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

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Just one more game ‘til this is over!

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Stanford Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Last weekend’s Syracuse Orange football game was... rough, to say the least. And this weekend is unlikely to be that much better for SU since the No. 2 Notre Dame Fighting Irish will be on the opposite sideline. Hooray...

Since we’re not Notre Dame fans, we went ahead and asked one about what to expect in this game. One Foot Down’s Pat Sullivan joins us to talk about the Fighting Irish before taking on SU this Saturday. You can check out those responses below. We also provide some notes on Syracuse, which you can check out here.

So might as well start easy: How have Notre Dame fans felt about their temporary football membership in the ACC? Do you feel like it’s made it more likely or less likely that the Irish wind up in the league full-time at some point? On a similar note: If you had to pick one of the ACC’s terrible divisions, would you opt for the Atlantic or Coastal?

It’s been incredibly weird, to say the least — which is actually pretty fitting for 2020, I suppose. Irish fans aren’t used to checking conference standings or thinking about a rematch prior to bowl season or anything like that, so experiencing everything conference membership has to offer has been interesting for sure, but also quite bizarre.

In terms of how that experience has impacted whether ND would actually join the conference full-time, it’s still a hard, unequivocal “NO,” so I don’t think it’s really changed the likelihood there at all, except maybe to push it a little stronger toward not joining. Any other school would KILL to have the influence and freedom and national reach that Notre Dame enjoys because of their independent football status, so there’s just no good reason to throw that all away to play 10 games a year against the Georgia Techs and Dukes and Pittsburghs of the college football world.

It might have just been a down year to join temporarily, but the Irish schedule took a massive hit thanks to this short-term move, both in terms of strength and in terms of excitement. ND could have played Wisconsin (at Lambeau), USC, Stanford, and Arkansas this season — which is a great combination of traditional and fun/interesting opponents from various regions of the country — in addition to the November Clemson game. This full-ACC membership is so much less fun than that, even if we fans ARE enjoying the possibility of the Irish joining the conference for one year, winning it, and then riding off into the sunset. As long as the ACC serves as a home for Notre Dame’s other sports, the Irish have no reason to significantly hurt their power and brand and recruiting reach by moving football into a very regional conference. This weird year certainly hasn’t changed that.

Now, if the Irish were, for some reason, joining the conference and having to be put into a division, I think I would pick Coastal. As much fun as it would be to choose Atlantic and ensure a Notre Dame/Clemson match-up every single season, I think it would be more fun to place the Irish in the division opposite the Tigers, setting up a possible recurring ACC Championship match-up between the two programs.

More importantly, though, choosing Coastal would allow ND to play in that wacky and wild group with Pitt, Miami (annual Catholics vs. Convicts game!!!), VaTech, UNC, etc. And if you know anything about the Notre Dame football program, you know they LOVE drama and chaos and would fit in just perfectly there, both during their really good seasons, as well as their dumpster fire ones.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame Spring Game Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Former Syracuse assistant Clark Lea’s done a great job guiding Notre Dame’s defense this year. What do you see as his most important contribution to that group’s success?

I’m going to give you two contributions because I’m indecisive as hell: talent identification/development and mid-game scheme adjustments.

To start with talent development, what Clark Lea has done in building a championship-caliber defense is pretty amazing. Yeah, being the DC at Notre Dame means you have a few former blue-chip recruits to work with, like safety Kyle Hamilton and defensive ends Daelin Hayes and Isaiah Foskey. But what Lea has been able to do with the rest of the defense has really been something to behold — especially at the linebacker position, which we all know from his Syracuse, Wake Forest, and early ND days is his ultimate specialty. He’s taking 3-star guys and turning them into CFP-level starters left and right, all over the defense.

Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah was a 3-star linebacker prospect — ranked 456th nationally by the 247sports composite rankings and committed to Virginia — when brand new defensive coaches Clark Lea (LBs) and Mike Elko (DC) identified him as a last-minute target for the 2017 class, which was the group committing to play for a team that just went 4-8 and replaced both coordinators. Now, JOK is an All-American linebacker expected to be taken in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft, as his combination of speed and power make him the perfect modern NFL linebacker.

