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Irish defense finds much-needed clutch gene late against Syracuse

SYRACUSE, New York — For a moment, early on in the fourth quarter, it felt like Notre Dame was spiraling toward collapse. 

Syracuse backup quarterback Carlos Del Rio-Wilson had engineered consecutive scoring drives, finding his rhythm after a shaky start to the tune of a 5-7 and 104-yard performance on those scoring drives. Notre Dame’s offense, which dominated the trenches in the first half, sputtered into consecutive three-and-outs. 

With 13:57 left in the fourth quarter, the Orange had both the ball and the momentum. A soldout crowd at JMA Wireless Dome was the loudest it had been all day, knowing the tying score lay just 75 yards away. Notre Dame needed a statement stop from a defense that had been on the back foot for most of the half. And, for perhaps the first time all season, it got one. In all three losses this year, the Notre Dame defense had given up fourth-quarter scoring drives in a one-possession game. Those three backbreaking drives combined for 35 plays, 240 yards and 17 points against an Irish defense that seemed to repeatedly tire late in games. 

But after five games in which the Irish defense produced just four total turnovers, Al Golden’s unit produced its second of the day when it mattered most against Syracuse. After a pair of quarterback rushes netted the Orange a fresh set of downs, Syracuse looked to Del Rio-Wilson to once again make things happen through the air.

But this time senior defensive tackle Howard Cross III was able to get a hand up, bat Del Rio-Wilson’s pass into the sky, and senior linebacker Marist Liufau got under it to make a centerfielder-esque basket catch to give the Irish offense another chance to take the squad’s lead out of one-score territory.

Thanks to the spark provided by the defense’s stop, Notre Dame’s offense found its footing again. Going back to the run game that worked so well in the first half, the Irish continually battered the Orange with six rushes in eight plays. Eventually, one of those runs put a sigh of relief into head coach Marcus Freeman’s lungs when sophomore running back Audric Estime found a hole and burst through for an 11-yard score.

Liufau’s pivotal interception wasn’t the only time Saturday that the defense provided the Irish a spark. On the very first play from scrimmage senior safety Brandon Joseph got the Irish on the board, sitting on a short pass over the middle from Syracuse quarterback Garrett Shrader that hit him right in the chest. With nothing but green grass in front of him, Joseph raced 29 yards for the first pick-six of his career, a streak that the senior noted after the game went back to before his high school playing days.

Freeman remarked after the game on the importance of Joseph’s interception setting the tone for the rest of the game. “It was huge,” he said. “To start the game on defense and on the very first play get a pick-six? That’s how you want to start. It was good. The group started fast… the ability to establish [yourself], go on defense first, go up 7-0, that’s huge momentum for everyone at our football program.”

Notre Dame’s defensive output throughout the squad’s worst games this season has consistently been defined by bend but don’t break performances. In all three Irish losses, Notre Dame was unable to force a single turnover. In the team’s stressful, 24-17 win over Cal, the defense once again came away without a takeaway. 

And while the defense hardly played terribly in any of those four games, consistently wearing down offenses without creating momentum isn’t enough for an offense that has struggled as much with big plays as Notre Dame’s. 

It was easy to see the wind enter the Irish sails after both takeaways in Syracuse. Joseph’s pick-six brought the defense jumping and screaming to the Irish fan contingent behind the endzone. Senior defensive end Isaiah Foskey was even flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct for his role in the raucous celebrations. 

Following Liufau’s interception, it was once again clear that the bench energy that had lagged during the short Orange comeback had perked up once again. The offense responded to that energy in kind and looked less intimidated by a Syracuse crowd that Freeman described as “hostile” and had forced multiple earlier false starts. The Irish score after Liufau’s interception all but put the game away for good.

The Irish defense knows the role it has to play in generating a spark for a more inconsistent offense that has begun to establish an identity reliant on a run game and as slow of a tempo as it can manage. 

Joseph commented after the game on the importance of the defensive unit continuing to force turnovers going forward:

“I think it’s a big confidence booster for our defense,” Joseph said. “It’s something that we’ve expected from game one of the season, to get turnovers, and for them to start falling now, with the games that we have up next… we’re a defense that puts an emphasis on turnovers. It’s what we expect. For it to happen today was real satisfying.”

With tests against No. 5 Clemson (8-0, averaging 37.1 points per game) and No. 10 USC (6-1, averaging 40.4 points per game) looming large as the biggest games remaining on the schedule, Notre Dame’s defense can’t afford to revert to bend but don’t break performances.

The Irish offense doesn’t have the big play capabilities on their own to match the scoring of their Tiger and Trojan counterparts. Notre Dame averages just 28.4 points per game. But even more notably, the Irish have averaged just 17.25 points per game in contests where they fail to force a turnover.

Unsurprisingly, two of the three games in which Notre Dame was able to eclipse 40 points have been the only two games where the Irish were able to generate at least one touchdown off turnovers (7 points against North Carolina, 14 points against Syracuse).

Defensive coordinator Al Golden continually stressed earlier in the season when pressed about the lack of turnovers that they would come. And while the Irish face as tough of a home test as one could ask for next week in No. 5 Clemson, Saturday’s game provided evidence of Golden’s prediction coming true. And with that evidence is a road map to what Freeman will hope is a first signature victory as Notre Dame’s head coach.

Contact J.J. Post at jpost2@nd.edu.

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