Worst title ever.
This will be only the 9th all-time meeting between Notre Dame and Syracuse which doesn’t seem right. Whether it’s the basketball rivalry coloring things stretching back to the Big East days or the fact that this will be the 6th meeting in the past 16 years on the gridiron, this feels like a little more personal matchup than the history suggests.
Syracuse (+10.5) vs. Notre Dame
The Bronx, New York City, New York
Date: Saturday, November 17, 2018
Time: 2:30 PM ET
Series: 5-3-0 Notre Dame
Notre Dame moved this game to New York City likely thinking Syracuse would be a bit of a push over. Turns out, that’s not exactly the case. The Orange are currently experiencing a bit of a revival and at least as things stand today still alive for a major bowl game in mid-November. How much of a revival it actually is we shall investigate henceforth.
3 Pre-Game Topics
No team has been stuck in a consistent mediocrity quite like Syracuse. Since the S&P rankings were created in 2005 the Orange have finished the season somewhere between 96th and 74th on 9 of 13 seasons. This includes Syracuse head coach Dino Babers’ first 2 years on campus. It’s actually impressive consistency.
In year 3, it’s been a nice turn around for the Orange. Heading into Saturday, their No. 39 ranking in S&P is their highest ever just ahead of the 2012 finish of 40th. That season, Syracuse finished 8-5 with several close losses while ending on a 4-game winning streak.
Dino Babers is now officially on the Doing Good Things™ list and is checking a bunch of important boxes: crafty offense, disruptive defense, overachieving at a mid-tier Power 5 program, and solid off the field personality.
What of This Offense?
Plenty of stats back up this being a very good Syracuse offense. They are 7th nationally in scoring, and the 4th highest scoring Power 5 team behind Oklahoma, Alabama, and Clemson. So that’s good company. They’ve scored the 5th most rushing touchdowns in the country, too. In total offense, the Orange are 14th best in the nation.
However, Syracuse is only 39th in the S&P offense rankings (so below Notre Dame, for reference), 44th in rushing S&P, and 59th in raw yards per play. Average it out and it’s not a super scary offense but still one of the best the Irish will face this season.
Turnovers & Special Teams
Notre Dame has to be careful in this game. On a per-play basis there’s a lot to like about Notre Dame matching up with the Orange. However, Syracuse has forced 25 turnovers (tied 2nd most nationally) and comes in with the #1 S&P special teams in the country.
While no one would consider Justin Yoon a weakness, the Syracuse kicker Andre Szmyt is definitely a major strength and has nailed 27 of 29 field goals this year while missing zero of his extra points. The Orange also force touchbacks on kickoffs 20% more often than Notre Dame which could haunt the Irish at some point. On a per average basis, receiver Sean Riley is the nation’s leading punt returner at 17.38 and 10th nationally in total punt return yardage.
2 Key Opponents
QB Eric Dungey – It feels like Dungey has been around since the Paul Pasqualoni era. Now a senior, he’s an interesting quarterback because he does a lot for the Syracuse offense and yet he’s not putting up huge numbers for what he’s asked to do. He’s also basically remained the same quarterback since his early days–running a lot, around 60% completions, 7 yards per attempt or so, and solid touchdown-to-interception ratios.
Dungey is still running almost 15 times per game (down slightly from last year) but the offense as a whole is passing almost 12 fewer times per game than last year–likely a function of them winning more games late in the second half. For what it’s worth, Dungey was 31 of 51 for 363 yards and 5 total touchdowns in the wild meeting against Notre Dame back in 2016.
DE Alton Robinson – The Irish have played a few really good edge rushers this season. Here’s yet another! Robinson leads Syracuse with 15 tackles for loss, 9 sacks, and 9 quarterback hurries. Robert Hainsey could have his hands full on Saturday.
The play-book for a Syracuse upset is pretty common as these things go: Win the turnover battle, dominate special teams, and hope a strong havoc-rate on defense slows down the Notre Dame offense. The Orange have to feel pretty good about how these things line up for them.
Obviously, this game is as much and maybe more about Notre Dame avoiding a face planting narrative loss. I have been pretty far down the angry list about moving this game from campus to The Bronx. There’s just something intensely wimpy to me worrying about a traditionally middling ACC team because of the travel involved with a game being played in a Notre Dame-friendly part of the country.
Still, you’d be foolish not to sense the conceit of the Shamrock Series could make this game a little more difficult than it should be. This was supposed to be (as all Shamrock Series’ have been set up) a mildly challenging effort on the field and fundraising “the campus of Notre Dame comes to town” effort off the field. If there’s a game where the Irish just fall flat, well how terrifically terrible would it be to happen this late in the season with an undefeated season on the line, while wearing these ridiculous uniforms (worst decision of the Swarbrick era change my mind), when so many feared such a debacle could’ve been avoided?
Wouldn’t it feel like such a post-Holtz thing to do for Notre Dame to lose this game? Pinstriped pants moping off the field, and such.
However, there’s something about this game that could counter-affect any silliness about the Shamrock Series. Syracuse really isn’t that good. Objectively, they are 12th in the College Football Playoff rankings because this is a historically bad year for middle-of-the-road teams and there’s a huge drop-off from the current 2-loss teams compared to the teams vying for a National Championship. I also think the weird 2:30 start in a baseball stadium with weird uniforms will bother Syracuse a little more than the Irish.
In a vacuum I absolutely could see Syracuse winning this game. I just have a hard time seeing Syracuse winning this game AND moving to 9-2 with the chance to finish with 10 or 11 wins. Don’t get me wrong they are having a nice season but this is a team that will likely finish something like 48th in the S&P rankings by year’s end and while their resume does scream classic overachieving squad (special teams, turnovers) some of that is likely to even out as they face stiffer competition.
You have to like what Babers has built at Syracuse, no doubt. Yet, here are his Syracuse wins according to opponent S&P rankings:
2016 – 17, 86, 123, FCS
2017 – 8, 79, 82, FCS
2018 – 45, 85, 87, 95, 98, 104, 130, FCS
“Wait, they’re due for their one big win of the season!”
Possibly, or specifically with 2018 their schedule has masked some things that aren’t quite as evident with their record and playoff ranking.
I do think there will be plenty of sweating involved, perhaps with Syracuse leading early by 10 points. This shall be our Shamrock Series drunk Yankees penance. Once things calm down Syracuse’s defensive susceptibility to giving up big plays in converse to that being the strength of the Notre Dame defense is the difference for me.