It wasn’t just identifying and developing one 3-star, though — we all know just about any coach will find one or two diamonds in the rough if they recruit in the rough enough. In that same 2017 class, though, ND landed Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa (#472 recruit in the country) and Kurt Hinish (#519), a pair of undersized DTs who now serve as the linchpins for the defensive line that is 4th in the country in rushing defense and 6th in yards per rush allowed. Yet again in that class, they signed LB Drew White (#977), who now combines with JOK to form the most sure-tackling and run-stuffing LB tandem ND has had in years. White was the 3rd-lowest rated guy in that class, only considered better than K Jonathan Doerer and since-transferred DE Kofi Wardlow.

Add in guys from the classes of 2016 (DE Adetokunbo Ogundeji: #652), 2018 (CB TaRiq Bracy: #434), 2019 (LB Marist Liufau: #464, LB Jack Kiser: #416), and 2020 (CB Clarence Lewis: #727), and you realize how much of Clark Lea’s defense is built not on self-evident 5-star studs like a typical Alabama or Ohio State or Georgia defense, but instead on unheralded diamonds in the rough that Lea and his crew have coached-up to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, and also a bunch of parts that are much better than anyone ever expected them to be individually.

On top of that ability to identify the right talent and develop it into great players, Lea’s brilliance as a Defensive Coordinator shines through in his actual coaching/scheming as well — particularly in his mid-game adjustments. This was never more obviously on display than last weekend, when North Carolina’s heralded offense led by Sam Howell scored on both of its first two possessions and then ND’s star safety, Hamilton, was ejected for targeting just before halftime.

ND fans were terrified, but Lea made some adjustments to bring more QB pressure and shut down the running game, and that led to the following possessions for North Carolina in the second half:

To save you some math, that’s a whopping 78 total offensive yards (if you remove some penalties from the equation) on 25 plays in the second half for the Tar Heels. That’s 3.1 yards per play for an offense that came in averaging 7.7, and 0 points for a team scoring, on average, 21.5 second half points per game.

This has become a common theme for Lea’s team — they may bend a bit and even give up some points early on, but then the young DC makes adjustments and strangles the life out of the opponent down the stretch. His ability to identify what the offense’s game plan is and attack it accordingly is fantastic, and is a huge reason the Irish have been able to easily put teams away in the second half of games this year.

Given the one-sided nature of Saturday’s matchup, are there any goals in mind for the Irish? A quick win and no injuries? Or anything the team’s looking to practice in advance of the ACC title game?

I think you pretty much said it — considering how bad and depleted this Syracuse team is, the only real goals for ND should be to build that winning lead as quickly as possible and to escape the game without any significant injuries (or contracting/spreading COVID).

Secondarily, I think the staff realizes this will be a great opportunity to get lots of young guys some playing time, so it will be very key to build that blowout lead early so that guys like backup QB Brendon Clark, freshman receivers Xavier Watts and Jordan Johnson, several reserve offensive linemen, and a number of freshmen and sophomores on the defensive side can all get some PT and ensure that if they’re needed in an emergency in the ACC Championship or CFP, that they at least have a tiny amount of experience to fall back on when they need to step in and play. Also, getting the starters some rest would be a nice bonus — those guys have earned it.

Not that the Irish really need to try too hard to defend Syracuse’s offense. But how do you see them attacking the Orange in this game? And which defensive player is most important there?

I don’t think Clark Lea needs to do anything too crazy against a Syracuse offense whose national ranks in total offense (126th), passing offense (109th), rushing offense (124th), scoring offense (118th), yards per carry (120th), and yards per play (122nd) are what they are. I’ll double down on that by showing you ND’s defensive ranks in scoring (10th), total defense (10th), rushing defense (4th), yards per carry allowed (6th), yards per play allowed (17th), and pass efficiency defense (21st). The Irish shouldn’t have to do anything special on Saturday.

Instead, I think Notre Dame will play a pretty vanilla defense, relying on the front four to put enough pressure on the QB to force some mistakes in the passing game and otherwise relying on those talented Irish linebackers to fly to the ball and stuff ball carriers before they can slip out to the second level. Meanwhile, the secondary will mainly focus on keeping Orange receivers in front of them, knowing that it will be tough for ‘Cuse to string together long, methodical scoring drives on this defense and their best shot would be to make some big, explosive plays over the top.

So, in terms of most important defensive players, I think Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah/Drew White are key in terms of making sure there aren’t many missed tackles that allow for bigger gains than expected on the ground, and then DEs Daelin Hayes, Ade Ogundeji, and Isaiah Foskey will be important in terms of still getting QB pressure without bringing a bunch of extra blitzers. If those guys play how we know they can, it should be enough to shut down a struggling Syracuse offense.

