Ed. Note: I'm going to try and do one of these each Friday during the season. Feel free to let me know how it could be more valuable, though -- always happy to improve!
Your 2-1 Syracuse Orange take on the No. 8-ranked, 3-0 Notre Dame Fighting Irish at 8 p.m. ET at MetLlife Stadium. IT'S A NEW YORK'S COLLEGE TEAM-PALOOZA! Obviously, the Irish are favored headed into this one, but there are some elements that could dictate a closer game than the rankings indicate. How close, however, will likely be dependent on a variety of matchups. We'll focus on this one in particular:
Terrel Hunt's Passing Game
Obviously Hunt's best asset is his running ability. That's not rocket science. But he gets more room to run when he's throwing the football better because defenses are forced to play back more and not crowd the line waiting for him to take off. This season, Hunt's already shown a much more impressive ability to make quick reads and decisions, tucking and running when necessary, but also not shying away from tough throws. His deep ball is improved too, and you can see when he's on (HI, PLAY-ACTION) the accuracy with which he's delivering is way up. On the year, he's only completing 58.7 percent of his passes so far (down from last season), but that's largely tanked by his 14-of-28 day against Maryland that featured at least six overthrows, plus an interception. His attempts are way up, and yet, he's still getting more yards per attempt (6.51 vs. 6.00 in 2013), so something's going right, it seems. Now we'll see how he does in his first full game without favorite target Ashton Broyld.
Notre Dame's Defensive Backs
Through three games, the Fighting Irish have picked off six passes -- by way of six different players (five DBs and one linebacker). Considering the fact that they've only seen 98 pass attempts against them so far, that's a pretty aggressive number. In 2.5 games, Hunt's only thrown one pick (last week's back-breaking pick-six to Will Likely), but this is easily the best secondary he's faced. If he can throw with the type of precision and accuracy seen against CMU, it'll be an interesting battle between him and the ND corners. If we see the type of overthrows that littered the Maryland game, it could be a very long night for the passing game. The Irish passing defense is ranked 47thin the country, allowing about 216 yards through the air per game. They've also allowed four TDs. So while this group knows how to force turnovers, they also haven't completely dominated opposing passers in three big wins. The 6.6 yards/attempt they allow also lines right up with Hunt's abilities -- which could be to his advantage if they're willing to surrender that sort of space close to the line of scrimmage.
Notre Dame's (Lack of) Pass Rush
This, more than anything else, is really why we're focused on the secondary for Notre Dame. Without a capable pass-rush, the Irish will largely be allowing Hunt to operate on his own time. Syracuse has only allowed one sack in three games, while the Fighting Irish have only gotten to opposing QBs eight times thus far. A mobile quarterback like Hunt facing little-to-no effective pressure is a VERY good thing, and could really allow him to go through his progressions (and maybe even use play-action!!). That really puts all of the onus on the Notre Dame secondary (see above) to force Hunt into bad decisions throwing the football. The other option, of course, is to just run the ball instead. But if this offense is going to be effective, it still needs to have the fear of the pass out there. Otherwise, defenses will just load the box and that'll be it for the productivity we've seen so far this year.
This sounds like a resounding advantage for Syracuse, but it's not, necessarily. There's no way for the Orange to simulate Notre Dame in practice because we don't have those type of athletes on the roster. So expect Irish corners to play our receivers tight at the line and try to force Hunt into some dangerous passes, or simply have to pull it down and run too much. Hunt's not afraid of the contact while running the football, obviously. But if forced to take it on the ground all night, it could put a damper on SU's increased pace, and turn us into a very one-dimensional offense.
What do you think? Any other matchup that stands out as integral to Syracuse's success on Saturday?