Notre Dame defense squeezes Syracuse with dominating performance

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

NEW YORK

The crowd in Yankee Stadium wanted a shutout.

So when Syracuse head coach Dino Babers sent field goal kicker Andre Szmyt onto the field Saturday for a 28-yard field goal attempt, trailing 36-0 with 15 seconds left, the stadium filled with boos.

The typically accurate Szmyt had already clanked a 23-yard field goal off the left upright in the fourth quarter. Szmyt, who was greeted with boos before that kick too, had made all 20 of his previous attempts this season from inside 40 yards.

This time, Szmyt’s kick sailed just inside the right upright. It was all the 12th-ranked Orange could squeeze out of Notre Dame’s defense in a 36-3 Irish victory.

“It was a good kick by the kicker,” Notre Dame cornerback Julian Love said when asked about Syracuse’s decision to kick the late field goal. With a smile on his face, he knew he shouldn’t complain about losing the shutout.

“He made it. It is what it is,” Love said. “But that’s a great statement win for us.”

Those three points couldn’t cover up the dominant performance of No. 3 Notre Dame’s defense. The margin of victory was so large, Syracuse head coach Dino Babers wasn’t certain of the exact number after the game.

“That was a doggone good football team,” Babers said. “Is there a 33-point (margin)? I can’t even remember the score, it was so dominating.”

The Irish (11-0) held a team averaging 44.4 points per game, sixth-best in the FBS, to that lone field goal. It took the Orange 73 plays to hit 234 yards on offense, 248 yards less than its season average. Through three quarters, Syracuse (8-3) only accumulated 122 yards.

The Syracuse offense certainly took a hit when quarterback Eric Dungey left the game in the first quarter with an upper-body injury. Redshirt freshman Tommy DeVito took over and struggled to throw the ball. He finished 14-of-31 passing for 105 yards with two interceptions.

Dungey wasn’t exactly lighting it up before his exit. He completed just one of his four passes for 10 yards with one interception.

Love said he saw this coming.

“I told (cornerbacks) coach (Todd) Lyght earlier this week that I just had this feeling that we were going to dominate them,” Love said. “Yeah, they’re a good team. They had 44 points a game. They’re ranked. But I just knew — it’s dominating.”

His head coach had confidence in the game plan, too.

“As a coach, you go into the game thinking, if we do these things right, we’re going to play really well,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I don’t know that we ever pinned a shutout on a performance against a team that’s putting up 44 points, but I felt really good in the preparation and the plan. And I felt, if we were disciplined, which we were, we would do well.”

Safety Jalen Elliott started the strong secondary play with an interception of Dungey on Syracuse’s second drive. Fellow safety Alohi Gilman added a pair of interceptions in the second quarter. The Irish front seven helped out by sacking Syracuse six times.

Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book did a better job of protecting the ball than the Orange quarterbacks. In his return from a one-game absence due to a rib injury, Book finished 23-of-37 passing (62.2 percent) for 292 yards and two touchdowns with one interception.

Book started the Irish scoring with a nine-yard touchdown pass to running back Dexter Williams, who powered through two defenders to reach the ball over the goal line. Book threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Chase Claypool, who caught six passes for 98 yards, in the third quarter to extend the lead to 29-0.

Kicker Justin Yoon missed the extra point following Claypool’s touchdown catch, but he added three field goals in the game to tie Kyle Brindza for the Notre Dame career record for field goals made at 57.

Book’s interception came on a careless throw into the end zone on fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard line. He tried to get the ball to tight end Nic Weishar, but Book stumbled in his dropback, and safety Andre Cisco made the easy pick.

“Ian played pretty good,” Kelly said. “I think the week off definitely showed a little bit of rust, but he got out of it clean. Feels good after the game, and he’ll be able to build off it.”

Notre Dame’s running game couldn’t find consistent success. Williams pushed his total to 74 rushing yards on his 13th and final carry — a 32-yard touchdown run with 4:15 left in the game.

Quarterback Brandon Wimbush, who saw most of his action at the end of the blowout win, was second on the team with 44 yards. Running back Jafar Amstrong pitched in with a nine-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.

Two of Syracuse’s losses have come against two of the top three teams in the country: Notre Dame and No. 2 Clemson. Babers didn’t want to compare the two teams much, but he left impressed with the Irish.

“Notre Dame is better than what people think they are,” Babers said. “That’s a really, really good football team, and my hat goes off to coach Kelly and Clark Lea, the defensive coordinator. That was a fabulous defense he put up against us, and they played extremely well.”

A win at USC (5-6) next Saturday night is all that separates Notre Dame from a likely College Football Playoff berth. Yet even in the days leading up to the Syracuse game, national pundits questioned the talent level of the Irish. Will a lopsided victory against Syracuse change that?

“I really can’t give you an answer for that,” said ND center Sam Mustipher. “Honestly, we don’t really care what people outside of our unit think about it. This team is gelling at the right time. We’re a family both on and off the field.

“I know everybody says that, but I truly do love these guys. All our hard work is coming to fruition now. We’re just staying in house with everything we believe in ourselves.”

But only allowing Syracuse to score three points? That has to count for something.

“I’ll let the score speak for itself, but I mean we’re a tough team,” Love said. “Every week someone’s going to doubt us. Somebody is going to act like we’re not where we are. That’s when we just be quiet and let our work speak for itself.”

Notre Dame’s Nick Coleman (24) breaks up a pass to Syracuse’s Nykeim Johnson (82) during the Notre Dame-Syracuse NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018, at Yankee Stadium in New York City.