Needing two more wins to virtually clinch a spot in the college football playoffs, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish easily handled the first part of that equation on Saturday with a 36-3 pasting of the Syracuse Orangemen. The contest was played at Yankee Stadium as part of the annual Shamrock Series, with Notre Dame paying tribute to the venue’s regular tenants with an array of pinstripes adorning their uniforms.
The dominating defensive performance came against the 12th-ranked Orangemen, who entered this contest averaging an eye-opening 44 points per game. The Irish were never seriously threatened after taking a 20-0 lead into the halftime locker room, with this performance providing momentum for next week’s all-important regular season finale.
Some of the major aspects of this contest are listed below:
An Easy Read for Book
After sitting out last week, the potential for Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book to bounce back with a big game was a possibility because of Syracuse’s weak pass defense. That became a reality when Book connected on 23-of-37 for 292 yards and a pair of touchdowns, having little trouble finding open men along the way.
The bulk of that damage was done during the first half, when Book completed 18-of-29 for 253 yards and one touchdown. His one interception came on a fourth-down play near the Syracuse goal line during the second quarter. That was the result of a stumble after the snap that resulted in a desperation end zone throw, an effort which likely would have failed anyway.
An Unexpected Benefit
Given the fact that Eric Dungey had been responsible for more than half of the Orangemen’s offensive yardage on the year entering this game, keying on him was a major facet of the Irish defensive gameplan. Those plans changed drastically in the first quarter when Dungey left the game for good with what was described as an upper-body injury.
That left Syracuse with a redshirt freshman, Tommy Devito, at the controls and the youngster’s rustiness was clearly evident. He managed to throw for just 25 yards during the first half and finished with 105 for the game. He also tossed a pair of interceptions against a Notre Dame defense that’s been aggressive all year long. The first half woes marked the first time this year that the Orangemen had been held scoreless in the opening two quarters.
Say Alohi to Gilman
Safety Alohi Gilman arrived as a Navy transfer and immediately made his presence felt in the Irish secondary at the outset of the 2018 campaign. That consistent performance level continued against Syracuse when he grabbed two interceptions on the afternoon, the latter of which almost went for a pick-six.
The first grab by Gilman came on an attempt by DeVito to go deep, allowing the Irish to take over at their own 16-yard line. That failed to lead to any points, but his second pick came after it appeared Orangemen wideout Dontae Strickland had caught the pass. Instead, Gilman snagged it and dashed 54 yards before getting knocked out at the Syracuse nine, where Jafar Armstrng needed just one play to dash in for a touchdown.
It may seem odd to look for flaws in a 33-point victory in which the opponent’s only points came with just 10 seconds left in the game. However, with a crucial regular season finale coming up and a playoff appearance likely looming, cleaning up such issues for the Irish is an absolute necessity. Those two areas relate to penalties and success in the red zone.
On three occasions, Notre Dame reached the red zone only to come away with a trio of field goals. The first of those had a drive begin at the Syracuse 15 following an interception. A false start to begin the series then killed the momentum, while the second drive had a touchdown wiped out by a holding call. On the third occasion, a start near midfield reached the Orangemen 14 in just four plays before fading. In addition to these struggles, Book’s lone pickoff came with the ball at the Syracuse one.
For the 90th time and 73rd year in a row, the Irish will take on the Southern Cal Trojans next Saturday in a contest that now takes on the aura of a postseason clash. That’s because Notre Dame only needs to win that game to essentially punch their ticket for semifinal contest in the college football playoffs.
The Irish entered the Syracuse matchup ranked third, meaning that absent any vote manipulation to select the final four teams, defeating the Trojans for the second year in a row will do the trick. Last year, what was supposed to be a tight affair turned into a blowout 49-14 victory for Notre Dame. This year, the Trojans enter the game with a mediocre 5-6 mark and need to pull off an upset to become bowl eligible.