Notre Dame pulls away from Syracuse, 50-33
Benjamin Padanilam | Saturday, October 1, 2016
Given the defensive struggles for both Notre Dame and Syracuse entering Saturday’s contest at MetLife Stadium, many expected their game to turn into a shootout.
But few people probably expected the shootout to begin as quickly as it did.
The Irish (2-3) started off the first-half fireworks with a quick strike up the middle of the field, as junior quarterback DeShone Kizer hit sophomore receiver Equanimeous St. Brown on a post route. St. Brown broke a tackle and outran the secondary for a 79-yard score on the first play from scrimmage.
The Orange (2-3, 0-1 ACC) were nearly just as quick to respond, however. In an eight-play drive spanning just 2:06, Syracuse marched 75 yards and capped off its drive with a 3-yard rushing touchdown by sophomore quarterback Eric Dungey. However, Irish graduate student defensive lineman Jarron Jones blocked the Syracuse extra-point attempt, and senior cornerback Cole Luke returned it for the two-point score to keep Notre Dame ahead, 9-6.
From there, the scoring only intensified.
On the third play of its ensuing drive, Notre Dame responded with a 67-yard touchdown, as Kizer once again found St. Brown down the sideline to extend the lead, 16-6. But Syracuse matched that score with a 72-yard touchdown pass from Dungey to redshirt senior receiver Amba Etta-Tawo. After converting the extra point, the Irish lead was cut to three, 16-13.
On the ensuing kickoff, Irish sophomore receiver C.J. Sanders took it back 93 yards for yet another touchdown.
And that was just the first five minutes of action. With 10:06 left in the first quarter, Notre Dame led Syracuse 23-13.
“We felt like there were some opportunities for some big plays, and we felt we missed a couple too, but we felt like there were some opportunities that we could take those shots,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said of his team’s explosive plays early on.
“We always try to take shots on the field,” St. Brown added. “That’s just what type of offense we are. We have great receivers that can go deep and get the ball. So, we always take our shots and are expected to make the plays.”
The action slowed for each of the teams’ next two drives. Syracuse punted after going three-and-out on its next drive. Notre Dame mounted a 10-play, 69-yard drive that brought it to the Syracuse 1-yard line, but sophomore running back Dexter Williams was stopped on fourth down when the Irish went for it. Syracuse punted on its next drive, and Notre Dame followed suit, although the Irish missed an opportunity for another long touchdown when Kizer missed freshman receiver Kevin Stepherson down the sideline for what would have been a walk-in touchdown.
It was not until the second quarter that the game’s next points were scored. Syracuse capped off a nine-play, 78-yard drive with a fourth-and-goal conversion on a scramble by Dungey to narrow the gap to 23-20.
But Notre Dame responded quickly. Kizer found sophomore running back Josh Adams down the sideline for a 44-yard gain to bring the Irish into another goal-to-go situation. This time, however, they converted it, as Kizer ran it in himself from three yards out just two plays later. After the extra point by sophomore kicker Justin Yoon, the Irish pushed their lead back to 10, bringing the score to 30-20.
After its defense forced a second consecutive three-and-out from the Syracuse offense, Notre Dame once again drove down the field into the red zone. But a timely sack by the Orange forced the Irish to settle for a 31-yard field goal by Yoon, which gave the Irish a 33-20 lead.
With just one minute before halftime, however, Syracuse took hold of the game’s momentum. After Kizer took a sack on third down that pushed the Irish out of field-goal range, the Orange returned the ensuing punt 74 yards, setting up a touchdown pass by Dungey just two plays later. Following the kickoff, the Orange defense picked off Kizer’s pass and set themselves up for another score.
“He tried to do too much,” Kelly said of Kizer’s mistakes late in the first half. “He took us out of field goal range, and that to me was the conversation that I had with him. … He has a tendency to wanna do too much, put too much pressure on himself and he’s gotta stop doing that.”
Syracuse was unable to take advantage of the opportunity, however. Orange junior kicker Cole Murphy missed his 40-yard try wide left and sent the two teams into the half with Notre Dame clinging to a 33-27 lead.
The Irish seized the momentum right back after the half, though.
After captain and senior linebacker James Onwualu came up with Notre Dame’s second sack and first forced fumble of the season to force a Syracuse punt, Kizer went deep again and this time connected with Stepherson for a 54-yard touchdown on the fourth play of the drive. The throw gave Kizer a new career high in passing yards with a mark of 424 and extend his team’s lead.
On Notre Dame’s next drive, Williams took a handoff, cut back and found a wide open running lane to scamper 59 yards for another touchdown. Suddenly, the Irish were leading the Orange by 20, 47-27.
After allowing 329 yards and 27 points in the first half, the Notre Dame defense improved its play in the third quarter. The unit allowed just 75 yards on Syracuse’s five drives in the period combined, and it kept the Orange scoreless after preventing them from converting a fourth-and-goal pass on its last possession of the quarter.
Irish captain and senior defensive lineman Isaac Rochell said he thought the biggest change after the half was the team’s approach coming out of the locker room.
“Just the attitude. We knew we were going to just come out and play and enjoy what we were doing,” Rochelle said. “That’s what we did, and we played really well [in the second half].”
Junior safety Drue Tranquill added that the defense just needed to get itself settled, and the success in the second half was the result of them finding their comfort level on the field.
“Just getting settled in … just getting the [younger] guys feet in the ground,” Tranquill said. “Syracuse runs a high-tempo offense, and so we looked at it — Syracuse has scored about 80 percent of their points in the first quarter, and so once we were able to adjust, get our feet in the ground and get set, we were able to play good defense the rest of the game.”
Kelly said he felt the team was pressing early due to its previous performances and record this season, so he told the team at halftime to relax and focus more on completing the task at hand.
“The entire team felt 1-3, so they press, and that’s a natural thing,” Kelly said. “I told them at halftime, ‘Listen, we respect all of you. We care for all of you. You don’t have to [press]. … You don’t have to put it on your shoulders. You just have to do your job, and nobody’s gonna yell and scream at you. We’re all in this together, so just do your job.’”
And although the Orange were able to tack on a touchdown followed by a failed two-point conversion in the fourth quarter, the Irish maintained the lead in route to its first victory against a Power 5 opponent in 2016. They even added a 39-yard field goal by Justin Yoon for good measure, securing the 50-33 victory.
Now, Notre Dame will begin to look ahead to next week, as they will travel south to take on another ACC team in North Carolina State. Tranquill said the team is just looking to continue to build on the improvements made this week in order to win games.
“We’re just looking to get better week by week,” Tranquill said. “… We can only build on that from here, continue to get better [and] continue to be sound in our technique.”
Notre Dame will next take the field next Saturday in Raleigh, North Carolina, when it takes on NC State. The game’s start time will be announced Sunday.