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Floundering Orange looking for positive takeaways from trip to South Bend

| Friday, December 4, 2020

The juxtaposition between No. 2 Notre Dame and unranked Syracuse is fairly sharp. The former is a perfect 9-0 (8-0 ACC), while the latter a less-than-ideal 1-9 (1-8). The Orange haven’t won one on the road, and the Irish haven’t lost one at home. Notre Dame’s on a streak of nine wins this season (and an FBS-long 15 straight dating back to last season), while Syracuse is on a seven-game skid.

With the stakes low, then, head coach Dino Babers sees his team’s trip to South Bend this Saturday as nothing but an opportunity.

“It’s a big deal,” Babers said of playing Notre Dame. “This is one of the traditional programs in college football. They have an unbelievable history. They’re having a fantastic year and are leading the ACC right now. They’re at the top. We know where we’re at, and we get to lace up one more time. So, if you enjoy playing, this is what games are for — you get an opportunity to do something that a lot of people don’t think you can do.”

That optimism extends beyond Babers’ perspective on the Notre Dame game — it describes his attitude with respect to the entire season.

“I look at the positives, I really do,” Babers said. “I think we’re going through this for a reason. And we’re going to turn a negative into a positive … if these guys hang around, and academically, they should, they should do nothing but be better. They can’t stay the same. We want to continue to give them opportunities, continue to stretch them, continue to make them grow faster than maybe they want to, so that they can be better sooner than they expect to.”

Syracuse has fallen far from who Notre Dame knew them to be in 2018, the last time these teams met. The Irish are in an eerily familiar position, having been ranked No. 3 and riding a record of 10-0 going into that game, but the Orange are nowhere near the No. 20, 8-2 team they were walking into Yankee Stadium. Syracuse is now faced with uncertainty at the quarterback position and a rag-tag offensive line that has been riddled with injury, two challenges that have contributed heavily to their low offensive productivity this season.

Observer File Photo

Former Irish safety and captain Alohi Gilman returns an interception during then-No. 3 Notre Dame’s 36-3 win over then-No. 20 Syracuse on Nov. 17, 2018 in Yankee Stadium.

At quarterback, redshirt-junior Tommy DeVito, the guy the Irish saw in 2018 after starter Eric Dungey went down early, was sidelined mid-year with a season-ending leg injury. His absence has caused turmoil as redshirt-senior and freshman backups Rex Culpepper and JaCobian Morgan have both struggled to lead the offense. Culpepper’s completion percentage against top-25 teams is 40.5%, and his eight touchdowns on the season are countered by seven interceptions. Morgan, a pro-style signal caller, has two touchdowns and two interceptions, but a completion percentage of just 41.7% in one road showing against Louisville.

Things aren’t much better in front of the quarterback, where Syracuse’s offensive line has faced so many injuries that senior fullback Chris Elmore was forced to trade in handoffs for blocks, taking up the position of left guard. His efforts allowed the Orange to compete this season, but the deficiencies on the line are a real consideration for Babers when drawing up a game plan.

In order to overcome the obstacles at quarterback and on the line, then, Babers intends to rely on the pass game as much as possible, also having seen what the Notre Dame defense has achieved across 11 weeks.

“No one’s run the ball against Notre Dame,” Babers said. “If you’re taking what the defense gives you, it puts you in those situations where you’re going to throw the ball a lot more. But you have to be efficient in what you’re throwing, and you have to make catches and make plays.”

Luckily for Babers, that production through the air might be his team’s strongest asset this season, with receivers accounting for 14 of the team’s 17 offensive touchdowns this season. The corps is led by two upperclassmen: junior Taj Harris — who has 50 receptions for 664 yards and five scores, averaging 13.3 yards per catch — and senior Nykeim Johnson, who has a more modest 18 receptions for 310 yards, but who has successfully nabbed four touchdowns on an average of 17.2 yards per catch.

“We have very, very high expectation for the wide receiver corps. If you do not have that expectation or that drive within yourself, then you should not come here, because it’s one of those positions where we expect a great, great deal of effort, concentration and performance,” Babers said.

And high expectations stretch across all position groups as Babers thinks ahead to this weekend, seeing it as another chance for his guys to continue the growth they’ve been experiencing all year.

“I’m looking forward to another opportunity to be on the field in 2020,” he said, “so that it can pay off in 2021.”

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