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Keys to victory versus Syracuse

Notre Dame got back on track last weekend with a victory over UNLV. But the Irish face a much stiffer test this weekend as they travel to Syracuse to face the Orange at the JMA Wireless Dome. Syracuse started the season 6-0, surging into the top-15 and shocking many observers after they were picked to finish last in the ACC Atlantic in the preseason coaches poll.

Though they lost last week against Clemson, they proved they could play with the best of the best. The Irish have a chance to get a statement victory, but they’ll have to overcome a formidable Syracuse team in order to do so. Here are some keys to a Notre Dame victory.

Win the possession battle

In each of Notre Dame’s seven games thus far, the possession battle has dictated the outcome. In each of the Irish’s four wins, they had the ball more than their opponent and vice versa for their three losses. This may seem like a fairly intuitive statistic, but it points to Notre Dame’s underlying approach: the Irish win games by keeping the ball on the ground and their defense off the field. Junior quarterback Drew Pyne has been solid. But he also hasn’t been the primary reason for most of the victories so far.  

This will be especially important against the Orange, a team that will also be seeking to keep the clock moving when they are on offense. Syracuse’s defensive line is thin, meaning that Notre Dame’s depth at running back will be a significant advantage for the Irish.

The success of the run game will likely determine Notre Dame’s fortunes, so head coach Marcus Freeman and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees would be well advised to keep the ball on the ground and ride the hot hand, whether it’s sophomore Logan Diggs, sophomore Audric Estime or junior Chris Tyree. When the run is established, this also opens up the passing game for Pyne. 

Make Shrader beat you through the air 

Garrett Shrader is second in the ACC in completion percentage, trailing only UNC’s Drake Maye by less than a percentage point. But he ranks near the bottom of the conference in pass attempts among qualified quarterbacks. He is certainly a credible threat through the air, but his running ability is equally if not more valuable. In short-yardage situations, he is just as likely to beat you with his legs as with his arm. 

Leading rusher Sean Tucker got just 10 touches in the loss against Clemson Saturday. And while he is likely to see more action against the Irish, Shrader is actually the team’s second-leading rusher. To slow down the Orange offense, Notre Dame must limit Tucker and Shrader’s early-down success on the ground and force them into third and long situations where the Irish defense is best equipped to get a stop.

Limit big plays 

Big plays have been an issue all season for Notre Dame. UNLV further exposed that last weekend. Notre Dame had built up a big early lead, so it didn’t affect the outcome of the game. But it is still a concerning trend. UNLV had several big gains that led to scores, including a 74-yard run in the first quarter and multiple 20-plus-yard passes.

These mistakes didn’t come back to punish Notre Dame last week. But if they make them again against Syracuse, it may be a different story. Syracuse has several explosive players on offense, including Tucker and wide receiver Oronde Gadsden II, who leads the team with 37 receptions and 593 yards. If the Irish can make the Orange work for every yard, the outcome will likely be positive. But allowing one or two big plays could tip the balance of the game.

Force a turnover (or several)

Notre Dame currently sits near the bottom of FBS teams with a -6 turnover margin. The Irish have forced just four turnovers and have lost 10, which puts them tied for 117th in the country. The Orange are just the opposite, with 13 forced turnovers and seven lost for a plus-six margin.

The Irish offense had a relatively easy job against UNLV last weekend because they routinely started in great field position. Two blocked punts and a fumble recovery made the offense’s life much easier. They’ll need to take care of the football if they want to beat Syracuse. And forcing one or two turnovers could flip the game in their favor quickly.

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Observer Staff predicts Notre Dame vs. Syracuse

Aidan Thomas – Sports Editor

I have gone back and forth on this pick a lot. Notre Dame is 4-3 outright as an underdog in ACC games under their current arrangement with the conference. They’re 6-1 against the spread. The Irish are 2-1 outright and 3-0 against the spread away from Notre Dame Stadium this year. Against Syracuse, the Irish are usually quite solid, going 7-3 in program history against the Orange.

Notre Dame’s key to success is pretty clear. Get the ground game going. Clemson’s top two rushers last week had 45 carries for 266 yards and three touchdowns. Notre Dame’s offensive line has played well lately, and if the Irish can get their running backs rolling, their offensive ceiling expands. Defensively, the center of attention has to be Sean Tucker, who handles nearly half of Syracuse’s offensive touches. He’s an outstanding back that Notre Dame must key on.

Notre Dame plays well as an underdog. They play well on the road. They haven’t lost a regular season ACC game since 2017. Analytics probably say Syracuse. My gut kind of says Irish, as their wacky season with solid road performances continues.

Notre Dame 27, Syracuse 24

Mannion McGinley – Assistant Managing Editor

The Irish had an excellent first quarter for the first time all year, leading to their biggest win of the season against UNLV. This week against the Orange, the Irish will have to establish some kind of presence in the first again in order to stay in the game.

That won’t be the only deciding factor though. Yes, the Irish will need to make themselves known to start the game and keep it close. But then they will need to pull off a successful second-half surge. In each of Syracuse’s three games decided by one score this year — including their loss to Clemson — the Orange have allowed at least two second-half touchdowns. Their offense has been subject to a similar trend, as well.

