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Syracuse vs. Notre Dame football preview: Q&A with One Foot Down

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Let’s talk about Notre Dame with a real, live Notre Dame fan.

Boston College v Notre Dame Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The Syracuse Orange moved to 2-2 on the season after a close win over UConn this past week. Now, a much bigger challenge comes along on Saturday, in Notre Dame. Yes, they’re 1-3. They’re also more talented than that record indicates.

Below, One Foot Down’s Pat Sullivan (also follow One Foot Down on Twitter) stops by to tell us everything we need to know about the current state of things at Notre Dame. We also answered some questions over there, so check those out as well.

Do Notre Dame fans care about this MetLife Stadium series? Would they prefer the games were up in Syracuse? In general, do Fighting Irish fans prefer on-campus contests instead of neutral site games like this one?

I think this one is up for debate. I'm sure there are a lot of fans that love our neutral site series and enjoy going to a lot of really cool stadiums and cities to watch ND play. I went to the Shamrock Series game against Boston College last season at Fenway Park, and as a Red Sox fan that was a ton of fun and really cool.

But at the same time, there's not a lot that can beat going to true away games, getting to see opponents' campuses, tailgate amidst opposing fans, experience raucous road crowds, etc. I've been lucky enough to see ND play at Texas, Clemson, Michigan, and a few others, and absolutely loved getting to experience those different atmospheres. So personally, I think I prefer true road games because it's fun to go play other teams on their home turf. But the neutral site games can be fun too, although I think one per year is sufficient, instead of the three that Notre Dame has this year.

Obviously things haven't gone as expected this season for Notre Dame. What are fans pointing to as the main reason behind the struggles and a 1-3 start?

The most common scapegoat has definitely been the defense, and thus Brian VanGorder. The unit has been legitimately terrible through four games, allowing both Texas and Michigan State to put up monster leads on ND and also failing to get stops when it counts the most in late moments.

This problem definitely goes deeper than VanGorder, though, and I think fans are starting to realize that. After all, the offense has not exactly been unstoppable, and everything wrong with the defense can be linked back to Kelly not getting rid of VanGorder after the defense's struggles last season. The players do indeed deserve a little blame, as they haven't been executing on the field, but it seems like, at this point, the team is either unprepared to execute or maybe Kelly has lost the team, leading to a lesser effort/focus.

Either way, I think all roads of blame lead back to Brian Kelly, and rightfully so considering some of his decisions (play calling, personnel, and obviously coaching staff decisions) and his most recent tossing of essentially every player under the bus, publicly in his Duke post-game press conference. That's not something an effective leader does, and the team shouldn't have these kinds of problems in Year seven of a coach's tenure. If he doesn't get things figured out fast, there might not be a Year eight for Kelly.

Did the school's firing of Brian VanGorder as defensive coordinator surprise you on Sunday?

Yes and no. The writing has been on the wall, essentially since the Stanford game last season, that VanGorder would get fired sometime this year. And through the first four games, giving up an average of 33.5 points per game and 454 yards per game, it was becoming clearer and clearer that VanGorder probably wouldn't make it to the end of the season.

With that being said, I was definitely surprised he was fired after just four games, and so soon after the Duke debacle as well. That was much swifter than expected, and although it definitely won't solve the major issues this team has, it was certainly something that had to be done, so overall it was a pleasant surprise.

What's going to be different about this defense under Greg Hudson? If not different vs. Syracuse, then perhaps later in the season?

When he announced VanGorder's termination and Hudson being promoted to interim DC, Brian Kelly said that the defense under Hudson will not be anything completely new, as the coaching staff doesn't want to pull out the rug from under the players and start from scratch. He did say, however, that there are plenty of tweaks they can and will make, and that every position on the team is now up for grabs.

So, what I expect to see is a simpler defensive scheme than VanGorder has tried to force onto players for 2.5 years, focused on playing more vanilla, fundamental defense and eliminating some concepts that never seemed to work (e.g. defensive end Andrew Trumbetti being dropped into coverage for unknown reasons — it always failed).

Furthermore, I expect the personnel to be a little different. Players like DL Isaac Rochell and MLB Nyles Morgan will almost certainly retain starting jobs, but I wouldn't be surprised to see lots of freshmen and sophomores winning starting roles for the Syracuse game over upperclassmen who have just under-performed time and again this year. Cornerback, defensive tackle, outside linebacker, defensive end, and safety are all spots where I think we might see some young, inexperienced guys see time because they will have shown the speed, passion, and athleticism to compete, even if they might not have all concepts of VanGorder/Hudson's defense nailed down yet.

My best bets: freshmen Julian Love and Donte Vaughn seeing lots of time at corner, junior Daniel Cage getting a larger share of the nose tackl reps, and junior Jay Hayes and freshmen Daelin Hayes and Julian Okwara getting a lot more snaps at defensive end to make up for major deficiencies there, especially in the pass rush.

What do you make of DeShone Kizer's play thus far? Do you see him as Notre Dame's key weapon vs. the Orange?

I think DeShone Kizer is one of the best quarterbacks in the country. The only guys I would personally take over him at QB would be Deshaun Watson, Lamar Jackson, and maybe Josh Rosen. He's got everything you want in a starting QB - size, speed, a cannon for an arm, the touch and precision to make all the throws, and an incredible ability to actually elevate his game when under pressure.

The past couple games, he's definitely struggled, and some of that is on him. But I'd also argue that, at this point, he's being asked to essentially carry the team on his back, considering the awful running game production and the absolutely abysmal defense the Irish have been fielding.

So without a doubt, I think he's the key weapon for ND entering this game, and he's the guy Syracuse has to stop. Until anyone else on Notre Dame proves otherwise, this team will go as DeShone Kizer goes (which is pretty unfair considering how far he has to go to compensate for the defense).

Syracuse runs a pretty fast offense. How might that scheme be able to attack the weaknesses the Irish defense has displayed to this point in the season?

Is anything really a weakness if the Irish defense does everything very, very badly?

Up-tempo offenses have proven time and again to give ND trouble, as can be seen in the 50-point shellacking Texas gave this defense in the season-opener with Sterlin Gilbert's system. So, if Syracuse is able to spread the Irish out and keep ND from substituting or having a ton of time to make pre-snap reads and figure out responsibilities — especially with the likelihood of younger, more inexperienced players getting more time — the Orange can do a ton of damage.

Also, the more the Orange spread ND out and have success throwing the ball, the more likely it is that Syracuse will be able to then run the ball through some massive running lanes, allowing ball carriers to get into space, make ND's poor tacklers miss, and pick up big gains on the ground with the ND defense reeling from the passing attack.

If Hudson's tweaks don't make a major difference, the Syracuse offense could absolutely dominate this game and put all the pressure on Kizer to match them.

Which Orange player -- either side of the ball -- are you most terrified of?

So I've seen very little of Syracuse this year. I watched a bit of their game against Louisville, but not enough to get a good read for their team except for that the offense definitely plays up-tempo.

In my limited research on the Orange, though, I don't think my answer can be anyone except Amba Etta-Tawo. Not only does he lead the country in receiving, but he will be going up against what has been a sieve of a secondary for the Irish.

If your QB is able to keep getting him the ball, he's due for a big day, because ND will either still be playing the guys who have been getting torched, or will be playing true freshmen who are bound to make some mistakes.

Notre Dame is upset once again if Syracuse _____.

Keeps the Irish defense on its heels with an up-tempo offense that makes some big plays (ND has given up more huge plays than any team in America), and holds the line on defense in order to stuff the run and force Brian Kelly's offense to beat you only through the air — which it can do, but definitely renders it as less dangerous without the constant threat of the running game.

Syracuse loses, just like Vegas predicts, if _____.

The tweaks and personnel changes made by Kelly and Hudson provide for a defense that is simplified, fast, and focused on just making tackles and taking care of basic assignments, and the offensive line finally blocks the way the preseason hype said it would and the Irish run for 200+ yards as a team, alleviating the pressure on DeShone Kizer to be Mr. Everything.

Prediction time: What happens between ND and the Orange?

I think Notre Dame looks marginally better (hopefully with some fresh talent on defense and a better offensive balance), but Syracuse keeps it close with an up-tempo, big-play passing attack and a defense that makes a few big stops/turnovers.

I think the Irish win in the end, but not by much, and just barely. A game-winning field goal by ND kickerJustin Yoon with little-to-no time remaining would not surprise me in the slightest. ND 37, Syracuse 35

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Thanks again to Pat for taking the time out to answer these. And be sure to follow One Foot Down, and head on over to the site to read more about Notre Dame.