SYRACUSE, New York — In what is nothing short of an unpredictable season, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish continue to play their best football against better opponents and away from Notre Dame Stadium. This time it was made evident in the Irish’s commanding 41-24 win over the No. 16 Syracuse Orange Saturday afternoon.
Irish dominance at the close of the first half and opening of the second half helped them establish a 24-7 lead. Syracuse’s backup quarterback, Carlos Del Rio-Wilson, forced into the game after an injury to Garrett Shrader, sparked the Orange to 10 straight points. But, with a chance to drive and tie the game, Del Rio-Wilson tossed a backbreaking interception. Notre Dame responded with a touchdown drive to take back its two-score lead. A blocked punt set up a one-play touchdown drive that iced the result, giving Notre Dame a 38-17 lead. The two teams traded scores, with an Irish field goal marking the final points of the day and making up for the 41-24 final score.
Ultimately, Notre Dame’s ground game was the storyline. Sophomore running backs Audric Estime (124 yards) and Logan Diggs (87 yards) combined for 40 carries and 211 yards. That came a week after Diggs ran for 130 yards against UNLV in his breakout performance of the year. It was Estime’s second 100+-yard performance of his season.
“Logan [Diggs] is my brother. We’re always trying to push each other every day. We have that bond, it’s unbreakable. We always feed off each other,” Estime said.
Estime scored twice, and Diggs added a touchdown of his own. The Irish didn’t need much out of the passing game, completing just nine passes. They did see a small breakout performance from Deion Colzie who notched three receptions for 44 yards. Junior tight end Michael Mayer continued his record-setting career with three catches for 54 yards. The second of those three catches vaulted the junior to No. 1 all-time in Notre Dame tight end career receiving yards.
Defensively, the Irish were a dominant force outside a brief stretch in the third quarter. Senior transfer safety Brandon Joseph and senior linebacker Marist Liufau collected interceptions for the Irish, both at key moments. Junior linebacker Jordan Botelho had two sacks and a quarterback hit as part of a four-sack defensive effort from the Irish. Senior linebacker J.D. Bertrand put forth another strong effort, with five tackles, including one for loss, two quarterback hits and a big tipped pass on fourth down.
Irish use defense, ground game to take early lead
Notre Dame got off to the fastest start imaginable. They deferred the kick and still needed just seven seconds to make their mark on the scoreboard. Senior transfer safety Brandon Joseph stepped in front of a Shrader slant pass and returned it 29 yards for a touchdown.
“I was just doing my job, dropping down in the zone,” Joseph said on the pick. “The quarterback was staring at me and just threw it at me.” Joseph also noted it was the first pick-six of his career and that he gave the ball to his dad.
A couple of penalties, one on the touchdown celebration and one on the ensuing kickoff, gifted the Orange 30 yards, however. Syracuse capitalized on the short field with a touchdown drive to tie the game. Improved defense on both sides kept that the score at the end of the first quarter.
Notre Dame ran the ball well in the first quarter but couldn’t quite put the finishing touches on drives. A heavy dose of Diggs and Estime brought the Irish to the brink of the red zone. Notre Dame gave Estime the first two carries of the game after he fumbled for the third time in four games last weekend. The Irish continued to trust the sophomore, and he responded in a big way.
“That helped for sure. Getting the first carries means a lot for me,” Estime said. “It shows the trust that the [coaches] have in me. That was a big confidence booster.”
However, after the early rushing success, junior running back Chris Tyree was thrown for a three-yard loss. His ten-yard reception set up a manageable third down, but Notre Dame could not convert. Graduate student kicker Blake Grupe missed a 39-yard field goal attempt. On its second drive, Notre Dame got into Syracuse territory. Three Estime runs for 24 yards pushed the ball to the Syracuse 39. However, on 2nd and 4, the Irish had a false start and then repeated the offense one play later. That forced them into a 3rd and 11, and the Irish could not convert.
“We had been prepared for [the noise at the JMA Wireless Dome],” head coach Marcus Freeman said. “They really hadn’t stopped us in the first half. [The message to the team] was like just ‘calm down’, don’t beat yourselves, go out there and execute.”
The Irish did just that. After another defensive stop, the Irish turned back to the run game, keeping it on the ground on nine of the 11 plays on their next drive. Diggs did a bulk of the work, breaking off a 16-yard run as part of his 31 yards on that drive. The sophomore from Louisiana also punched in the score, putting the Irish ahead for good, 14-7. The drive set the tone for a contest in which Notre Dame ran the ball 56 times on 75 offensive snaps.
“That’s been the plan since… probably Cal. That’s our identity,” Freeman noted. “When we get the opportunity to throw it, we’ll throw it.”
Freeman brushed off concern about a middling performance from Pyne (9-19, 116 yards, one touchdown, one interception).
