If the journey to a college football playoff berth was an airplane in flight, then the Notre Dame Fighting Irish have now entered the airspace of the final destination. If the Fighting Irish can win these final two games, then they will land in the CFP.
To preview this week’s clash versus Syracuse in Yankee Stadium, we switched up the format. We invited a Syracuse alum and sports media professional, WBBM Newsradio anchor/reporter Dave Kerner, to an email conversation about Cuse football and how they match-up against the Irish in this one.
The conversation is below the game FYIs and a couple Irish keys.
#3 Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs #12 Syracuse Orange FYIs
Kickoff/TV/Location: Saturday November 17, 2:30 pm EST, NBC, Yankee Stadium
Spread: ND -10
Notre Dame Fighting Irish Keys:
A big reason why the Fighting Irish are undefeated this season, and double digit favorites against a top 15 team on a neutral site, is due to their ability to remain healthy.
“We’re going to start 11 of our same players who started against Michigan on defense, and so that’s the ability to keep our guys fresh and recovered and injury-free,” said head coach Brian Kelly.
“If you look at both sides of the ball, and you’re really talking about just the loss of Alex Bars, you’ve almost got 21 out of 22 starters playing in November for you. People can say that’s luck. We would say that’s a design in terms of what we’re trying to accomplish of keeping these guys fresh and healthy so they can be playing on Saturdays.”
The only real injuries to hit the Irish this year are senior co-captain and OG Alex Bars and DB Shaun Crawford. LB Drue Tranquill has played through some pain, and QB Ian Book will be back for this one after missing the rout over Florida State.
No matter who you are, and how well you recruit, if the injury bug bites hard, your odds of success are very long. Conversely, when you’re this healthy this late in the season, your prospects are looking good.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish Player to Watch: RB Dexter Williams
The Irish really kicked it into another gear this season when Book took over the quarterback position and Williams became RB1. Part of the reason Williams (113 carries for 770 yards) has been so successful is because he “doesn’t have many miles on him,” as Kelly put it after the FSU win.
“He doesn’t have a lot of miles on him, and I think that that helps as we go through later in the year,” said Kelly.
“Hasn’t played a lot. Backs that have a lot of carries that are banged up, especially here in the month of November, they have a tendency to wear down a little bit. He’s got fresh legs and he’s still learning.”
Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs Syracuse Orange Q&A with Dave Kerner (@DaveKerner)
Banks: I loved the Dino Babers hire when it was made. And so far he’s been as good as advertised in turning around the program. What’s been the key here in year three of his rebuild?
Kerner: I think without question it is Dino Babers installing the offense the way he wants it. Yes, he has needed to get some players to make this happen, but it’s been more a case of getting the players on hand to buy in. When he says ‘Orange is the new fast’, he means it.
In just his third season as head coach, he already has as many wins as in the first two, combined.
Eric Dungey is pretty good at directing the offense, and his running dimension has allowed them to keep drives going when they looked shutdown. And when Dungey can run, other things open up.
Babers promised the offense would be faster and more diverse when he showed up, and so far, he is delivering. The current offense has the versatility in Dungey, a get-up-to-speed quickly running back in Moe Neal, and a big play receiver in Jamal Custis.
It is still a challenge keeping Dungey upright..concussion issues are there.
So far for this season, so good, but one solid hit could end his 2018 senior year.
How do you think the pace of this one will go?
Kerner: Syracuse will try and dictate the pace of the game, but won’t be able to because of Notre Dame’s superior talent. I think the Irish offense will look to attack the Orange defensive deficiencies, and that will mean Babers will have to decide how to play it on the offensive side of the ball. Early in the game, at least, I expect Syracuse to try and run a fast pace, not allow the Irish substitutions, try to get an early lead.
That’s all and good, but with his defense, if they have to be out on the field longer because your offense is scoring quickly, that will be a problem for the Orange. Notre Dame is very good at picking apart your weaknesses.
They could do it with Ian Book’s movement in the pocket and passing, or with Brandon Wimbush’s running.
