The Notre Dame Fighting Irish, having already locked up a berth in the ACC Championship Game, can complete another perfect regular season on Saturday at home against the Syracuse Orangemen. The undefeated Irish enter the game as massive favorites, with the Orangemen entering this clash with a cringe-worthy 1-9 record on the season.
Notre Dame could probably go through the motions in this game and still win, but it seems likely that Brian Kelly will be reinforcing the high stakes involved. The Irish have won the last three meetings between these two teams, including a blowout victory at Yankee Stadium two years ago, something that may be repeated under the Golden Dome.
Below are some of the key matchups to watch:
QB Ian Book vs. Syracuse Defense
While Book’s numbers are down from his previous two seasons at Notre Dame, it seems unlikely that anyone is upset about his 2020 performance. He continues to connect with safe targets, avoiding foolish errors that can put the Irish in a bind. In addition, his mobility has allowed him to not only escape potential sacks, but gained healthy chunks of yardage.
While the Syracuse run defense is the main issue for the Orangemen, Book is hoping to have the same type of game enjoyed by North Carolina State last Saturday with their 313 yards through the air and four touchdown passes. While their pass defense has 12 interceptions on the year, Syracuse has only collected four in their last six games.
Notre Dame Defense vs. QB JaCobian Morgan/Rex Culpepper
One continuing aspect of Notre Dame’s performance against weaker teams this season has been the Irish’s tendency to give up some early yardage before making the necessary adjustments. That was again in evidence last Friday in North Carolina as Notre Dame’s defense allowed 14 first-quarter points before shutting things down by only allowing a field goal the rest of the way.
Exactly who lines up behind center for Syracuse remains something of a mystery, with starter JacCobian Morgan hoping to come back after sitting out last Saturday with an apparent concussion. If he can’t go, Rex Culpepper will again get the call, though neither player has offered much in the way of offensive production during their time on the field. Original starter Tommy DeVito was lost for the season in October with a season-ending leg injury.
RB Kyren Williams vs. LB Stefon Thompson
Williams is coming off his fifth game this season of over 100 yards rushing and is averaging 5.6 yards each time he carries the ball. He has to be licking his chops at the prospect of facing the weak Syracuse run defense, which has given up an average of 200 rushing yards per game and are currently allowing opposing runners 4.3 yards per carry.
Thompson played running back in high school and has shown in his first season with the Orangemen that he knows how they operate. Among his 31 tackles on the year are 7.5 stops behind the line, which shows his quickness in being able to diagnose a play. He’s also forced a fumble this season and also is a threat in getting to the quarterback.
CB Nick McCloud vs. WR Taj Harris
McCloud continues to be quietly effective on the corner and has averaged nearly one pass deflection in every game this season. His tackle numbers for the year aren’t all that impressive, which is actually a good thing for any defense, but he helped shut down the North Carolina passing attack after an early bombardment.
One of the few threats on the Syracuse offense is wideout Taj Harris, who’s coming off a career day against North Carolina State. In that contest, he grabbed 13 passes for 146 yards and one touchdown. He’s got plenty of ability to be a standout receiver but has shown a tendency to drop balls and also give in to frustration.
RG Josh Lugg vs. DT McKinley Williams
Lugg was inserted into the lineup last week in the wake of Tommy Kraemer‘s appendectomy. While Kraemer may be healthy enough to play against Syracuse, such a strategy doesn’t make much sense against a team of this caliber. Lugg got plenty of experience last year with the Irish at tackle and showed after struggling in the first half last Friday that he could play effectively.
Williams has bounced back this season after playing in just three games in 2019 due to a foot injury. He’s been strong against the run but is also a threat when it comes to getting to the quarterback. The man they call “Bear” has accounted for seven tackles-for-loss on the year, bringing a 6-foot-4, 290-pound frame to the field and showing he can be a handful.