EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — This was far from a virtuoso performance, but Notre Dame’s defense needed to drudge up some positivity after a brutal September. And they left MetLife Stadium feeling some good vibrations after a 50-33 win over Syracuse Saturday.
The final score isn’t incredibly impressive as a standalone for the first game of the post-Brian VanGorder era/Greg Hudson’s first game as defensive coordinator. The 33 points Syracuse scored are tied for a season high set when the Orange whomped FCS side Colgate to open the season. Louisville, South Florida and UConn held Dino Babers’ ludicrous-speed offense to fewer points than Notre Dame did on Saturday.
But here’s where the positivity is at least grounded in something: Notre Dame’s defense allowed only 4.3 yards per play over Syracuse’s final 77 plays of the game. That’s a number on which Greg Hudson’s group can build going forward.
“You look at us as a defense in September, and we were terrible,” safety Drue Tranquill said. “I’ll say that as one of our leaders. I wasn’t great, there were a lot of aspects of our defense that weren’t great. I think that could’ve created a really negative vibe, especially heading into this week.
“So for us to come in here and get a win on the road with a new DC, with all the things going on, I think it speaks to the character of our team, the resiliency of our team and we’ll take this.”
Notre Dame rotated a ton of players on Saturday, getting guys like safety Nicco Fertitta, defensive tackle Elijah Taylor and linebacker Asmar Bilal their first meaningful snaps of their college careers (all are sophomores). Jay Hayes went from playing no snaps against Duke to making an impact on the defensive line, while freshmen defensive backs Donte Vaughn, Julian Love and Jalen Elliott played extensively (fellow freshman safety Devin Studstill, a lineup regular this year, was ejected in the first quarter for targeting).
Or, consider this: 21 Notre Dame defensive players recorded a tackle against Syracuse’s first-team offense on Saturday, nearly two full units worth of players.
“It’s like, ‘Who’s out here with me?’” Tranquill said. “They’re bringing them in left and right.”
The warp-speed substitutions of the Irish defense allowed a quality-over-quantity result in terms of reps, as coach Brian Kelly felt his team’s tackling was better off for it.
“We’re not a finished product,” Kelly said. “But we’ve got some kids who care about it and we’ll work on it to get better.”
Twenty-seven of Syracuse’s 33 points came in the first half, with 13 of them coming on the Orange’s first two drives. Eric Dungey led an easy eight-play, 75-yard scoring drive after DeShone Kizer fired a 79-yard touchdown strike to Equanimeous St. Brown on the first play of the game, then followed that with a 72-yard strike to Amba Etta-Tawo, who easily bested Love in single coverage for a touchdown.
Notre Dame’s defense still gave up three scores after those first 11 plays, but gradually began to dig in against a Syracuse offense that became more about operating fast than operating successfully as the game went on. Syracuse averaged 3.58 yards per play in the second half and didn’t get in the end zone until with just under seven minutes remaining — which was far too late and didn’t get the Orange within two scores thanks to a botched PAT.
“When you’re playing a team like that that spreads it, you have to get acclimated to positioning on the field, where the ball is at all times and when it happens so quickly — you can’t duplicate that in practice,” Kelly said. “Once they got that sense of receiver spreads, sets, calls and checks, they were able to duplicate that play in and play out.”
In addition to cycling through a load of inexperienced and/or young players, Notre Dame’s defensive veterans stepped up when they needed to. Nyles Morgan and Isaac Rochell almost single-handedly forced punts on back-to-back possessions, and James Onwualu’s sack-strip of Dungey accounted for Notre Dame’s first forced fumble of the season. Jarron Jones blocked another PAT — which Cole Luke dashed back for a two-point score — the sixth blocked kick of his career.
“We had to come around, find what was important and use those things to get better,” Rochell said. “We had to figure out our identity again. And I think we did a great job, everybody responded really well and that was a really good week of practice.”
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This by no means is a sign that everything about Notre Dame’s broken defense is fixed or even securely glued together. Kelly mentioned that plenty of veterans, who were coached in VanGorder’s scheme for the last two and a half years, needed to eliminate some muscle memory that no longer applied to the Hudson-led defense (it’s why Luke, Kelly said, saw plenty of time in the slot — it’s a new position for him). And while the Irish settled in after a frenetic first quarter, this still was a slow start for a defense that allowed five touchdowns.
Whether or not Notre Dame’s defense will be consistently good enough to beat N.C. State next weekend and put the Irish back on track to reach a bowl game remains to be seen. But it had to start somewhere, and Kelly and these players believe that somewhere was MetLife Stadium.
“I want to play better overall as a football team and I think we can,” Kelly said. “We’ve got some young guys who are gonna make some mistakes and we’ve gotta make sure that those aren’t catastrophic mistakes. And unfortunately the positions in which they play (the secondary) tend to be big mistakes, but they’re going to be really good players and we’re sticking with them.”