With the Syracuse Orange preparing to host the Notre Dame Fighting Irish this weekend, we connected with Patrick Sullivan from One Foot Down to gain insight on the Irish. This is definitely worth the time...
TNIAAM: We have to start by asking a Sickos Committee adjacent question- Is Notre Dame good? You started the season by giving Ohio State a battle on the road and then blew out UNC on the road but the home losses to Marshall and Stanford? Which is the real Fighting Irish squad?
OFD: Short answer: absolutely not, the Irish are not good.
Long answer: they absolutely should be better, i.e. something like a 9-3 team, and we all thought that was the case after the respectable showing in Columbus to open the year. And then after the Marshall loss and subsequent fan meltdown, and then a struggle of a win against Cal the next week, we all thought the season was doomed and the Irish could legitimately finish something like 4-8. But to your point, they followed that up by crushing UNC and topping a then-ranked BYU team in Vegas, and so we all naturally concluded that they’d finally started to figure things out after the back-to-back wins vs. UNC and BYU. Then that Stanford loss happened, which I think might actually be more embarrassing than the Marshall one, somehow.
So I think the real answer here is just that this Notre Dame team — as Marcus Freeman’s guinea pig team in his first year as a head coach — is just wildly inconsistent, and there’s very little they do that they can easily repeat and rely on from week to week. They’re decent at running the ball and at force-feeding the ball to Michael Mayer through the air, and the defense is okay but underwhelming and lacking the ability to force turnovers. Add in that they have no wide receivers, slow/constantly-lost linebackers, DBs that I still mostly feel I can’t trust, and a backup QB as QB1, and it’s simply not a good recipe for success with a coaching staff still learning what to do.
I’m starting to ramble, so I’ll just conclude this by saying that I think ND is absolutely talented enough and quite capable of beating or even blowing out Syracuse, but I have little reason to believe they actually will, considering this Orange team looks legitimately very good.
TNIAAM: Obviously losing a starting quarterback is tough for any school, but how has Drew Pyne looked since assuming the job? He had a great game against UNC but the last two weeks seem to be more of a struggle- is it defenses adjusting to him? He doesn’t seem to turn the ball over- is it because he makes good decisions or he’s conservative in his throws?
OFD: I think it’s a combination of defenses adjusting to him (as he was a relative unknown to opponents when he took over for Buchner late in the Marshall game) and Pyne just regressing to the mean a bit. He lost the QB competition in the offseason for a reason, so I think he was just playing confident and managed to catch some bad defenses in the middle of the season (UNC’s especially...woof), but overall he’s just not the kind of QB that will win you football games on his own. He needs to be surrounded by a lot of talent to consistently play like that against good teams.
Yes, he doesn’t turn it over a ton, and maybe some of that is from good decisions, but I’d argue it’s more so him missing his targets so badly at times that no one, offense or defense, has a chance to reel it in. Plus, he’s definitely thrown a handful of passes that defenders should have picked off but couldn’t hang on to, including one or two last week against UNLV. But I suppose you could also say that Tommy Rees has certainly made the offense a bit more conservative and Pyne’s actions follow that, so he’s not taking a bunch of risks throwing the ball either.
Moral of the story: this is yet another cautionary tale for all fans who clamor for the backup to take over for the starter. Buchner wasn’t coming close to lighting the world on fire in the two games he played, but Pyne is playing overall like a backup who was forced into action, instead of the potential savior ND fans were probably hoping for after the UNC game, à la Ian Book taking over for Brandon Wimbush midseason in 2018.
TNIAAM: Syracuse has had issues defending the tight end the last couple of years. Now on Halloween weekend Michael Mayer enters the Dome and short of bringing in Jamie Lee Curtis, can the Orange contain him from running wild? How does Notre Dame plan on getting him the ball if he’s doubled?
OFD: There was actually a time (I think last year?) when Notre Dame Stadium would play the Halloween Michael Myers theme music after big plays by Mayer, so I’m a big fan of this spooky question.
To answer your last question first, they plan on getting him the ball by forcing it to him no matter if he’s doubled or not. That’s kind of a running, angsty joke among Notre Dame fans this season, but it’s also pretty true and honestly probably one of the better strategies Tommy Rees can employ. The Irish just don’t have any wide receivers who have stepped up and performed really well this season, and Mayer is so good (likely the best Notre Dame tight end of all-time) that it’s often better to hope he can go get a ball amidst multiple defenders than try to find other receivers with much less chance of making the play. It’s also been frustrating, though, that Pyne has oftentimes completely missed/ignored those wideouts on the rare occasions they DO get separation, in favor of trying to throw it to Mayer once again.
I’m sure Rees will throw a lot of different formations at the Orange defense to put Mayer into good match-ups and as many 1-on-1 scenarios as possible, both flexing him out and having him line up in-line. And then who knows? Maybe they’ll be a little smarter and occasionally use him as a decoy to set up a nice pass to someone else, but the success of that will still come down to Drew Pyne magically transforming back into UNC Drew Pyne. Now that’s a spooky, albeit unlikely to happen, concept for Orange fans...
