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And In That Corner ... Syracuse stands between Notre Dame and unbeaten regular season

Taj Harris Syracuse

PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 19: Syracuse Orange wide receiver Taj Harris (3) makes a defender miss and scores a touchdown during the college football game between the Syracuse Orange and the Pittsburgh Panthers on September 19, 2020 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, PA. (Photo by Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In part thanks to its schedule getting shortened by one game, No. 2 Notre Dame (9-0, 8-0 ACC) faces far fewer questions these days than Syracuse (1-9, 1-8) does. Focusing on those questions rather than on Saturday’s matchup (2:30 ET; NBC) would not serve as much of a preview, so let’s beg SyracuseOn247’s Stephen Bailey to discuss both this weekend’s expectations and the long-term Orange outlook.

DF: There are a few reasons I will struggle with keeping this to just Saturday. There is not all that much compelling about Syracuse dragging the remains of its locker room to northwestern Indiana’s snow just to lose its 10th game in a season that would be fraught even if it was going well.

This is all a far fall from the last time Notre Dame faced Syracuse, when the No. 12 (TWELVE!!) Orange was expected to be the last hiccup for the Irish on their way to a Playoff berth. Since that 2018 meeting at Yankee Stadium, Syracuse has gone 8-16, including the current stretch of 3-14. Notre Dame, meanwhile, is on the verge of its second unbeaten season and Playoff berth since that 36-3 trouncing. Of course, none of this is news to you.

So let me paint with a broad brush from the outset here: What parts of the Orange roster should bring genuine intrigue Saturday? Is there a part of this team I will enjoy watching, from a football sense? I will admit, I have watched only partial bits of Orange games this year — the opener, the Liberty loss and some of the grind against Boston College, most notably.

SB: Genuine intrigue, hmm. I would point to a trio of playmakers on defense who have excelled in Year 1 under defensive coordinator Tony White: linebacker Mikel Jones as well as cornerbacks Garrett Williams and Ifeatu Melifonwu. All three have excellent ball skills as well as the quick-twitch athleticism to shine early in the movement-based 3-3-5 scheme. Jones has a nose for the ball and has shored up his tackling over the course of the season. Williams is a budding star as a redshirt freshman, having pick-sixed Trevor Lawrence and made SportsCenter’s Top 10 for a tipped interception versus Louisville. Melifonwu is the last old head left in the secondary with stars Andre Cisco and Trill Williams having opted out to prepare for the NFL Draft.

(Brian Kelly on the Orange defense, from Monday: “It’s a 3-3-5 base that can get into four down. They’re athletic, they’re fast, they play with toughness, they take the football away, they’ve played their best football against the top offenses in the ACC, they get your attention. You watch this defensive football team and they’re gonna be really good.”)

Brain Kelly made a point Monday of praising junior receiver Taj Harris (pictured at top). “He’s a legit player, he can hurt you. We’ve got to know where Taj Harris is at all times.” Coming off a 13-catch, 146-yard performance warrants that concern. How does Harris produce like that on an offense seemingly lacking any other playmakers? Against North Carolina State, the passing game accounted for 10 catches and 108 yards aside from Harris’ work.

North Carolina State packed the box and gave Syracuse man coverage on the outside throughout the game. Rex Culpepper threw regularly to Harris because he’s the team’s best receiver. Taj might be the most talented wideout to come through Syracuse under Dino Babers, but a short temper that’s been constantly tested by the team’s offensive line and quarterback issues have kept him from elevating his status in the conference. He’s at his best when the ball’s in his hands. Despite his wiry frame, Harris is rarely brought down by one defender.

My dismissiveness of Syracuse may sound cruel, but the offensive line has given up 37 sacks, it has been outgained by 2,031 yards this season and the fact that the Orange beat Georgia Tech, let alone by three possessions, may be one of the most underrated baffling results this season. How/when/where did this season go so awry on fifth-year head coach Dino Babers? Kelly can specifically mention losing “their best quarterback” in junior Tommy DeVito, but it’s not like Syracuse didn’t lose by two touchdowns to Duke in his last game. That’s already a bit of a low point in 2020.

It starts with the offensive line. Babers said earlier this week that the team almost canceled its season due to a flurry of injuries in the trenches. Down six scholarship offensive linemen, the Orange turned to senior fullback/tight end Chris Elmore to start at left guard for the first nine games of the year. It didn’t help that the team’s two best running backs opted out before preseason camp or that the Week 1 starting running back, Jawhar Jordan, as well as DeVito, went down a few weeks in. The offense’s inability to move the ball has consistently led to the defense getting tired out in the second half of games this year.

This spiral has been particularly shocking, one part because it seemed like Babers had something cooking in upstate New York and one part because the offseason did not go without some mild locker-room strife for him. I do not follow recruiting with a fine-tooth comb, but my understanding is Babers’ has fallen off this cycle. Is there genuine reason for him to worry about his employment?

The team’s 2021 recruiting class is actually one of the better ones in Babers’ tenure, though nothing that will change the status quo here on its own. I think Babers has lost the trust of some in the fanbase, but not his players or the administration. Financially, it’s not realistic to expect the school to move on from him before at least the end of next season, if not 2022. The key for Dino will be finding a way to retool his offense during an offseason that may once again be limited by the coronavirus pandemic.

I appreciate you helping with some insight into a program few across the country pay diligent attention to. I won’t ask you if the Orange might shock the world this weekend. Instead, I’ll ask you if you think the Irish will lead by any less than two possessions at any point in the second half.

Nope. I would be shocked, barring a Covid-19 outbreak within the Irish program. Syracuse’s offense has scored three touchdowns only twice this season (Liberty, Georgia Tech) and, while the defense may fight early, I just think there’s too much of a physical mismatch upfront for that unit to hold up over the course of the game.

Lastly, where can readers find your work? One of my favorite parts about ND’s loose tie to the ACC in normal times is the beat writing I find about somewhat niche programs like Syracuse, Virginia and Wake Forest. That kind of work showcases the multitudes contained within college football, the underlying catalyst to its mass appeal.

You can read me on SyracuseOn247 and follow me on Twitter at @Stephen_Bailey1. And I couldn’t agree more. There are so many excellent reporters covering ACC football!

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