Ian Book has some impressive mobility at times. What sets his rushing ability apart from that of most QBs?

I think it really comes down to his savviness and creativity. He’s obviously a pretty fast and athletic guy, but it’s not like he’s Michael Vick or Vince Young or Cam Newton out there, just blowing by people with raw physical tools. Instead, he’s just a wily veteran who’s very good at reading and reacting to things, such as how his pocket is taking shape and where it might be collapsing, where oncoming defenders are and the angles they’re taking, etc.

He’s able to look at all that, make decisive moves with his feet, and has enough speed, wiggle, and toughness to then find some daylight, extend plays and drives, and finish runs with a little physicality if needed. It’s the same savvy and creativity that enables him to make glorious/frustratingly foolish/genius/ill-advised plays like this:

Notre Dame uses its tight ends and running backs a lot in the passing game. Is that a product of gameplans? Or just the talent on the roster this year?

Both! I would argue that, for the first time in a long time, the Notre Dame offensive game plan is actually designed to fit the talent on the roster.

For a while now, the Irish’s best offensive talent has resided in the offensive line and tight ends and in one or two bell cow running backs, and yet Brian Kelly and former OC Chip Long always seemed to still try to force-fit a game plan that relied on a lot of wheeling and dealing to wide receivers. And of course it sometimes worked out, considering the Irish have still had their share of very good receivers pass through the program (Will Fuller, Equanimeous St. Brown, Miles Boykin, Chase Claypool, etc.).

But it always seemed like the Irish could be utilizing their riches at tight end and running back more, both in the passing game and in the running game. There were various times over the years that we essentially heard the coaching staff say they “couldn’t” run the ball because the opponent was stacking the box, justifying an approach that seemed to be more dictated by the opponent than by what would be best for the team and its talent.

First year Offensive Coordinator Tommy Rees has different ideas, at least so far. He knows the Irish have a veteran, talented offensive line, a handful of huge, athletic tight ends (Michael Mayer being the best receiver of the bunch as a former 5-star true freshman, Tommy Tremble being the best blocker), and some REALLY good running backs, led by Kyren “Bellyman” Williams, who’s a great runner and also a very good pass catcher when needed to be.

The resulting offense that Rees has built around that personnel has been beautiful, with lots of tight ends and running backs involved in the passing game (perfect for Book, who thrives on short-to-medium passes much more so than deep balls), and also lots of physical, smashmouth rushing that wears opponents down and is perfect for game-clinching drives in the 4th quarter.

What’s also great is how that offensive game plan has helped the WRs blossom. That group was considered the offense’s big weakness entering the season, and injuries to the two guys expected to be the best of the bunch (Kevin Austin, Braden Lenzy) only made the prospect of passing to WRs in 2020 seem bleaker. And maybe that’s why, early on, Rees chose to focus on involving the tight ends and running backs so heavily. But now, 9 games into the season, we’ve seen guys like Javon McKinley and Ben Skowronek — big, tall, essentially slim/fast tight ends themselves — really exploding onto the scene and being able to make big plays as defenses key on the running game and on tight ends like Mayer a bit more.

So, to sum this all up — I think OC Tommy Rees took a look at his depth chart, identified the strongest position groups, and built his offense around those strengths as opposed to trying to fit his depth chart into an offensive scheme. And that has made all the difference this season.

Not sure how much you’ve been paying attention to ‘Cuse this season, but what are the big-picture issues you see from the outside? (so not just the troubles caused by this year’s rash of injuries)

To be quite honest, I haven’t been following Syracuse football too closely, especially this season. But from what I can gather just from looking at some of the team’s results and stats, I would guess a major issue is the offense’s ability to score points, which looks like it can be traced back to offensive line play and the resulting quarterback play. 37 sacks allowed is certainly not good, and QB play looks like it’s been erratic and not super productive essentially ever since Eric Dungey exhausted his eligibility. I would guess that Dino Babers’ system, which I needs a high-tempo offense that scores points, crumbles when the offensive line and QBs can’t produce.

Defensively, the Orange have given up 30+ points in 7 of their 9 losses, and the worst of those performances looks like it has come against teams with good-to-great passing attacks (Clemson, UNC, Louisville, Wake Forest, etc.), so I would wager the Orange secondary isn’t exactly a strength this year, especially with Andre Cisco out on the back end.