“We scored… 41 points. If we can score 41 points doing it the way we just did, we’re going to continue to do that. We’re not looking to have a certain amount passes… we’re looking to score points.”
Defense dominates after early touchdown
That certainly wasn’t an issue as the day went on, although it wasn’t all smooth sailing for Notre Dame. A three-and-out and interception punctuated a pair of fruitless drives following the touchdown. However, the Irish defense found a zone after Syracuse’s initial score, holding the Orange to 35 yards on 20 offensive plays after their first scoring drive. Shrader started the day 4-5 for 36 yards and finished the half by completing one of his final nine passes for negative one yard.
The Irish also limited the contributions of Sean Tucker, the Orange’s bell cow in the backfield. They held Tucker to 97 total yards, including 65 rushing yards on 3.8 yards per attempt. More importantly for the Irish, a lot of Tucker’s running was inefficient. Efficiency is measured by gaining 50% of the yards to gain on first down, 70% on second down and 100% on third and fourth down; Tucker delivered an efficient play on just three of 12 first-half touches. Comparatively, the Irish were efficient on 59% of their running plays, excluding quarterback scrambles.
Syracuse gifted the Irish a huge chance late in the first half, opting to go for a 4th and 9 from the Notre Dame 39. Bertrand tipped the pass and forced the turnover on downs. The Irish turned to the Pyne-Mayer connection, and the duo responded with two straight completions for 48 yards. The first, for 37 yards, gave Mayer the aforementioned record. After that, Pyne found sophomore receiver Jayden Thomas for a touchdown and a 21-7 halftime advantage.
Quarterback change puts Irish on their heels
For a moment, the game looked like it would turn into an utter blowout. The Irish added a field goal early in the third quarter, and Syracuse turned to its backup quarterback due to an unspecified injury to Shrader. The Orange didn’t gain a first down in their first drive under Florida transfer Carlos Del Rio-Wilson. However, a 30-yard completion sparked the second drive, and Syracuse was able to get into field goal range.
Kicker Andre Szmyt was nails from 54 yards out, making it a 24-10 game. After that, the Irish ran twice for one yard and threw an incomplete. Suddenly, their offensive strength looked off-kilter. And Syracuse proceeded to rip through the Irish defense for 67 yards on five plays. Completions of 23 and 30 yards set up a Tucker 4-yard waltz into the end zone. Del Rio-Wilson ultimately threw for 190 yards in the second half on 11-122 passing.
The Irish offense again failed to pick up a first down, giving Syracuse a chance to tie. However, senior defensive tackle Howard Cross tipped a Del Rio-Wilson pass, and Liufau tracked the deflection, diving backward to secure the interception.
“We’re a defense that puts a lot of emphasis on turnovers… For him to get that pick and get the ball back to the offense, it was huge,” Joseph said. “The turning point of that game.”
Irish ice the game
The Notre Dame offense took advantage of its defense’s efforts, turning back to the run game. Tyree ran the ball five straight times, gaining 17 yards in the process. Pyne then completed his lone pass of the second half, for 11 yards to Colzie on third down. A pass interference call then set up Estime for his first touchdown of the afternoon, an 11-yard burst up the middle.
The Irish then allowed one total yard on the ensuing drive by Syracuse, seemingly figuring out Del Rio-Wilson.
“We were really trying to pressure the backup quarterback, and he started to throw the ball really well. So we backed off on the pressure,” Freeman said regarding schematic adjustments after the Syracuse surge.
The Irish then drilled the nail into the coffin with a punt block via junior cornerback Clarence Lewis. It was their fifth punt block of the season, including their fourth in the past three weeks, a highwater mark this century for the Irish. Estime needed just one play to convert a two-yard touchdown, and the Irish led 38-17.
From there, the final minutes of the game were ceremonial. Syracuse drove down one more time for a meaningless touchdown. They attempted an onside kick that was collected with ease by Mayer. The Irish used Estime’s 28-yard run to take advantage of the short field. They couldn’t punch in a fourth rushing touchdown, but they did set up Grupe with a chip-shot 20-yard field goal. Syracuse’s final offensive drive saw them lose seven yards on first down, courtesy of Botelho’s second sack. They didn’t move the chains, allowing Notre Dame to kneel out the clock.
The Irish pick up their second-ranked win of the year. They previously beat BYU when the Cougars, now 4-5, were ranked inside the top 20. They also have a win over UNC, who was unranked when the Irish played them but entered today at No. 21 in the AP Poll. The Irish have won five of their past six, and have a chance to stun everyone to maybe move back into the Top 25, with unbeaten No. 5 Clemson visiting South Bend next week. The Tigers beat Syracuse 27-21 last week. Kickoff for next week’s game is set for 7:30 p.m. EST.
Contact Aidan Thomas at email@example.com.