Another win for Notre Dame will require the Irish to capitalize on this behind their run game while the defense quells the Orange offense, but that won’t be easy. Syracuse also relies on a ground game headed by a dual-threat quarterback, something Notre Dame has yet to handle perfectly. Entering this scenario away from home, the Irish will be tied with the Orange at the half before pulling away in the second, taking advantage of a tired Syracuse defense.

Notre Dame 31, Syracuse 27 

Nate Moller – Senior Sports Writer

Based on how the Irish have played so far this season, a win on Saturday against a top-20 Syracuse team seems unlikely. This Irish team, however, is anything but ordinary, as they have tended to perform their best against top-caliber opponents. In an ideal world, the Irish are able to run the football and exploit the Orange’s weakness on defense.

While the Irish offensive line has shown glimmers of greatness this season, they have yet to put together four quarters of dominance. That is going to cost the Irish on Saturday. The Orange rank 10th in the NCAA in passing yards allowed this season, and they should be able to limit the production of Irish junior quarterback Drew Pyne, whose completion percentage has been subpar as of late.

The Irish are going to be forced to pass more than they want to on Saturday. And while junior tight end Michael Mayer will have another productive day, it won’t be enough for the Irish against a really good Syracuse team. It seems like every time I pick against Notre Dame, the Irish play well. So I am picking against them again.

Notre Dame 17, Syracuse 28

Emily DeFazio – Associate Sports Editor

I am again unsure of which direction to go on this one. Every time I think I have a grasp on how the Irish will perform, a curveball gets thrown into the mix. While I am glad the team is coming off of a win for this one, they are also not too far past a painful and unexpected loss to Stanford.

Syracuse is not to be taken lightly. They are a top-20 team that will be playing in an electric home atmosphere. Regardless of whether Notre Dame wins or loses, it will be a battle, against both the physical players and the crowd. However, it seems like the Orange tends to falter in the second half, which the Irish must capitalize on.

This will have to be one of those games where the team has a late surge, most likely through the use of the running back corps — specifically, sophomore Audric Estime — and a potential Mayer touchdown to rack up points and cover any potential weaknesses. If the Irish do not allow the environment to get to them and focus on escalating their caliber of play late in the game, they may just come away with a much-needed win before their long-awaited meeting against Clemson in South Bend.

Notre Dame 28, Syracuse 24

Madeline Ladd – Associate Sports Editor

The No. 16 Orange are coming off a deflating loss against No. 5 Clemson last week. Will they be back with a vengeance against the Irish? Though Notre Dame had a solid win against UNLV last weekend, it is not telling. A ranked team matchup will be a true test of where the Irish are at.

In terms of the offense, I’m not sure what to expect from Pyne. He plays great on the road but seems to crumble at home. He must find other receivers instead of zoning in on just Mayer. Sophomore wide receiver Lorenzo Styles needs to lock in and perform at the level we saw late last year. Tommy Rees must utilize junior running back Chris Tyree’s speed in the passing game. Estime just needs to hold onto the ball.

As for the Irish defense, they must put together two strong halves and cannot give up big plays like they have been doing. Pressure against dangerously mobile Syracuse QB Garrett Shrader is key. Like all games, this is a must-win for the Irish. However, they especially need a victory to go in on a high next week with Clemson coming to town.

Notre Dame 28, Syracuse 24

Liam Coolican – Associate Sports Editor

Syracuse proved they are a legitimate threat last week on the road against Clemson. However, the Irish match up well against Syracuse. The Orange have a beat-up defensive line and allowed almost 300 yards rushing last week against the Tigers. The Irish will likely look to follow a similar path to victory on Saturday. In the second half against UNLV, Pyne passed just eight times for 32 yards, while the running game racked up more than 100 yards as Notre Dame dominated time of possession. However, the Orange’s secondary is very good, which means Pyne may struggle if he is forced to pass too often.

On the other side of the ball, Shrader is an impressive dual-threat quarterback with nearly 400 yards rushing on the season. The Irish have shown they can limit dual-threat quarterbacks this year in impressive road victories over UNC and BYU. The Orange have plenty of other threats offensively, but the Irish defense should be able to slow them down as long as they can limit big plays. Overall, Syracuse is an extremely formidable opponent, but one which Notre Dame has all the tools to beat.

Notre Dame 27, Syracuse 13

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Tunney: Top five games of CFB Week 9

Another week of college football brings another slate of games, each with unique stories, traditions and players. In the words of famous sportscaster Brad Nessler, “you can go to every stadium in the country, and never see the same thing twice.”

5. Michigan State @  No. 4 Michigan, 7:30 p.m., ABC, (Michigan -22.5)

This iconic battle is waged for the 115th time this Saturday, as two teams with divergent seasons clash in a rivalry matchup. Michigan is 7-0 and has looked the part of a team willing to challenge Ohio State again for Big Ten supremacy. The Wolverine offensive attack possesses a talented group of wide receivers and strong backfield led by running back Blake Corum. Corum has received some Heisman trophy hype, the prognosticators currently project him with the fourth-best odds to win the award. 

