It’s amazing how quickly perceptions can change in the world of college football, and September has all but confirmed its fluidity for the Fighting Irish. Tabbed during the preseason by prognosticating guru Phil Steele as boasting the toughest schedule in 2014, Notre Dame has surprisingly found itself facing questions about the quality of its opponents to date after Michigan’s sudden implosion and subsequent tailspin. Syracuse, a physical team that had limited offenses to 2.7 yards per carry on the ground while touting a rushing attack that averages nearly 6 yards per carry, was to be a measuring stick that determined how good Notre Dame truly is.
The results were open to interpretation.
The Brian VanGorder-led defense continued its impressive production in Notre Dame’s 31-15 victory over Syracuse and stonewalled the Orange’s formidable rushing attack. Excluding one long gain on a fake punt, Syracuse was held to 93 yards rushing on 29 attempts for an average of 3.2 yards per carry, nearly halving what the Orange had been averaging prior to facing Notre Dame. Shutting down the run forced Syracuse out of its desired game plan and led to more passing attempts where, outside of a few superb throws in tight coverage, quarterback Terrel Hunt completed only 57% of his passes with one interception.
It was the Notre Dame offense that produced an oxymoronic effect.
Irish quarterback Everett Golson played a central part in Notre Dame’s unbalanced offensive outing. The Fighting Irish signal-caller’s three fumbles – two of which were lost – and two interceptions hindered Notre Dame’s ability to put Syracuse away and kept the contest within reach. Golson’s encore to the numerous miscues involved completing 32 of 39 passing attempts – including a school record 25 straight completions – for an astounding 80% completion rate en route to a 364 yard and 4 touchdown performance. Golson’s paradoxical status as being a major reason the Fighting Irish struggled, as well as the main reason they emerged victorious, has raised eyebrows amongst voters.
Concern about the quality of Notre Dame’s opponents to date – as well as the offense’s brilliant play intertwined with bouts of alarming sloppiness – was likely the reason Notre Dame dropped one spot to #9 in the Associated Press poll, and creates a college football version of the chicken-or-egg dilemma.
Does a team worthy of a top ten ranking turn the ball over five times in one game, or, similarly, is it a sign a team belongs in the top ten when it can post a minus four turnover differential on the road and still win by double digits, considering only one other program from a Power 5 conference has managed to accomplished such a feat out of 29 possible tries during the past two seasons?
While it may be too soon to answer such a conundrum, this much is certain: Notre Dame is far from the only top ten program to endure hiccups. During the first week of the 2014 season, UCLA – strangely the team that leapfrogged Notre Dame in the recent AP poll – eked out a win against Virginia, a team with a 3-2 record, and followed that performance by squeaking by Memphis with a seven-point margin of victory. Top-rated Oregon was tied with a Washington State squad with a losing record before inching past the Cougars in the 4th quarter. And most recently, Florida State, the defending national champions, was forced to muster a come-from-behind rally to defeat an unranked N.C. State team.
Notre Dame has not always looked dominant this season, but neither have the dominant programs the Fighting Irish are being measured against, including this weekend’s upcoming foe, Stanford. The Cardinal displayed their traditional power under head coach David Shaw when obliterating UC Davis and Army by a combined score of 80-0, but have showcased vulnerabilities not often seen since Shaw took over the program in 2011. Stanford lost to a USC squad that was later defeated by a Boston College program that fell to Colorado State. Stanford also needed a late fourth quarter touchdown to defeat the same Washington program that narrowly defeated Hawaii and trailed Eastern Washington heading into the fourth quarter before squeaking out a win.
Every team stumbles at some point. The real test is whether a program can survive the trip, something Notre Dame has been able to do. And that test will continue into this weekend when the Fighting Irish host #14 Stanford.
Scott Janssen is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles, including an appearance on MSNBC as a sports contributor. He talks football 24-hours a day, much to the chagrin of his wife and those around him. Scott can be reached at [email protected].