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And In That Corner ... No. 16 Syracuse Orange and sold out Dome host Notre Dame

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Pro Football Focus breaks down the five players with the highest grades for the Fighting Irish through the first seven games of the college football season.

Notre Dame and Syracuse have met every two years since 2014, a streak that will end after this season, suffering a one-year delay before they meet up in both 2025 and 2026. Games played every other year seem to come just short of developing enough rhythm. If there is not an excessive amount of roster and coaching staff turnover between two games, there certainly is between three games covering a five-year span.

Thus, while the Irish have won all four of these even-year meetings (by an average score of 40.5 to 18), not much of what was seen in 2020 can be applied to 2022 and absolutely none of 2018’s result should be pertinent this weekend (12 ET; ABC). To fill in those gaps, let’s chat with Emily Leiker of The Post-Standard, more commonly known in the internet age as syracuse.com.

DF: From afar, this could be a tough week for Syracuse to refocus after its unbeaten season came to an end with a fourth-quarter collapse at Clemson. In the immediate aftermath of that 27-21 defeat, what was the mood around the Orange? There are no such things as moral victories, but also, they nearly beat the best team in the ACC and perennial national title conter.

EL: You’re right about the moral victories piece – that was something Syracuse head coach Dino Babers was asked about postgame and immediately shut down. That said, I do think there were some positives the team took away from the game, the biggest being the way they responded to the loss. We heard from Babers and several players that the team had a great film session Sunday without any finger-pointing or negativity. The way that game ended, it could have been really easy, in my opinion, for a team to get down on itself for letting a win slip away due to what were mostly self-inflicted wounds. But that’s not what we’ve seen or heard out of this Syracuse program this season, which I think bodes well for how they’ll respond on the field against Notre Dame.

Syracuse built its 21-10 lead on the back of turnovers, forcing four. In its first six games this season, the Orange had forced only nine takeaways, so it is not like this is a defense thriving on interceptions and fumbles. Was there a change in scheme or approach that led to those four turnovers, or merely Clemson sloppiness? Fortunately for these purposes, either answer sheds light on Notre Dame’s next two weeks.

There weren’t any scheme changes from what I could tell or that I was told offensively. It was certainly a standout game for the defense, but I do think once Clemson quarterback DJ Uiagalelei threw that first pick, his head was a little scrambled for the rest of time he played. He might have had a little bit of last year coming back to haunt him: He had more interceptions than he did touchdowns last season and had drastically improved that ratio in 2022. Saturday’s game was just the third time he’s thrown an interception this year, and he hadn’t thrown more than one in a single game until Syracuse picked him off twice.

From the moment that game ended, Syracuse running back Sean Tucker’s lack of usage has been a hot topic. One of the best backs in the country, he ended with five rushes for 54 yards, also catching five passes for 18 yards and a score. Clemson claimed his so few rush attempts was a result of the Tigers’ defensive intentions, encouraging Orange quarterback Garrett Shrader to keep the ball more often on zone-reads. Shrader did end up with 21 carries for 71 yards, a distinct uptick from his average of 13 rushes per game in the first six this season. I realize gauging the success or failure of such schemes is a fool’s errand, but where do you assign fault or credit for Tucker’s reduced role? Is there any version of this weekend that sees it repeated?

Tucker’s reduced role was I think mostly at the fault of the coaching staff. It’s hard to say whose call exactly it was because the only coach who speaks with media is Babers, but the head coach did admit his running back should have had more carries and said the issue was addressed. Personally, I think a little bit of blame can also be attributed to Shrader just for pulling the ball as often as he did on his reads. That said, it’s obviously not his fault that the reads were what Syracuse had schemed up and didn’t change, nor was it his fault that Clemson’s defense was getting as much pressure as it was and forcing him to make quick decisions.

With all the criticism the program received over the matter since Saturday, I don’t expect it will be something that’s repeated this weekend. I would assume we’ll see more designed runs for Tucker called or at least him getting the ball more on reads.

On the other side of the ball, Clemson had a ton of success running the ball, gaining 293 yards on 60 carries. While an extreme, that was not the first time someone ran through Syracuse’s defense this season. Virginia took 29 rushes for 149 yards, and Louisville gained 137 yards on 31 attempts. Obviously, this stands out given the one thing Notre Dame tends to do well offensively is run the ball. Have these ground gashings come as a result of Syracuse selling out to stop the pass or is this just a faulty front?

I wouldn’t call Syracuse’s defensive front faulty per se, but it is young and has been the most affected by injuries this season. So that’s definitely hurt them in defending against high-powered rushing offenses. Looking at Notre Dame’s kind of three-pronged rushing attack and what that means for how they’re able to rotate players through that position to keep them fresh, I’m definitely assuming there will be at least a couple occasions where Syracuse gets burned on the run.

Speaking of stopping the pass, Orange cornerback Duce Chestnut appeared to suffer an injury against Clemson. I know he came back in, but what is the report on that injury? If the Irish are going to have any successful downfield passing, I do not expect it to be in Chestnut’s direction. While we’re at it, are there any other injuries that Notre Dame fans should make note of?

He did go out briefly with what seemed like a knee injury in the second quarter, but returned after that and played well for the rest of the game. Babers is pretty reserved when it comes to talking about injuries, so we really don’t know anything about Chestnut or any of the other players who had minor issues against Clemson.

One player who sat out the Clemson game and could be making his return this week is Syracuse’s other star cornerback, Garrett Williams. He suffered a thigh bruise early in Syracuse’s game against North Carolina State (on Oct. 15) and has not played since. Babers did say it wasn’t a season-ender, and Williams went through all of the team’s warmups and was suited up for the game against Clemson. He looked pretty close to 100 percent to me, but as of Wednesday, we haven’t heard officially whether he’ll be on the field against Notre Dame.

Let’s turn to the more abstract for a moment. This is a 6-1 Syracuse, currently ranked No. 16, coming off a blown chance at what may have been the biggest win in program history. There are competing momentums there. The Carrier Dome—errr, this is so dumb—the JMA Wireless Dome can hold nearly 50,000 fans and when in the right spirit, can be very loud. What kind of atmosphere should Notre Dame expect this week?

The game sold out of general tickets early this week, the school announced. There are still some student tickets left and some on reseller sites, but it will be packed and it will be loud. Don’t be fooled by the seemingly small number of fans that fit in the Dome; the fact that it’s an indoor venue means the noise echoes off every surface. Syracuse also sold out its game against N.C. State, and the Wolfpack offense was clearly affected by that.

Do you agree with me that renaming a building after a different corporate entity is bafflingly dumb when the former name has become so synonymous and entrenched with the arena? JMA Wireless cannot be getting enough publicity out of this to justify what is widely thought to be more than $3.25 million per year. And my disparaging this lunacy right now cannot be helping. I’ll stop. At least, until I repeatedly refer to a running back as a “carrier” on Saturday.

Haha. I barely made it here before it switched to the JMA Wireless Dome and I still had trouble remembering it wasn’t the Carrier Dome for about a month. You’re not the first out-of-towner I’ve heard complain about the name change.

Syracuse is favored by 2.5 as of late Wednesday night, only the fourth time Notre Dame has been a regular-season underdog against an ACC opponent in the last six seasons and just the eighth time in the nine years of this scheduling arrangement. The Irish won the last three such moments, including once this year and once last year. What are you expecting to see Saturday?

I think it will be a close game for sure. That said, I do think Syracuse will cover the spread handily with the home-field advantage and a drive for its offense to prove that it actually is good against a top-tier defense. Should be a good matchup either way.

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