Blue, Gold, Green & Orangeposted by John Vannie
The Orange have struggled again this season, and coach Greg Robinson has been notified of his dismissal after four seasons at the helm. Syracuse stands at 2-7 with home victories over Louisville and Northeastern. Whereas teams that announce midseason coaching changes often struggle to finish the year on a positive note, Robinson is well respected by his players and he expects them to compete against Notre Dame. "It's the way they are," Robinson said. "It isn't so much me as it is them. They will play. There's no question in my mind."
One interesting story line is that Syracuse quarterback Cameron Dantley is the son of Irish basketball great and Hall of Famer Adrian Dantley. Speaking about his father, Cameron said, “He still talks about Notre Dame to this day. He watches Notre Dame. He gets along with a lot of his teammates that he had at Notre Dame as well. He loves the place. He had a great time when he was there and it was a big part of his life. He always has stories to tell about Notre Dame and what they're doing now."
The Irish are heavy favorites to win the game, although injuries have taken a toll on the team in recent weeks. Two key starters, wide receiver Michael Floyd and linebacker Brian Smith, were hurt against Navy and will miss the final two regular season contests. Notre Dame may have an opportunity to play in the Gator Bowl with a win this week, and participating in such a prestigious game would be a positive development in an otherwise up and down season.
Notre Dame Offense vs. Syracuse Defense
Robinson’s specialty is defense, so one can expect an aggressive game plan by the Orange against an Irish offense that has become stale of late. Jimmy Clausen has succumbed to pressure recently by throwing six interceptions in his last two games. The Syracuse pass rush is led by tackles Andre Jones and Nick Santiago. Notre Dame has shown some vulnerability to strong inside defenders, so this matchup will be interesting to watch.
The absence of Floyd will put pressure on David Grimes and Duval Kumara to pick up the slack. Tight end Kyle Rudolph has had limited success after a hot start, while Clausen has thrown more passes to Armando Allen out of the backfield. Teams are trying to take away the deep threat and have been successful to a large extent. As a result, Notre Dame’s point production has fallen a bit.
There is no reason why the Irish cannot continue to enjoy success in the running game. Syracuse has yielded more than 200 rushing yards per game and 5.2 yards per carry, which places it at 107th in the country in this category. The defense has been considerably less effective in the second and fourth quarters, indicating a lack of depth that can be exploited.
The linebackers for the Orange are athletic but not very big. Senior Jake Flaherty is flanked by sophomores Mike Mele and Derrell Smith. Free safety Bruce Williams leads the secondary with help from cornerback Mike Holmes, but the group has struggled as evidenced by its #72 national ranking against the pass. By comparison, Notre Dame’s pass defense ranks 22nd nationally.
Syracuse’s Offense vs. Notre Dame’s Defense
Dantley has experienced some difficulty in the second half of this season and is now sharing the signal calling responsibilities with Andrew Robinson. At this point, Coach Robinson has not revealed his starter against Notre Dame, but it may not matter. Last week against UConn, the pair completed only six of 23 passes for 51 yards and threw three interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown. Syracuse quarterbacks had thrown nine touchdown passes and three interceptions in the first seven games of the season. Since then they are 11-for-42 for 86 yards and no TDs with three interceptions.
The Orange does have a legitimate running threat in tailback Curtis Brinkley. The senior continues the tradition of outstanding backs at Syracuse and has 992 yards on the season. He is the player the Irish must stop in order to force the Orange into passing situations where turnovers will be waiting to happen.
Leading the way for Brinkley are right guard Ryan Durand and right tackle Corey Chavers. The 152 yards per game on the ground despite trailing in most games is a testament to their ability and the need to get the ball in Brinkley’s hands. Truthfully, the Orange do not have many other weapons.
The top receiver is Donte Davis with 27 catches, while tight end Mike Owen is second in receptions at 17. Syracuse barely completes 50% of its passes and does not have any long plays to its credit. Despite the loss of Brian Smith, Notre Dame should be able to play aggressively against the run and still be able to effectively defend the pass.
Both the punter and place kicker for Syracuse are highly regarded players. Patrick Shadle has converted 12 of 14 field goal attempts, including a 53-yarder. Rob Long is the punter with an impressive 46 yard average. The return and coverage teams are decidedly mediocre, but Holmes has returned a kickoff for a touchdown this season.
Notre Dame continues to have special teams issues, the last episode coming against Navy where two onside kick attempts by the Midshipmen were botched by the Irish “hands” team. Punter Eric Maust has been inconsistent in the past few weeks, suffering one blocked punt and a few shanks. The brightest spot in this area for Notre Dame may be the improvement of kicker Brandon Walker, who is now a fan favorite after hearing boos earlier in the season.
Syracuse is not a very dynamic football team, and no one knows how they will perform on Saturday as Robinson’s firing begins to sink in. The opportunity to play at Notre Dame is bound to fire up the team initially, but they do not have the aerial game or quality of personnel to compete with an improving Irish defense for 60 minutes. Brinkley will hit the 1,000 yard mark for the season but that may be the only highlight for the Orange.
Notre Dame should not have to throw the ball more than 15-20 times, and these should be high percentage passes as was the case last week. The traditional Senior Day and possible donning of the green jerseys should help the Irish get going and try to put any Syracuse hopes to rest early. The game should present another opportunity for Coach Charlie Weis to clear the bench, provided he has properly addressed the threat of an onside kick this week in practice.
Here are a few questions that will help decide the outcome this week:
Will Notre Dame be able to shut down Brinkley and force the Orange to throw the ball?
Can the interior of the Irish offensive line keep Jones and Santiago in check?
Will Irish rushers reach the Syracuse average surrender point of 200 yards on the ground?
Can Jimmy Clausen reestablish a downfield passing threat without Floyd?
Will David Bruton record an interception in his final ND appearance?
Will the Irish finish the game properly once they take the lead?
Despite injuries and questions regarding the future of Weis at Notre Dame, the Irish should not be challenged after the first 20 minutes in this contest. The only suspense should be how well the team retains its focus and how soon the second teamers can take over without risk to the overall outcome. Oh yes, and whether or not the team will come out of the tunnel wearing green.
Notre Dame 34 Syracuse 13