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Turnovers, rushing attack carry Notre Dame to road win at No. 16 Syracuse

Notre Dame v Syracuse

SYRACUSE, NY - OCTOBER 29: Audric Estime #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish makes a run against the Syracuse Orange at JMA Wireless Dome on October 29, 2022 in Syracuse, New York. (Photo by Isaiah Vazquez/Getty Images)

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Notre Dame’s defensive line had not gotten its hands on a pass all season. Bothering quarterbacks’ passing lanes is an underrated part of a strong defensive line, usually overlooked amid sacks (three for the Irish on Saturday), but deflecting passes costs offenses downs all the same. More havoc can result from them, too, like when senior defensive tackle Howard Cross tipped the first pass of Notre Dame’s season and senior linebacker Marist Liufau tracked it down in the air in the fourth quarter at Syracuse.

The second interception by the Irish of the day, Liufau’s snag cut short a surging Orange rally, giving Notre Dame a chance to dig its feet in on its way to a 41-24 win in a soldout Carrier Dome—errrr, JMA Wireless Dome.

“We wanted to emphasize turnovers,” Irish safety Brandon Joseph said. “At that point in the game, for him to get that pick and for us to get the momentum back, get the ball back to the offense, it was huge. Turning point of the game.”

The No. 16 Orange (6-2) had the Irish (5-3) on their heels, cutting a 17-point lead to just seven heading into the fourth quarter. After senior quarterback Garrett Shrader did not retake the field following halftime due to injury, Syracuse backup quarterback Carlos Del Rio-Wilson — a former four-star recruit who transferred to Syracuse after one year at Florida — sparked the Orange offense with some downfield passing that Shrader had not been able to muster.

Until a pass went off Cross’ hand into Liufau’s.

The Irish doubled down with their most reliable offensive asset, a three-headed running back room, to quell Syracuse’s comeback bid. Junior running back Chris Tyree took five straight carries before two passes got Notre Dame to just outside the 10-yard line. An Audric Estimé touchdown rush gave the Irish renewed breathing room, a moment of redemption for the back who lost three fumbles in the four games before this, including one that cost Notre Dame its last viable chance at beating Stanford.

“The game of football is named after what I held in my hand,” Estimé said. “Be more mindful of it. ... It could come out at any time. Be mindful of it, sticking to the regular, honestly.

“No big changes, I just had to keep it in my mind. No matter what, the ball comes first.”

He added another score barely a minute later, a one-play drive courtesy of a Clarence Lewis-blocked punt, and Estimé finished with 123 yards on 20 carries.

Logan Diggs took another 20 carries for 85 yards and a score, the two sophomores racking up the gross numbers but Tyree the ball carrier called upon when the Irish most needed to move forward. He finished with eight rushes for 23 yards, as well as a 10-yard catch, but it was those five carries for 17 yards that set Notre Dame back on track, each attempt gaining positive yardage.

Up until Liufau’s interception led to Tyree’s reliability led to Estimé's first score, the remaining Irish lead could be traced back to the very first snap of the game. Shrader telegraphed his intentions and Notre Dame safety Brandon Joseph capitalized to the fullest extent possible, recording the first interception return touchdown of his entire life.

“I was just doing my job,” Joseph said. “I dropped down in the zone, the quarterback staring at me, threw it right to me, and I took it. That’s pretty much that.”

Syracuse quickly rebounded, putting together a touchdown drive on the following possession, but from there on, the Irish defense made Shrader’s life miserable, even if it was not knocking down his passes.

“They went down and scored to make it a 7-7 game, but the ability to establish, hey, we’re on defense first and we go up 7-0, that’s a huge momentum builder for everyone in our football program,” Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said.

The next three Orange possessions were all three-and-outs, and Syracuse would not put together a quality drive the rest of the first half. It took a possession for Del Rio-Wilson to find his rhythm, but orchestrating back-to-back scoring drives revived memories of the Irish collapsing in the second half a la against Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl.

Instead, Notre Dame stopped the Orange on three of its remaining five possessions, in part because star Syracuse running back Sean Tucker was held in check by the deficits. The Irish led by multiple scores for 24:03, rendering the Orange reliance on Tucker carries a comeback liability.

Notre Dame’s running focus began long before Liufau’s interception and Tyree’s stretch. The Irish set a season-high with 25 rushes in the first half. Estimé and Diggs set the tone, taking 11 rushes for 53 yards and 8 carries for 49 yards, respectively, thus staking Notre Dame to a 21-7 halftime lead, its second-largest of this season, behind only the 30-7 halftime advantage last week against UNLV, one inflated by short fields created via punt block, an indulgence the Irish did not enjoy until the fourth quarter this weekend.

Freeman began his postgame locker room comments with a boast that was more coincidence than anything else.

“That’s twice in a month you’ve beaten the No. 16 team in the country,” he said, referencing the Notre Dame 28-20 win against then-No. 16 BYU in Las Vegas on Oct. 8, though the Cougars have now lost their last four games, beginning with that one.

But then Freeman brought up a reality that continues to confound from outside the Irish locker room.

“As I said to us at halftime, nobody really knows how good this football team is except the guys in this locker room,” he said. “Today was a step toward showing the country how good this team can be. We have a damn good football team, a damn good football team that has to go out there every single week and be consistent and play this type of football.”

No. 5 Clemson (8-0) looms in one week (7:30 ET; NBC).

First Quarter14:53 — Notre Dame touchdown. Brandon Joseph 29-yard interception return. Blake Grupe PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Syracuse 0.11:11 — Syracuse touchdown. Oronde Gadsden 13-yard pass from Garrett Shrader. Andre Szmyt PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Syracuse 7. (7 plays, 53 yards, 3:34)

Second Quarter8:23 — Notre Dame touchdown. Logan Diggs 3-yard rush. Grupe PAT good. Notre Dame 14, Syracuse 7. (11 plays, 55 yards, 6:25)0:17 — Notre Dame touchdown. Jayden Thomas 3-yard pass from Drew Pyne. Grupe PAT good. Notre Dame 21, Syracuse 7. (6 plays, 61 yards, 1:01)

Third Quarter7:41 — Notre Dame field goal. Grupe 31 yards. Notre Dame 24, Syracuse 7. (6 plays, 22 yards, 2:54)4:57 — Syracuse field goal. Szmyt 54 yards. Notre Dame 24, Syracuse 10. (7 plays, 39 yards, 2:44)0:25 — Syracuse touchdown. Sean Tucker 4-yard rush. Szmyt PAT good. Notre Dame 24, Syracuse 17. (6 plays, 67 yards, 2:21)

Fourth Quarter9:11 — Notre Dame touchdown. Audric Estimé 11-yard rush. Grupe PAT good. Notre Dame 31, Syracuse 17. (7 plays, 54 yards, 3:43)
7:47 — Notre Dame touchdown. Estimé 2-yard rush. Grupe PAT good. Notre Dame 38, Syracuse 17. (1 play, 2 yards, 0:03)
5:44 — Syracuse touchdown. D’Marcus Adams 13-yard pass from Carlos Del Rio-Wilson. Szmyt PAT good. Notre Dame 38, Syracuse 24. (8 plays, 75 yards, 2:03)
1:58 — Notre Dame field goal. Grupe 20 yards. Notre Dame 41, Syracuse 24. (8 plays, 45 yards, 3:45)

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