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Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s swing game focuses on stopping Sean Tucker at all costs

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Notre Dame linebacker JD Bertrand joins Corey Robinson to discuss the Irish's defensive performance against UNLV, the unit's prep for No. 16 Syracuse, his family's unique sports background and more.

It’s not a phrase usually applied to a football game, but when Mike Golic Jr. described Notre Dame’s trip to Syracuse as the “swing state” game among the remaining Irish challenges, he pinpointed exactly what is at stake for Notre Dame and Marcus Freeman in western New York this weekend.

The Irish (4-3) should have little trouble against Navy and Boston College to reach bowl eligibility in mid-November. And they will be overmatched against No. 5 Clemson and No. 10 USC to bookend the month, condemning any lofty hopes of a late-season surge.

Which leaves Syracuse (12 ET; ABC). If Notre Dame upsets the No. 16 Orange, it may end the season with wins against two ranked opponents, both on the road, an encouraging enough fact to build a touch of momentum this offseason. If not, then a likely 6-6 season will wrap up with nothing but mediocrity as its claim.

If only the Syracuse moniker was Purple, then Golic’s swing-state thought would be too good an analogy to stray from.

To top the Orange, the Irish will need to do one thing more than any other: Sean Tucker must die. (Figuratively speaking, of course’ the movie title was just too close to the reality to not lean into.) Plenty of credit should be given to Syracuse senior quarterback Garrett Shrader and new offensive coordinator Robert Anae (who directed Virginia’s explosive offense last season), but Tucker is the straw that stirs the Orange drink.

More accurately, Tucker is the straw, the glass and the champagne. Maybe the cocktail napkin, too.

“He’s talented,” Freeman said this week. “He is a home run-type running back. He can also be a threat in the pass game. I think you saw him catch a couple balls vs. Clemson.

“He is a talented running back, tough. I’ve seen him just run through guys.”

Freeman did see Tucker catch five passes when he studied last week’s film, but if Freeman watched that game linearly, he did not see much of Tucker in the second half. Four of his 10 total touches came on Syracuse’s first drive. The fifth, a 12-yard touchdown catch, ended the first-quarter drive that tied the game, the first of the Orange’s 21 unanswered points.

Then Tucker touched the ball only five more times, six if wanting to count an incomplete pass. Syracuse went away from its most consistent, most productive and most reliable offensive piece in what ended up a 27-21 loss against a Playoff contender.

Let’s put Tucker’s role into Irish context to underscore how surprising it was to see the Orange go away from him.

Former Notre Dame running back Kyren Williams handled a greater proportion of the Irish offense in 2021 than it did in 2020, discounting his absence from the Fiesta Bowl. In every regard, Tucker is doing more for Syracuse than Williams did for Notre Dame last season.

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Douglas Farmer

Notre Dame would not have gone away from Williams at any point in 2020 or 2021.

The natural reaction for the Orange now will be to double down on Tucker.

The Irish kept a few key defenders on figurative ice last week to get healthy for this challenge, of course Notre Dame did not know Tucker would be rested, as well. After playing nearly only on special teams last week, safety Brandon Joseph should be good to go this week, as will senior linebacker Jack Kiser, coming off a “pretty deep thigh bruise,” per Freeman. Freshman nickel back Jaden Mickey will also return to the lineup, though his absence a week ago may have been more reality than preemptive. The same can be said in both regards for fifth-year TaRiq Bracy.

The Irish defense has not been the concern this season. While it gives up a big play or two each game, an Al Golden frustration, Notre Dame has not given up more than 21 points in competitive action this season. That disclaimer excludes two North Carolina touchdowns in the fourth quarter when the game was already decided.

Holding Tucker and Syracuse quarterback Garrett Shrader to that same low bar will be the most crucial step to the Irish winning this swing state over the Orange.

“The biggest thing to us is they have some very dynamic players, especially at quarterback and running back,” leading Irish tackler, captain and senior linebacker JD Bertrand said this week on the ND on NBC Podcast. “Just being able to eliminate those go-to guys, make sure they aren’t the guys winning this game, make their whole team try to have an effort and not just have these guys.”

Nore Dame’s offensive flaws are known and myriad; there is no reason to expect them to change this weekend. The Irish are not likely to outscore Syracuse in an aggressive game, not when the senior Shrader has started 20 games in his carer, compared to Irish junior Drew Pyne’s five.

If any Notre Dame offensive riddle can be solved this weekend, it is how Pyne fares in a two-minute drill. A close game against a veteran quarterback could force Pyne into that scenario for a second time in his career. It cannot go worse than his showing against Stanford.

But in order to even enjoy that worry, the Irish will need to stop Sean Tucker. It is not Notre Dame’s fault he may be looking for redemption, but it may come at an Irish expense, not just a short-term loss, but swinging Notre Dame toward a 6-6 December.

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