Donte Vaughn, left, and senior cornerback Cole Luke close in on the ball carrier during Notre Dame’s 50-33 victory over Syracuse at MetLife Stadium.

But that scoring chance was wasted, as Syracuse missed a 40-yard field goal and the two teams went to the locker room with the score at 33-27, favoring the Irish.

And whether it was that moment of relief that allowed it to catch its breathe and regain momentum or something entirely different than that, Notre Dame came out of the locker room and changed the narrative of the last few weeks.

In their last two losses, the Irish came out of the break and failed to score within the first 10 minutes of the half. The offense stalled after carrying a heavy load early in the game, and — in the case of the Michigan State loss — the defense would dig the team into a hole that the offense wouldn’t be able to dig the team out of.

But that wasn’t the case against the Orange on Saturday.

Because on Saturday, the Irish defense pitched a shutout in the third quarter. The unit stopped Syracuse on five consecutive drives, forcing punts on the first four. And on the last one? Well, it bent all the way down to its own 5-yard line but refused to break, stopping Syracuse on fourth-and-goal.

And the offense didn’t stall either, as it scored two more touchdown of 50-plus yards on its first two drives. Those third quarter woes that had cost the Irish their last two games weren’t present Saturday, as it was actually that quarter that propelled them to victory over the Orange.

The big question after the game was obvious: What changed at the half and enabled Notre Dame to perhaps pivot its season in the right direction?

How did the Irish change the narrative?

If you asked Kelly, he would tell you it just took some time for the defense to adjust to Syracuse’s up-tempo offense. Junior safety Drue Tranquill echoed that sentiment after the game, adding that the defense had a lot of new faces on the field, so it just took some time for those new faces to adjust.

Or maybe it was a new attitude and energy brought by new defensive coordinator Greg Hudson. While he didn’t contribute much to the changes in scheme and personnel, players like junior linebacker Nyles Morgan and senior defensive lineman Isaac Rochell credited Hudson for bringing a level of enthusiasm and energy that made a difference for the group.

Whatever it was, it’s something the Irish will need to carry forward the rest of this season. This campaign is no longer about the playoff or a national championship. It is about regaining a level of respect as a program that has seemed to have been lost for Notre Dame. It’s about showing the pride it lacked in the first four games of the season but suddenly seemed to find halfway through the fifth.

Yet, you can’t help but wonder why it took Notre Dame so long to take that step, find that pride and potentially change that narrative. If it was a matter of pride, enthusiasm and energy, then why weren’t national championship aspirations good enough to draw that out from the very beginning of the season? Why did it take firing a coach to make that happen?

Saturday’s game against Syracuse proved that scheme isn’t Notre Dame’s biggest problem on defense. It was effort and heart, and it took them nine halves to find it in themselves to show some.

Going forward, the Irish have the opportunity to continue to play with the pride that won them the second half on Saturday. With new, young faces starting to work their way in to the rotation on the defense, Notre Dame has an opportunity to create a new culture on that side of the ball that could lead to success the rest of this season and, more importantly, beyond.

The Irish didn’t solve all their problems against the Orange, but they might have solved one of their biggest.

I just can’t help but wonder, what took them so long?

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Benjamin Padanilam

Ben is a senior and The Observer’s former Editor-in-Chief, now serving as its interim Sports Editor. He is in the Program of Liberal Studies (PLS) and also pursuing minors in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) and Business Economics. He hails from Toledo, Ohio, and has enjoyed the few highs and many lows of being a Cleveland sports fan.

Contact Benjamin