Irish finish perfect regular season behind McKinley’s three touchdowns
Nate Moller | Sunday, December 6, 2020
It definitely was not a perfect performance, but No. 2-ranked Notre Dame (10-0, 9-0 ACC) was able to beat Syracuse (1-10, 1-10 ACC) by a score of 45-21 on senior day to complete a perfect regular season, the third of head coach Brian Kelly’s tenure in South Bend.
Kelly talked about what Saturday’s win means for the program. With the win, the Irish have now won 24 straight home games.
“This win is about finishing for our seniors, getting a win at home, getting [graduate student quarterback] Ian Book into the record books as the winningest quarterback in the history of Notre Dame and solidifying our position in the College Football Playoff picture,” Kelly said. “Those are the most important things. This group is built differently. The consistency that [our team has] shown over the last three years is amazing. To win 24 consecutive games at home, that’s hard to do. It’s hard to do 24 things consecutively.”
Although it ended up being a relatively comfortable victory, the Irish got off to a slow start. On the opening drive of the game, Book led the Irish quickly into the red zone, but the drive faltered at the 7-yard line, leading to a 25-yard field goal for senior kicker Jonathan Doerer to give the Irish a 3-0 lead. After the field goal, both offenses struggled to get anything going, with both teams having to punt on two consecutive possessions.
On their third possession of the game, the Orange were able to move the ball and found the end zone before the Irish. Syracuse redshirt-senior quarterback Rex Culpepper connected with redshirt-sophomore wide receiver Anthony Queeley on an 18-yard pass play to give the Orange a 7-3 lead with just under ten minutes to go in the first half.
The ensuing drive for the Irish looked promising, but it ended in a failed fourth down conversion from the 35-yard line as freshman tight end Michael Mayer had a freshman moment, losing first-down yardage in pursuit of a bigger gain but then being tackled short of the sticks.
Luckily for the Irish, the defense stepped up on the next Orange drive, forcing an important three-and-out that gave the ball back to the home team with just over five minutes remaining in the first half. For a moment it appeared that Notre Dame was going to have to punt again, but a roughing the passer call on Syracuse gave the Irish an automatic first down. After that play, the rest of the first half was all Notre Dame.
Following the roughing the passer call, Book completed a bootleg play to junior tight end Tommy Tremble to get the Irish back in Orange territory near the 40-yard line. Book called his own number a few plays later, scrambling to his right and then taking off for a 28-yard touchdown run to give the Irish a 10-7 lead with just over three minutes to go in the half.
After the Orange got the ball back, Culpepper made the first big mistake of the game. Senior defensive lineman Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa sacked Culpepper and knocked the ball loose, resulting in sophomore linebacker Marist Liufau recovering the fumble and taking it the other way to the Syracuse 21-yard line. On the following play, the Irish capitalized off Culpepper’s mistake with Book finding graduate student wide receiver Javon McKinley for a 21-yard touchdown, McKinley’s first score of the season.
The Irish were not done in the first half yet, though, as the Irish defense stepped up again and forced another three-and-out. After getting the ball back with 38 seconds left, Book and the Irish drove down the field to the Orange 28-yard line with 12 seconds to go. After taking a timeout, Book heaved up a pass to McKinley who secured it for his second touchdown of the game. After scoring three touchdowns in just over three minutes, the Irish held a commanding 24-7 lead going into the half.
Kelly singled out Book, but also gave credit to those around him, for turning the game around at the end of the second quarter.
“We weren’t executing at the level that we’re capable of, and then all of a sudden, we executed at the level that our standard has been set at,” Kelly said. “And so it was not just Ian [Book], it was the other 10 guys on offense executing at the level that they’re capable of.”
The Orange showed early on in the second half that they weren’t going away just yet. After consecutive fumbles by both teams, Syracuse freshman running back Sean Tucker broke away for a 40-yard touchdown run that brought the Orange within ten of the Irish. Tucker finished the game with a team high 113 yards on the ground, which was good for the most of any running back against the Irish this season.
It appeared as though things might be turning in the Orange’s favor after a Book interception on the ensuing drive — his first since the season opener against Duke and one that broke his school-record streak of most completions without an interception — but Syracuse gave the ball right back to the Irish on the following play with senior linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah recovering a fumble by Culpepper.
After that, the Irish were able to put up 21 unanswered points to cement a victory and a perfect season.
The first Irish touchdown of the second half went to Book, who used his legs to convert on a 17-yard touchdown and give the Irish a 31-14 lead. McKinley then recorded the next touchdown, which was his third of the day off of a 26-yard pass from Book.
Kelly discussed McKinley’s ability to make catches in press coverage.
“I think we’re at that stage now where Ian believes that if you press McKinley, nobody can defend him and that [Ian]’s going to put the ball where it needs to be,” Kelly stated. “That kind of recognition, belief and trust is where this offense has grown throughout this season.”
The last touchdown of senior day went to freshman running back Chris Tyree. Tyree broke away for a 94 yard touchdown, displaying his lightning fast speed in the process and running away from multiple Orange defenders. Speaking of running backs, sophomore Kyren Williams also had a good day for the Irish, recording 110 yards on the ground off of 20 carries. With Saturday’s stats, Williams has now eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards for the season.
Williams discussed what achieving this goal means to him.
“Reaching that goal has been a goal of mine since quarantine when I really realized that I can do this and play at this level,” Williams said. “I just attribute that to my offensive line. Without them, it’s not possible.”
Another storyline for the game was Notre Dame Stadium PA announcer Mike Collins, who called his last game on Saturday. Collins has been the PA announcer since 1981. Kelly discussed Collins’ legacy at Notre Dame.
“I’ve kind of learned about Mike each year, and I’ve got an easy name to pronounce, so he has always pronounced my name pretty well,” Kelly joked. “I didn’t know that this was part of the whole legacy here, and it’s been fun to listen to him, and see him be a part of the history here at Notre Dame.”
With their Dec. 12 game against Wake Forest cancelled by the conference, the Irish will now prepare for the ACC Championship game on December 19th in their first season as a conference member.