TNIAAM: Last week the Orange defense forced four turnovers at Clemson, they have benefited from the crowd noise in the Dome to cause opponents to struggle with audibles. Is the Notre Dame offensive line strong enough to hold up to the pressure Tony White enjoys bringing?
OFD: The offensive line is definitely one of the strengths of the Notre Dame team, but that’s pretty relative considering the Irish are 58th in the country in yards per carry at 4.38. Still, they’re tied for 31st in sacks allowed and typically do a good job of giving Pyne some time and/or firing off the ball and getting at least a little push for the ND running backs to work with.
So, I think they’ll hold up pretty well against Tony White’s pressure, but certainly have some lapses where Orange defenders get chances to smack Pyne around a bit and maybe where the ND running backs won’t have much room to move through. But I also think they’re good enough to move the ball on the ground somewhat against ‘Cuse (Will Shipley and Clemson proved that’s possible last weekend) and hopefully that helps slow the game down and forces White to bring more run support and open up some random passing opportunities for the Irish.
TNIAAM: Outside of Mayer, which offensive players will be featured in Notre Dame’s game plan?
OFD: Running back Logan Diggs is one of the names to know, especially recently. He’s been running really well between the tackles the last couple games after a slow start to the year, and was the bell cow last weekend against UNLV, running for 130 yards on 28 carries. I would have mentioned RB Audric Estime first (and you should still know his name, because I think he’s actually ND’s best back), but he’s developed a case of the yips with 3 fumbles in his last 4 outings, including one against Stanford on a drive that otherwise could have iced the game. He’s an absolute hoss, though, so if he gets a decent amount of carries on Saturday, he’ll make life a bit more difficult for the Syracuse defense.
Besides those two, the other name to know from the three-headed running back committee is Chris Tyree. He’s super fast and will be heavily involved in both the running and passing games, but also has had trouble breaking through with a BIG game this season, which has been frustrating considering this is his junior year. But he’s certainly capable of some home run plays out there and will take it to the house if the Orange give him some space to do so:
Other names to know: Lorenzo Styles Jr. and Jayden Thomas as two sophomore wideouts who’ve flashed potential but also disappear for stretches. Tobias Merriweather is a true frosh with 1 catch for a 41-yard touchdown to his name, and thus the fans WANT MORE. And then there’s Braden Lenzy, a tiny speedster who’s had a quiet, underwhelming, and injury-riddled career and now, when he finally, actually starts beating DBs deep, he doesn’t have a QB who can hit him in stride.
Bonus: backup tight end Mitchell Evans, who was a QB in high school and apparently now gets his number called for QB sneaks — he scored a touchdown last weekend and finished with a glorious stat line of 2 carries for 5 yards and a score. Watch for him in any short-yardage and goal-to-go situations.
TNIAAM: Notre Dame’s defense has only allowed one opponent to score over 30 points this season, what things do they do best as a unit? Do you think they are ready to handle a dual-threat quarterback like Garrett Shrader?
OFD: It’s been really interesting to see them continue to hold opponents to low totals each week, because the Irish are one of the worst defenses in the country at forcing turnovers and honestly haven’t even always been technically sound (missed tackles, bad containment on the edge, burnt for several big plays, etc.). But overall, I think they just generally play decent, fundamental football and are pretty good at getting off the field on 3rd down (38th in the country at 33.7%) and at getting pressure on the QB, led by DE Isaiah Foskey.
When it comes to Shrader, I don’t think Al Golden’s defense is super-ready to handle him, to be honest. Cal QB Jack Plummer, who is not really that much of a mobile threat, carved up this Irish defense with scrambles for first downs on several occasions, keeping the Golden Bears in that game. Shrader is a better QB and more capable runner than that guy, and his efficiency as a passer doesn’t even give me the silver lining of ND hoping to contain his legs and make him beat them with his arm — because he can do that too.
If he can get the ball out fast to limit the impact of the ND pass rush, and keep the chains moving against a LB/DB group for ND that is a little slow and not overly talented, then I think he might have a really nice game. The key is really just getting the Orange offense to the red zone. Once y’all get there, be prepared to score basically at-will, as the Irish are DEAD LAST in the nation in red zone score % allowed (100%) and second-to-last in red zone touchdown % allowed (82.35%), only beating the Rutgers Scarlet Knights in that metric.
Guys Shrader and co. should try to avoid/not attack: DE Isaiah Foskey, DB TaRiq Bracy, S Brandon Joseph, DL Jayson Ademilola and Rylie Mills.
Guys Shrader and co. should absolutely try to attack, a lot: any safety not named Brandon Joseph, any linebacker not named Prince Kollie, and probably CBs Clarence Lewis and Cam Hart, especially deep.
TNIAAM: What scares you the most about the Syracuse offense?
