Notre Dame's re-energized defense holds off Syracuse

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — They embraced a relative stranger well past the point of polite deference.

The Notre Dame defensive players, bullied on the field and bashed off it for the first four weeks of the season, single-mindedly pushed for new defensive coordinator Greg Hudson to sing the Fight Song in the jubilant postgame aftermath of Saturday’s 50-33 subduing of Syracuse at MetLife Stadium.

“He brought an energy to the team, a new type of leadership,” Notre Dame middle linebacker Nyles Morgan offered. “And guys really bought into how he coaches and what he coaches.”

The 49-year-old Notre Dame grad, elevated to exiled Brian VanGorder’s old role on Sunday from his behind-the-scenes analyst position, at the very least knew the words to the Irish athletic anthem without prompting.

But the question that lingered and mixed with the euphoria, that maybe Notre Dame (2-3) had found a tourniquet for a lost season after all, was all about sustainability. In other words, are the back-slapping, high-fiving, gyrating substitute teacher and the new defensive-minded head coach Brian Kelly more than one-hit wonders?

Not that Saturday was a complete smash.

But after yielding 13 points to Syracuse (2-3) in the first five minutes of the game while scoring 23 themselves, the Irish settled in with the new pass coverage techniques they learned in a crash course this week, rolled in freshmen and seldom-used players constantly on defense and had the nation’s No. 25 offense sputtering almost the entire second half.

The Irish outgained the more vaunted unit of first-year Syracuse coach Dino Babers, 654-481 for the game. The Orange garnered 281 of those yards in the first quarter and averaged 9.7 yards per play. Over the last three quarters combined, Syracuse labored for 208 yards and 3.5 per play.

Had Notre Dame not committed a defensive holding penalty on what would have been a failed fake punt without it, it’s likely Syracuse wouldn’t have scored in the second half at all.

“It’s crazy,” said Irish junior safety Drue Tranquill, who recorded a career-high 13 tackles. “The first play of the game I look around, and there’s three freshmen in the secondary. It speaks to our youth and it speaks to our passion. We’ve got a lot of young guys and we’re only going to get better.”

The offense carried things until the defense got settled and complemented it thereafter. Junior QB DeShone Kizer hit Equanimeous St. Brown with a 79-yard TD pass on the game’s first offensive play on his way to 471 passing yards, third-best in Irish history.

He completed 23-of-35 with three touchdowns and one interception. And his 20.48 average per completion just missed the NCAA record (minimum 22 attempts) BYU’s John Walsh set 23 seasons ago (22.9).

He also ran for a TD, his sixth of the season after setting the school record for rushing TDs by a QB in a single season with 10.

“Much better in the second half,” Kelly said of Kizer. “He tried to do too much. He took us out of field goal range. He has a tendency to want to do too much. He puts too much pressure on himself.

“What I liked about him in the second half was he took the easy completions, made the smart decisions. He needs to continue to do that.”

Kizer spread the wealth to 10 different receivers, with sophomore Equanimeous St. Brown hauling in four receptions for a game-high 182 yards and two touchdowns.

Sophomore Josh Adams cracked the 100-yard mark in rushing (102 on 20 carries), and classmate Dexter Williams, with the highest-leverage carries of his career, added 80 yards on eight carries, including a spectacular 59-yard run in which Williams reversed field on what looked like a certain lost-yardage play.

The Irish had big special teams guffaws, including allowing two long punt returns, but sprinkled in just enough special teams magic (a 93-yard kickoff return for TD by C.J. Sanders, a defensive two-point conversion on a blocked PAT, Jarron Jones’ sixth block kick of his career) to offset it.

The way teams traded scoring early, it looked like the school-record 142 points the Irish scored in 1905 against American Medical might not be safe.

It didn’t help that Kelly lost starting free safety Devin Studstill to a targeting call — made by the replay official, not the crew on the field — with 1:10 left in the first quarter.

“I don’t know what that was,” Kelly said. “It was definitely not targeting somebody, but I don’t understand the rule. I just don’t understand it.”

The longest scoring drive until the fourth quarter went 3:11, that is until the fast-breaking Orange took an uncharacteristic 4:22 midway through the fourth quarter to score their only second half TD.

“Not an easy week to prepare. Staff did a great job of preparing for a very difficult offense,” Kelly said. “It’s probably not the matchup you want when you’re making a change defensively. This offense is difficult to prepare for.

“They’re very similar to an option team in terms of trying to get acclimated to them.”

Kelly, though, was able to reach into his own past, though, specifically his catalog from his days at Cincinnati when he ran the break-neck tempo he gradually abandoned at Notre Dame.

“Being on offense and knowing what they wanted to do out of those looks definitely gave us an advantage of seeing things before they happen.

“They go really fast, but we really didn’t have a problem getting lined up. I was pretty happy that our kids were in good position. We weren’t running around like a fire drill out there. We probably didn’t get a couple of calls here and there, but by and large, I was very pleased.”

For a man whose 1-3 start, his offseason doubling-down and then purging of VanGorder, and his postgame candor following last Saturday’s loss to Duke turned this week into a referendum, there was even a little vindication.

The task now is to build upon it.

“We’ve got a lot of depth,” Kelly said. “We’ve got a lot of really good players that deserve to get on the field, and that’s the kind of defense this is going to be. There are going to be a lot of players playing in this defense

“There’s a lot to do, but I thought it was a good start.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Greg Hudson celebrates a stop by the defense during the Notre Dame-Syracuse NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 1, 2016, at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN