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Syracuse vs. Notre Dame preview: Five things to watch

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Syracuse and Notre Dame tussle in New Jersey. Here are some things to look out for.

Notre Dame v Syracuse Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

After a close win over the UConn Huskies last week, the Syracuse Orange (2-2, 0-1) travel to their home away from home, MetLife Stadium, to take on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (1-3). The Irish are in a tailspin, but coaching changes could right the ship. Neither team plays much defense, so... yeah, expect another fun one.

So what will be some of Syracuse’s biggest challenges when they face off with Notre Dame? And what are some key elements of the game to keep an eye on? We give you five below:

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1. Keeping containment on DeShone Kizer

You don’t need to be reminded that Syracuse struggles against mobile quarterbacks. While they were able to keep Colgate’s Jake Melville and UConn’s Bryant Shirreffs in check, Louisville’s Lamar Jackson and USF’s Quinton Flowers absolutely tore SU apart. The latter two combined for 250 yards and four TDs on the ground (the lion’s share of that production from Jackson), and another 599 yards and two scores through the air.

Kizer is similarly athletic (186 yards and five touchdowns on the year), and can make the Orange pay if they let him leave the pocket. While Kizer’s been sacked eight times in four games, the Notre Dame line has largely been able to protect him and withstand the blitz. Michigan State and Texas were both able to apply plenty of pressure — something Syracuse is unlikely to be able to do.

As we saw last week, despite injuries and a change in scheme, the Orange are starting to figure out how to get after the quarterback in spurts. The Irish offensive line is obviously a better unit than UConn’s. But using some of the same principles they applied last week, and involving linebackers a bit could pay dividends in forcing Kizer to throw.

2. Getting aggressive with Notre Dame’s secondary

Obviously the defense has been a problem for ND this season. That’s why coordinator Brian VanGorder was let go last week. But a change in coach doesn’t just repair everything in six or seven days.

Right now, Notre Dame is allowing 9.1 yards per attempt -- one of the 10 worst rates in the country. But they also haven’t seen the volume of passes that Syracuse throws either. The Orange’s 189 attempts on the year are the fourth-highest mark in the entire country. ND’s average might go down as a result of facing SU (especially if the screen game is utilized more this week than it was last week), but there’s an obvious opportunity for Syracuse to get after a real weakness for the Irish.

Expect Eric Dungey to attack this secondary similarly to how he’s picked apart others this season — exploiting mismatches and then going to them until the defense adjusts. Notre Dame corners Cole Luke and Nick Coleman will have their hands full trying to slow down Amba Etta-Tawo & Co. The Irish have already allowed 16 passing plays of 20 yards or more (one of the top 30 figures in the country). Syracuse has completed 20 such plays already (seventh-best in FBS). This could get entertaining.

3. Syracuse’s secondary must stop history from repeating itself

Earlier today, Syracuse.com’s Stephen Bailey wrote about how far Corey Winfield’s come since the last time these two teams met. Notre Dame’s Everett Golson threw for 362 yards while completing 32 of 39 passes in that contest. Winfield, specifically, was a target for Golson, who carved up the Orange secondary most of the evening in 2014.

To prevent the same this time around, the secondary simply needs to improve. But can they, given the injuries and lack of depth they’ve suffered from all season?

Syracuse has the 92nd-ranked pass defense in the country so far, and they’re one of a handful of teams to allow more completions of 20 yards or more than Notre Dame (ND’s allowed 16, SU has 17). Even a paltry offensive attack like UConn’s managed 281 yards through the air against them. But there’s been some improvement as the year’s wore on, even if the numbers fail to capture it.

SU’s only allowed completions on 53.2 percent of passes (31st in the country), which speaks to a variety of factors from the quality of passers to the amount of long completions they’ve allowed. But it does speak to the team’s ability to prevent completions. Last week, UConn went 28-for-46, despite Noel Thomas seemingly open on every play.

Notre Dame has a much better group of young receivers than UConn, however, and could remind you more of what Louisville trotted out onto the field against SU. Equanimeous St. Brown, C.J. Sanders and Torii Hunter Jr. should all be poised for big production Saturday afternoon.

4. Whither the running game?

As Dan and I covered in the podcast today, Syracuse is basically running half of an offense right now. The other half is the run game, completely non-existent other than a concerted effort to get Dontae Strickland carries vs. USF.

Notre Dame, however, does have the 95th-ranked rushing defense in the country (still better than Syracuse’s run D, however). If ever there was a time that the Orange were going to get on track with the ground game, this would certainly be it. That puts aside the fact that SU doesn’t have a true power back to take a beating between the tackles. But perhaps the team finally starts mixing up carries with Strickland, Moe Neal and Jordan Fredericks to at least change up what the defense sees.

Play-action worked incredibly well last week (11-for-18, 182 yards, 2 TD), and that was despite the run game failing to do a whole lot. Dino Babers’s play-calling did stick to it in the first half, however, which did help set up some bigger gains through the air.

5. Can linebacker play continue to be a strength?

Last week was a breakout game for the Syracuse linebacker corps. Zaire Franklin and Parris Bennett made 14 stops apiece, Franklin made a big fourth down stop to preserve the lead against the Huskies, and Bennett contributed the tipped ball to set up Cordell Hudson’s interception for a touchdown.

With Kayton Samuels out on the line, and the various injuries around the secondary, it’s fallen to the linebackers, as the only healthy group, to step up to help this defense out. Despite struggles to fit into the scheme as-is, they’ve still improved over time and done an admirable job as defensive leaders. If Syracuse has any shot to pull the upset over ND, it’ll be by way of turnovers and creating some pressure on Kizer. Neither of those things happen without the linebackers right now.

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These are some starting points for conversation, but plenty of other angles to take a look at, too. Any other key matchups or narratives you’re focused in on in advance of Syracuse’s game against UConn? Weigh in below.