OFD: You mean, besides everything? At this point I think I’m frightened by every single opponent remaining on the schedule and what they’ll somehow find a way to do against the Irish.
Specifically, I think Garrett Shrader seems like the perfect kind of QB to carve up this ND defense, especially because even disrupting his rhythm might not help, seeing as the Irish just refuse to force turnovers and take advantage of those kinds of havoc situations.
Additionally, I think Sean Tucker only getting 5 carries last week means he’ll get plenty of touches this week, and although ND is pretty decent against the run, they’ve been gashed a bit by a few guys this year, especially in the 2nd half (Miyan Williams of Ohio State just pounding it through the Irish defense in the final 15-20 minutes of that game comes to mind). I think Tucker is good enough both as a runner and a receiver to be a difference-maker on Saturday and find lots of success against a defense that I don’t think has the speed or tackling ability to corral him every time.
TNIAAM: Are you guys planning to return Don McPherson’s stolen Heisman Trophy? If Tim Brown is man enough, we can do the ceremony at midfield before the coin toss.
OFD: I’d be more inclined to have Tim Brown give that trophy to Holy Cross’s Gordon Lockbaum, because I honestly had no idea Holy Cross had anyone finish that high in Heisman voting EVER, let alone in the last 35 years. Thank you for making me look up the Heisman results from 1987. JUSTICE FOR GORDY LOCKBAUM!!!
Also, I know it was a different time and offenses weren’t throwing like they are now, but McPherson’s stats from that season aren’t exactly sparkling — 56% completion and double-digit INTs?? And rushing stats that really don’t add that much? Please, though, ignore that Tim Brown’s receiving and rushing totals also weren’t exactly wild that season, compared to what we say in today’s game. Instead, let’s focus on his 3 punt return touchdowns, because I think we can all agree that there should be more special teams consideration being factored into the Heisman Trophy’s awarding each year. ND PUNTER JON SOT FOR 2022 HEISMAN!!!
(TNIAAM note; Fine, but we’re giving Riley Dixon two retroactive Heisman Trophies)
TNIAAM: Non-football related, but why did Mike Brey take all the fun away from The Official Jim Boeheim Jacket Toss Tracker™ ? Would it hurt him that much to go back to his mock turtleneck and blazer for ACC games?
OFD: Have you not been paying attention? Mike Brey’s career progression as a coach has gone from classy/corny/formal to just slovenly/unshaven/comfy-as-hell, and he’s been able to get away with it and generally keep finding success (I think he actually garners more power the as a coach the more casual he dresses). I mean hell, his FINEST moment of his coaching career involved him literally shirtless in Maui:
And you thought Maui Mike Brey’s sideline attire was casual ...— Notre Dame Men's Basketball (@NDmbb) November 23, 2017
MAUI CHAMPS!!!#NDinMaui pic.twitter.com/VDA32cCweH
So, how can you argue with the results of his move away from wearing suit jackets, and pushing other coaches to do the same? Brey is able to have more fun, feel more comfortable, and still do his job pretty well (please disregard 2017-2018 through 2020-2021, those seasons just didn’t happen). It would hurt him way too much at this point to return to that stuffy mock turtleneck and blazer, even if he did look fresh as hell wearing them.
Not gonna lie, I miss Brey’s mock turtleneck. pic.twitter.com/oDQK0OQOBk— Ben Schwartzwalder (@CuseOrangeFan44) January 6, 2018
I think y’all just need to convince Boeheim to start ripping off whatever athleisure he’s now going to wear — act like a shirtless Boeheim wouldn’t inspire the team/crowd to new heights of success (and also probably temporarily blind the opposing team). And then you can have the Boeheim Bare-Chest Tracker™ instead.
(TNIAAM note- Dear Lord man, no one wants to see that)
TNIAAM: Ok, back to football now. How do you see this game playing out? What’s your prediction?
OFD: I think this Notre Dame team has some motivation issues for games against “lesser” opponents (“lesser” in quotes because Marshall and Stanford beat the Irish straight-up in a non-flukey fashion and thus I really can’t claim they’re truly lesser, despite how much they both stink this season). Luckily, Syracuse is not a “lesser” opponent, and so hopefully the Irish team that showed up against teams expected to be tougher earlier in the year — OSU, UNC, BYU — will show up again and execute pretty well and hopefully make this a good game.
Unfortunately, I think Syracuse having a legitimately good defense coupled with a talented, efficient offense with some star players is not a good combination for an ND team that struggles to pass the ball and can’t force turnovers or stop anyone in the red zone. So, I think the Irish will play the Orange pretty close for most of the game just due to the fact they will play up to their opponent, but in the 4th quarter Syracuse will pull away down the stretch with Tucker asserting himself and probably one or two big plays from Oronde Gadsden II through the air.
Let’s say Syracuse 30, Notre Dame 21
Thanks to Patrick for these responses...and for redeeming himself with that Syracuse pick. Be sure to check One Foot Down throughout the year for all things Notre Dame.