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Things We Learned: Notre Dame’s second-half run focus now a clear trend, but one dependent on a lead

Notre Dame v Syracuse

SYRACUSE, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 29: Audric Estime #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish runs the ball as Alijah Clark #5 of the Syracuse Orange attempts to tackle him during the second quarter at JMA Wireless Dome on October 29, 2022 in Syracuse, New York. (Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images)

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Syracuse may have been the ideal top-20 team for this particular Notre Dame offense to face. And yet, the Irish (5-3) still scored only 27 points on genuine possessions. Notre Dame’s 41-24 win at the née Carrier Dome was an exercise in control, but perhaps not dominance.

If Orange head coach Dino Babers really did tell Irish head coach Marcus Freeman that he had eagerly been awaiting Notre Dame’s arrival, then Freeman was right to tell his team, “We’re here, be careful what you wish for.” This was a matchup designed to go against Syracuse’s defense.

Irish excluded, opposing offenses run the ball against the Orange 3.73 percent more often than should be expected given game situations, the seventh-highest disproportionate rank among Power Five teams. Notre Dame dialed that up drastically, running the ball 19.9 percent more often than would have been expected if solely focusing on game situation, per cfb-graphs.com.

Babers noticed.

“They basically were playing Army, Navy, Air Force football,” Babers said. “You have to get close enough or get in front of them so they can change and want to throw the ball a lot more.”

Babers was not saying the Irish run a service-academy offense. He was pointing out how difficult it is to knock Notre Dame off its offensive rhythm once the Irish enjoy a multiple-possession lead.

As soon as safety Brandon Joseph ran the first play of the game back into the end zone for a Notre Dame touchdown, Syracuse would struggle. The Orange advantage of an early score, which came to be reality, was negated. The Irish could continue to run against a defense struggling against the run more than just about anyone else in the country. Entering the weekend, Syracuse’s defense gave up 0.138 expected points added per rush against. To put that more bluntly, every time an opponent ran against the Orange, they raised their expected final point total by 0.138 points.

And as long as Notre Dame stayed ahead of Syracuse, it could run without worry, thus building that lead.

“Today showed how coach Freeman always emphasizes, ‘We’re an offensive line-, defensive line-driven team,” Irish sophomore running back Audric Estimé said after taking 20 carries for 123 yards and two touchdowns. “Our offensive line played their tails off. … They all were blocking all game, playing great. That did show our identity today.”

This was not a new Notre Dame trend, just one that has not always been available and one taken to an extreme against the Orange because of this specific Syracuse weakness.

The Irish never led by two scores against Ohio State, Marshall, Cal or Stanford. Let’s ignore the UNLV game due to the level of competition. In the other three contests, Notre Dame made this breakdown easy by always taking its first two-score lead just before halftime.

In the first half against North Carolina, BYU and Syracuse, the Irish threw the ball on 44.92 percent of their plays. In the second halves, buttressed by multiple-possession leads for the most part, Notre Dame threw the ball on just 24.35 percent of its plays, including a 13.89 percent rate on Saturday. The Irish threw the ball just five times on 36 second-half plays against the Orange.

“It’s just everybody is on board with the identity to win,” Freeman said. “If that gives us our best chance to move the ball, running the ball, and at times being able to throw it out of 13 personnel, that’s what this team is on board with. Whatever it takes to win.

“That’s why you love coaching these guys, they’re unselfish. They’re willing to do whatever it takes.”

This unselfishness worked better than usual, better than even against North Carolina’s woeful defense when Notre Dame took 34 second-half carries for 167 yards while throwing the ball just 12 times for 108 yards. Gene Chizik’s defense may have given up more yardage, but the Irish were able to lean into the run that much more aggressively against Syracuse, taking 31 second-half rushes for 126 yards while, again, throwing the ball only five times.

The lopsided approach exploited the Orange’s greatest weakeness, one that will be challenged again by Pittsburgh this weekend. But it also hemmed in Notre Dame’s scoring.

The Irish did not put together consecutive quality possessions until the fourth quarter, their 11th through 13th drives. The middle of those was a one-play, two-yard touchdown drive, so more genuinely, Notre Dame strung together two straight quality possessions only to end the game. Freeman pointed to the 41 Irish points as evidence of the success of the approach, a foray into coachspeak he usually avoids, but Notre Dame was the beneficiary of a defensive touchdown and special teams gifting another. A more accurate final score may have featured the Irish with only 27 points.

“I’m not looking to have a certain amount of passes or a certain amount of runs,” Freeman said. “I want to score points, and right now that’s what we’re doing.”

Only to an extent, albeit extent enough given that the Irish defense has yet to give up more than 21 points outside of garbage time.

Notre Dame’s defense continues as a strength, one that allowed the Irish to build a moderate lead and then target Syracuse’s greatest weakness, which fortunately fit the Notre Dame strength.

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