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Highlights: Notre Dame 41, No. 16 Syracuse 24 — Early Irish runs create tilted game flow

“Game flow” comes across as an abstract piece of football talk, but recognizing it can explain how a game expected to be tight can turn into a blowout, such as Notre Dame’s 41-24 win at No. 16 Syracuse on Saturday.

The Irish (5-3) played better than the Orange (6-2), make no mistake about it. Notre Dame outgained Syracuse by 76 yards and fittingly notched seven more first downs. The Irish led by two possessions for more than 24 minutes.

But none of that may have ever come to be if not for safety Brandon Joseph’s interception return for a touchdown on the game’s first snap, the second time this month Notre Dame has forced a turnover on the first play of the game against a team ranked No. 16. Joseph snagging that Garrett Shrader pass and taking it to the end zone gave the Irish a cushion they would need when Shrader immediately then led a touchdown drive to tie the game.

It also, as a side note, gave Joseph’s father a memento football, the 2020 All-American making a beeline for his parents after he found the end zone to celebrate his first career score, high school or college.

“That’s why you see me go straight over to my mom, we been talking about this since day one,” Joseph said. “For it to be my first pick-six and be able to celebrate with them was huge.”

But back to the game flow. Joseph’s touchdown may as well have been an afterthought after the Orange covered 53 yards in seven plays, but the game-opening defensive tally kept Notre Dame on even footing. It could stick to its game plan with no worry, running the ball on eight of its first nine plays, a drive that ended in a missed field goal. That approach lasted into the second drive, as well, with the Irish running the ball on the first four plays of that possession, one undone by multiple false start penalties.

Neither of those drives resulted in points, but Notre Dame was building into the rushing game it wanted.

“That’s been the plan since probably Cal, try to establish the run game,” Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said. “... Right now, our identity is to run the ball.”

Notre Dame set a season-high with 25 first-half rushes, staking itself to a 21-7 lead.

Now consider Syracuse, even more dependent on star running back Sean Tucker. He had 11 rushes for 47 yards in the first half, the Orange mostly still within reach of the Irish. But when Notre Dame quarterback Drew Pyne connected with sophomore receiver Jayden Thomas for a three-yard score to end the half, Syracuse had to increasingly abandon Tucker, its greatest strength. Trailing by two touchdowns and then 17 points and even 21, the Orange handed off to Tucker only five times for 18 yards in the second half.

Syracuse needed to chuck to catch up, something backup quarterback Carlos Del Rio-Wilson did well for the third quarter, but never well enough to stress Notre Dame’s preferred approach.

“We’re going to run at you,” sophomore running back Audric Estimé said after scoring twice and gaining 123 yards on 20 carries. “You’re going to have to stop us, and if you’re not stopping us, we’re just going to do it until the game is over.”

Joseph’s interception and Estimé’s early success gave the Irish enough control in the building formerly known as the Carrier Dome that they could keep running, enough control that Tucker could not. That game flow cut out Syracuse’s legs from under it.

The first two Irish snaps, well into the first quarter thanks to Joseph’s touchdown and Syracuse’s follow-up, were handoffs to Estimé, despite his rash of fumbles in recent weeks.

“That helped for sure, honestly,” he said. “[Getting] the first carries means a lot to me, shows the trust [offensive coordinator Tommy Rees] and coach Freeman and [running backs coach Deland McCullough] have in me. I feel like that was a big confidence booster.”

Estimé’s fumbles have been costly. Particularly, his lost carry against Stanford ended Notre Dame’s final genuine chance at a comeback. He has not wavered since.

“Just my teammates, them never giving up on me, giving me fuel, telling me to keep my head up and just them being there for me during a hard time,” Estimé said. “I wouldn’t be able to do any of this, I wouldn’t be able to bounce back without any of them.

“So my teammates, giving me confidence and my coaches, all of them.”

Sophomore tight end Mitchell Evans is listed at 6-foot-5 ⅛ and 255 pounds. He is anything but small. When it comes to the Irish rushing attack, though, Evans is only a minor piece.

Yet, the package that features Evans behind center and sneaking forward is now four-for-four. Defenses know exactly what is coming, but enough Notre Dame size renders that advance warning feckless.

With Pyne remaining in the backfield on Saturday when Evans took the snap, the Irish may be laying the groundwork for a future trick play out of that design, letting the opposing defense sell out to stop Evans only for Pyne to end up with the ball looking downfield.

Sophomore receiver Deion Colzie was Pyne’s second-favorite target, behind the obvious Michael Mayer, catching all three passes thrown his way for 44 yards, each of them gaining a first down. Colzie entered the weekend without any catches yet this season.

“I’m proud of him because it’s a reflection of practice,” Freeman said. “Everything I keep saying is you build confidence in practice. He had a great week of practice. For him to go out and have a couple catches and make some plays, have a little bit more playing time, it reinforces the things I say. Practice is so important. What we do in practice will get you those opportunities in a game.”

More action from Colzie and Thomas was intentional, but it may not continue every week. For one thing, fifth-year receiver Braden Lenzy missed early-week practices due to an illness. For another, Notre Dame wanted to counter Syracuse’s long cornerbacks with longer receivers.

“We settled into trying to get a little bit more length on the field at wideout,” Freeman said. “We had a couple personnels where we wanted tall guys. We called it tall personnel.

“The ability to get some of that length, because they have some long corners, and we wanted to be able to challenge those guys.”

The Irish scored on all six of their red-zone possessions, including four touchdowns. They turned seven quality possessions into six scores, the exception being a missed field goal.

But still, Notre Dame scored on only six of 13 possessions. That is a step forward, 46.2 percent compared to the 39.2 percent rate this season before this game, but it is still a tick or two below what should be expected from a reliable offense.

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