Unfortunately, I can’t really offer a better synopsis of Syracuse’s current issues than what I can just gather from a quick review of their schedule and stats, but it’s clear that Dino Babers has some MAJOR work to do if he wants to turn things around right now. Things have changed drastically for the worse ever since the 2018 season ended.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Who’s an unsung Notre Dame player that Orange fans should get a little more familiar with?

Because I’m super extra and long-winded, I’m gonna give you a few here.

Offensively, I want to start with Javon McKinley. The guy was a highly-rated recruit who didn’t really do anything of note in his first three years with the team, and then even last year he only really had a few big plays that came against the dregs of the schedule — Bowling Green and New Mexico. So, when this year came around and it soon became evident he would be relied upon as a starting receiver, I think we all had some major doubts. But McKinley has had a very nice redemption story this year, reeling in 30 passes for 549 yards, establishing himself as a deep threat with his size and hands while making a few huge catches against Clemson and North Carolina, and also being an absolute force in blocking on the outside.

Speaking of being an absolute force in blocking, I want to give TE Tommy Tremble a shout-out in this response as well. Not only does he have a great name, but what he’s done as a blocker from the tight end/quasi-fullback position this year has been absurd. He has been DESTROYING guys and has been integral on a majority of the big runs that Bellyman and Chris Tyree have had this season. As a receiver, he has a good but not flashy 16 catches for 159 yards, which is why he deserves much more recognition but isn’t getting it — the Irish running game would not be what it is without him.

Defensively, I want to say Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, but at this point I think he’s finally getting lots of praise and attention and thus doesn’t qualify for this (although I still think a lot of casual football fans or fans of other programs don’t know about him — they should). Instead, I’ll pick DT Kurt Hinish and LB Drew White.

Hinish has been a stalwart in the middle of the ND defensive line and can most often be seen being held by the other team (usually not flagged) as he collapses the pocket from the middle. White, meanwhile, was a guy we all expected to never be a starting linebacker, mostly due to lack of speed and athleticism. He’s surprised us all with how good he’s been in the middle, currently 3rd on the team in tackles and in tackles for loss — he’s no JOK, but there’s no one else Irish fans would trust more in his role right now.

Any specific Syracuse players concern you for this matchup? No worries if the answer is no.

I honestly have not closely followed the Orange this season (other than seeing some highlights and generally knowing how their games have gone to-date), but heading into the year my answer to this would certainly have been Andre Cisco, considering I know he was one of the best safeties in the country when healthy.

With him out, I’d say there are a couple offensive guys about whom I’m a bit worried: Taj Harris and Nykeim Johnson. If there’s a weakness for this Irish defense, it’s definitely the corners being able to defend guys with some deep-ball ability, and it’s clear from Harris’s and Johnson’s numbers (68 catches, 974 yds, 14.3 yards per reception, 9 TDs, long receptions of 79 and 83, respectively) that if the Orange QBs have a little time, they can launch the ball and let those two go make some plays.

Hopefully the Irish pass rush will help take care of that, and otherwise I’m hopeful that the Irish corners and safeties are coached well enough this week to just keep those guys in front of them and limit big-play opportunities. Still, though, that’s probably the one duo of guys I’m a little concerned about in this one.

Prediction time: Who wins this one and how?

Notre Dame wins this one, and for the first time in a month or more, they will put it to bed early. I think the Irish will be up ~21 at the half thanks to a strong rushing performance, including a couple long runs from Bellyman and Tyree, and maybe a few nice passes peppered in to guys like Skowronek, McKinley, and Mayer, all of whom will be just too big and athletic for Syracuse DBs/LBs to match up with effectively.

As I mentioned above, the ND defense has a penchant for starting the first couple possessions a little slow and then adjusting and suffocating opponents from there, but I think Clark Lea’s crew will do the suffocating more or less from the very beginning, and will force a few turnovers in the process to expedite the rout. I’m thinking maybe a Kyle Hamilton pick, and perhaps a sack-fumble courtesy of someone like Isaiah Foskey, are things I could see happening.

The second half will feature a lot of Notre Dame’s second and third levels of the depth chart getting action, and maybe Syracuse scoring a couple touchdowns against 2nd and 3rd stringers, but by that point the ND offense will have already put the game far out of reach.

Notre Dame 55, Syracuse 20. (Ian) Book it.

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Thanks again to Pat for taking the time out to answer these. Follow One Foot Down on Twitter and check out the site too, for all things Notre Dame.