After what’s been one of the more brutal Syracuse Orange football seasons in some time, it all comes thankfully to an end this Saturday. Syracuse will travel to South Bend, Ind. to face the No. 2 Notre Dame Fighting Irish and there’s little chance of anything surprising happening. Still, it’s a game involving SU, so there’s a decent chance many of you are tuning in when these teams kick off at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBC.
What are we watching for here at TNIAAM? Our five things to keep an eye on:
John: Ian Book’s mobility and how that changes Syracuse’s linebackers’ approach
Over the course of his career, Book’s developed into a pretty good QB. But part of what’s made him so dangerous is his mobility. He’s run for 412 yards on the season this year (4.96 yards per carry) and while SU held him in check back in 2018 — just 16 yards on six carries — he also didn’t have to do much in that one to win a 36-3 contest that was decided pretty quickly.
Though SU’s run defense has looked better lately, they’ve still been susceptible to giving up yardage to mobile passers here and there. Last week, Bailey Hockman had 47 yards on the ground if you remove sack yardage and Malik Cunningham picked up 39 of his own (again, pre-sacks). I’d argue Book’s a better runner than either player this year, and has a much better offensive line. With the threat of Book taking off a real one, we probably see less aggressive playmaking from the linebackers (key to any defensive success Syracuse has had this year), and that should create more running lanes for Kyren Williams at the halfback position. It’ll also create more time for Book to drop back and make his reads. Overall, not a great result — and one SU will have to mitigate if they have any chance of stopping the Irish’s highly efficient attack.
Christian: Syracuse’s pass rush vs. Notre Dame’s offensive line
Book’s mobility is a concern, there’s no question about that. However, there’s a chance that he may not need to showcase his legs based on the strengthen of the Fighting Irish’s offensive line. Notre Dame’s front five is arguably the best in the nation with multiple guys projected to go early in the 2021 NFL Draft.
This provides a great test for the best part of Tony White’s defense: the pass rush. While a linebacker will probably have to spy on every single play just to keep Book’s mobility in check, there’s an opportunity for Syracuse to truly test out its 3-3-5 blitzing packages against one of the best units in all of college football. Despite their youth and relative inexperience, the Orange linebackers have done a great job at the very least of breaking through an opposing offensive line and forcing opposing quarterbacks to scramble. What happens afterwards is anyone’s guess, but there should be some great data points to gather and litmus tests to study in order to judge the true evolution of the 3-3-5 pressure. If Syracuse linebackers can break through the Notre Dame offensive line with any semblance of success, Dino Babers and White should feel good about that part of the system for the next few seasons with the personnel they have.
Kevin: Can Syracuse’s wide receivers make plays consistently
If there’s one area where the Irish have been vulnerable it’s through the air. They will be missing starting safety Kyle Hamilton for the first half due a targeting call last week and if the Orange want to make it a game they need to take advantage. I certainly don’t expect the Syracuse quarterback to have a lot of time so the receivers need to win at the line to open up quick throws. Last week Taj Harris worked from the slot so will we see him back there again or in the last game of the year will the Orange target the tight ends?
Since it’s likely Clark Lea will look to take away the running game, it’s imperative that the receivers make more plays on Saturday. This means making some tough catches in traffic, or taking short throws and turning them into chunk plays to move the ball. It’s going to be on this group if Syracuse wants to put points on the board so maybe the national television audience will bring out the best from them.
Steve: What will Syracuse’s offensive line look like against Notre Dame’s front seven?
Someone had to mention it and it’s guaranteed to be me. Last week, the Orange didn’t put in a bad look in pass protection, but couldn’t open a hole for a running back at all. What sort of trend will continue against the Fighting Irish? If Syracuse can’t get anything going on the ground, there’s little hope for the pass game against a decent Notre Dame secondary, with or without Kyle Hamilton.
The Irish front looked good against North Carolina last week, and the secondary was the only weakness, which the Orange will need to exploit, but they won’t do anything with whoever starts at quarterback on the ground. Keeping them upright will be of paramount importance this week.