SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame has three losses, fired its defensive coordinator and, just four weeks into the season, there's a real possibility it'll fall short of bowl eligibility for the first time in nine years. That’s the current story of the Irish, and it won’t change unless plenty else does in South Bend.
Jettisoning Brian VanGorder was one of those changes, and getting a number of new players onto the field on Saturdays could be another. But the most important change Notre Dame can make over its final eight games is simply winning them.
“We've put ourselves in a pretty bad situation and it's time to wake up and fight back and rewrite the story of this season,” offensive lineman and captain Mike McGlinchey said. “And that's what we fully intend to do.”
Notre Dame, though, can’t walk into MetLife Stadium on Saturday, make a bunch of mistakes and still beat Syracuse, as they did two years ago. In Year 1 of the Dino Babers era, Syracuse’s up-tempo, Baylor-style offense has turned heads and will create a challenge for Notre Dame’s underperforming secondary.
Quarterback Eric Dungey — who may or may not have been nursing an undisclosed injury this week — threw for 407 yards against Bob Diaco’s UConn defense last week and ranks third in FBS with 179 passing attempts (he’s averaging 7.6 yards per attempt and has nine touchdowns against three interceptions). This offense has one speed: Get the ball, throw the ball, get it again, throw it again. Syracuse is averaging 86 plays per game, a number that sticks out given Texas ripped off 50 points against the Irish on Sept. 4 on… 86 plays.
Notre Dame’s secondary, meanwhile, is allowing an abysmal 9.1 yards per attempt (121st in FBS) and will have to find a way to stop Orange receiver Amba Etta-Tawo, who leads FBS with 706 yards and is fifth with 40 receptions. Dungey, on average, targets Etta-Tawo 13 times a game. Merely playing good coverage isn’t enough to deter Dungey from throwing him the ball, so Cole Luke, Nick Coleman, Donte Vaughn, Julian Love, Troy Pride Jr. or whoever is on him on Saturday will also have to make plays with the ball in the air, since it's going to be coming their way.
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The narrative Notre Dame coaches and players pitched publicly this week involved having more energy, more fun, more passion, more fire — whatever you want to throw into Thesaurus.com — and that translating into this defense playing better starting Saturday.
“I think a lot of guys were out there tense, tightened up and weren’t playing loose,” safety Drue Tranquill said. “And I think we’ve seen a lot of guys let loose this week and it’s been a real positive atmosphere.”
But nobody will be having any fun on Saturday if the same issues that got VanGorder fired re-emerge. Sacks, tackles for a loss, forced fumbles (Notre Dame hasn’t had one of those this year), interceptions — those are what “fun” is a tangible outcome of, not the other way around.
Notre Dame’s offense has been good enough to win in a vacuum (47 points against Texas, 28 points against Michigan State and 35 points against Duke, in theory, should’ve been enough to go at least 2-1) but hasn’t been good enough to pick up for the lagging defense. Kelly has been hard on quarterback DeShone Kizer, saying his play against Michigan State and Duke was below standard, an assessment Kizer agreed with this week.
The standard, at least in broad terms, is getting the offense to overcome the defense’s deficiencies. Syracuse’s defense is allowing a Lamar Jackson-skewed 7.31 yards per play against FBS opponents and ranks in the lower third of college football in most defensive categories. Duke’s defense at least did a few things well heading into last Saturday; it’s harder to find the positives for Syracuse.
So this game, on paper, looks like it’ll devolve into another high-scoring shootout.
“My standard right now is to do whatever I can to help lead the offense to get a win,” Kizer said. “We're 1 and 3, and that's unacceptable, and my only goal right now, my only mission is to buy in to everything that's been said in this meeting room right here to get a W on the board because that's all that matters at this point.”
A loss to Syracuse very well could be the start of a death knell for Notre Dame’s bowl eligibility chances. A win could help reinforce the positive attitude coaches have worked to instill in their players, proving to this team that the changes were for the better.
There’s a lot at stake on Saturday in New Jersey for Notre Dame, which certainly wasn’t the expectation for this game a month ago. It’s not only bowl eligibility, but if things go haywire again, it could mean more jobs will be on the line than just the defensive coordinator.
“If this team is not playing well, it's my fault,” Kelly said. “It's my fault that they're not playing well. So I have to find the solutions to it. After a game, when you're frustrated with the play, everybody is on notice. I'm on notice, and I made that pretty clear that I'm responsible. I said our coaches were on notice, and I said our players were on notice.
“Because we're all in this together. We all spend the same amount of time. If I didn't make that clear, I will make that clear one last time and then we're going to move on: Everybody is on notice, and is it starts with the head coach.”