I’m not sure how prepared Syracuse’s defense will be for any of it. They gave Clemson more than a game on the road earlier this season, but the Tigers were able to wear that defense down with their running game by the fourth quarter. Notre Dame, potentially, could do the same.
On the Yankee Stadium dimensions:
This will be very interesting. I don’t think it will bother Syracuse. While this is considered a Notre Dame home game (Shamrock series), Syracuse’s alumni base in New York City is bigger than anywhere else in the world.
I would expect they will bring at least some support to the party. I don’t see it having an impact on the game, unless there is some kind of kicking background that is just so unusual that it could produce different results. Babers actually called this a neutral site.
My guess is he won’t feel that way once the game gets going.
Players to watch on offense for SU:
Dungey, for sure. But Babers is not hesitant to go to redshirt freshman Tommy DeVito, clearly more of a passer. When the Orange were struggling against then one-win North Carolina at home earlier this season, Babers turned to DeVito to jump start the offense, and it worked.
And Dungey, the class guy that he has been, didn’t blink an eye about it.So, like Book coming in for Wimbush earlier this season, Babers can do the same, if he needs to, with DeVito for Dungey.
Also on offense, Custis at wide out. Has great length, and can get jump balls, and is considered their big play receiver. Can be invisible for a while, then almost surprise you with several great plays in a short period of time. No doubt the Irish will pay close attention to him.
Players to watch on defense for SU:
Back in pre-season, there were huge concerns over the depth and the play of the defensive line. The exception was DE Alton Robinson , who leads the team with nine sacks.
SU took a chance on him after some personal troubles in his home town of San Antonio sent him from prospect at Texas A and M (under Kevin Sumlin) to junior college in Oklahoma, to upstate New York, A huge change for him, but he has thrived on it. Senior Kielan Whitner is another one to watch.
He can play linebacker, corner or safety, but will likely spend time at outside linebacker.
What’s your take on this reporter Q&A with Kelly from Saturday night.
Q. What areas of improvement do you guys see that you need going forward into playing the Syracuse game?
BRIAN KELLY: You know, certainly from a defense standpoint some execution things we want to do in our nickel. We were in a lot of the nickel today. Going to see that again next week obviously with Syracuse. So it gives us a good opportunity to really evaluate our subpersonnel groupings and look at our subpersonnel groupings and really kind of hone in on some of those things.
Kerner: Notre Dame will be in nickel a lot. If Syracuse runs the ball more than 20 times on Saturday, it will be a big surprise. Interesting Syracuse’s football pedigree has always been running backs: Jim Brown, Ernie Davis, Floyd Little, Larry Csonka, Joe Morris.
For the time being, not now. And if Babers sticks around a few more seasons, those days may not come back for a long time.
Which alumni base, Cuse or Northwestern, do you think is more obnoxious with the “I’M A NATIONAL SPORTS MEDIA FIGURE AND I WENT TO THIS SCHOOL! LOOK AT HOW MANY OF US FROM THIS SCHOOL ARE IN THE MEDIA”?
Imagine what would happen if they were paired up in a bowl?
Kerner: I think we Orange have been louder about it, because ESPN has hired more than a few Newhouse grads (SU’s Medill), and they like to let you know about it.
Personally, I’m an ’80 grad from student station WAER that had Marv Albert and Bob Costas before I got there.
I was sports director my senior year that included blanket coverage of the Lake Placid Winter Olympics (just a couple of hours away), and I was lucky enough to see the Miracle On Ice. It was heady stuff back in the day. Bowl game name if it’s the Cats and the Orange? How about the Media Bowl? Where to play it? Couldn’t tell ya!!
In New York, the media capital of the world, for sure.
Prediction: #3 Notre Dame Fighting Irish 31, #12 Syracuse Orange 27
Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank.net, which is partnered with News Now. Banks, a former writer for NBC Chicago.com and Chicago Tribune.com, regularly appears as a guest pundit on WGN CLTV and co-hosts the “Let’s Get Weird, Sports” podcast on SB Nation.