After a good deal of preseason fanfare, Michigan State has had a rocky season, going 3-4. Their offense hasn’t gotten over the loss of NFL running back Kenneth Walker III, although the team still has playmakers. Wide Receiver Jaylen Reed had a game-winning catch against Wisconsin last week. Defensive end Jacoby Windmon has won Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week twice. The Wolverines may be the better team talent-wise, but to achieve their goals they’ll have to get past a team that has been their kryptonite. Jim Harbaugh is 0-2 against Spartan head coach Mel Tucker, and the Wolverines are 4-10 in the last 14 matchups. 

4. Notre Dame @ No. 16 Syracuse, Noon, ABC, (Syracuse -2.5)

After an up and down month, the Irish travel east to central New York to play a surprisingly good Syracuse team. The Irish had the benefit of a get-right game last weekend, beating an inferior UNLV squad 44-21. Throughout the year, tight end Michael Mayer has looked like the real deal; he’s the leading receiver on an Irish team that needs more playmakers to emerge. Running back Audric Estime has run well at times but has struggled with ball security, fumbling three times in his past four games. If the Irish want to upset Syracuse, they will need to take care of the ball. Syracuse is 6-1, coming off of a tight loss to fifth-ranked Clemson. Running back Sean Tucker has been the best player for the Orange this year, which makes head coach Dino Babers’ decision to largely exclude him from the game plan against Clemson all the more confusing. Tucker only carried the ball five times for 54 yards. Quarterback Garrett Shrader has had a good year for the Orange, and if they want to stay in contention for a New Year’s Six Bowl Game, they will need this win. 

3. No. 9 Oklahoma State @ No. 22 Kansas State, 3:30 p.m., FOX, (Kansas State -1)

The Big 12 plays host to another important battle, a dogfight that could potentially decide the second spot in the Big 12 Championship Game. Both teams have lost to TCU, who has taken charge as the best team in the Big 12 thus far. Oklahoma State responded from their double overtime loss to TCU two weeks ago (their only loss of the season) with a huge win over Texas. Quarterback Spencer Sanders is dealing with undisclosed injuries, but he fought through to give the Cowboys an important win. Sanders threw for 391 yards and 2 touchdowns last week.

Kansas State has lost two games, to TCU and a ranked Tulane team, and have shown flashes of being a conference contender. The Wildcats were up 28-10 on TCU at one point before collapsing and allowing a comeback. Kansas State also barely avoided an upset against Iowa State. Quarterback Adrian Martinez also was injured against TCU, and although backup Will Howard filled in admirably, the starter’s health is a paramount concern. Both teams need the game to stay in the battle for the Big 12 Championship. 

2.  No. 19 Kentucky @ No. 3 Tennessee, 7:00 p.m., ESPN, (Tennessee -12.5)

This showdown between two ranked SEC teams has potential to be a classic. Quarterbacks Hendon Hooker and Will Levis are two of the most talented in the country for their respective teams, and their showdown on Saturday night is going to be fun. Hooker has been the man behind the reins of an insanely talented offensive attack, and his connection with wide receiver Jalin Hyatt might end up leading the Volunteers to the SEC Championship and beyond. The Volunteers are playing their first conference game since their biggest win in years, a 52-49 win over Alabama. Fans stormed the field, uprooting the goal posts and transporting them out of the stadium into the nearby river. Last weekend, the Volunteers put up 65 points on a hapless UT Martin squad. Kentucky is coming off of their bye week, which allowed their star quarterback to get healthy. Two weeks ago, they earned a key win against a ranked Mississippi State, stopping a losing streak of two games. Kentucky’s philosophy is built on running the football and playing strong defense. If they can somehow get defensive stops this Kentucky team could turn Tennessee’s championship dreams into a nightmare.

1. No. 2 Ohio State @ No. 13 Penn State, Noon, FOX, (Ohio State -15.5)

Ohio State is undefeated and has a claim as the best team in the country. Quarterback CJ Stroud has been scary good, with 28 touchdowns compared to just four interceptions. Ohio State has made their living off of having the best wide receiver rooms in the country over the past few seasons and this year is no different. Emeka Egbuka, Marvin Harrison Jr. and Julian Fleming have more than stepped up in the absence of the crown jewel, Jaxon Smith-Njigba. Head coach Ryan Day is hopeful that Smith-Njigba can return for his first game since his injury against Notre Dame. 

Last week, the Buckeyes obliterated an Iowa defense that some called the best in the Big Ten, overcoming a flat start to put up 54 points. Penn State is coming off of a big win against Minnesota that keeps them in the Big Ten Championship race (for the time being). That contention is dependent on a win this weekend. If Penn State loses on Saturday, the Nittany Lions and head coach James Franklin will be effectively out of the running. Franklin’s team has talent, and have played the Buckeyes close in recent years. 

Contact Joseph Tunney at jtunney@nd.edu.

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