Analysis: Brandon Joseph gets back to what comes naturally in Notre Dame win at Syracuse

Mike Berardino
South Bend Tribune

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Seven seconds.

That’s all Brandon Joseph, the transfer safety from Northwestern, needed Saturday to put Notre Dame on the board with his first interception in a gold helmet.

Plenty else happened in this 41-24 win over No. 16 Syracuse at the raucous JMA Wireless Dome, including a leaping fourth-quarter pick for Joseph that was wiped out by an offsides penalty, but nothing was more significant moving forward than the jaw-dropping moment Joseph provided on the game’s first play from scrimmage.

Seven games plus those seven seconds. That’s how long Joseph been waiting for that 29-yard return to open the scoring; that’s how long he had been waiting to back up the wildly confident comments he made in early August on the eve of training camp.

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“Picking the ball off is just what I do,” he told NDInsider.com then, “and it’s what really comes natural to me.”

Nine interceptions in his final 19 games for the Wildcats gave Joseph a reputation. His former teammates and coaches would joke about the “golden horseshoe” he must have been carrying around in his game pants.

Then it went missing. Joseph had just one pass breakup all year, and the self-described “ballhawk” had to wonder if his luck had run out.

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Saturday, Joseph relocated his misplaced horseshoe, not to mention his mojo. All he needed was a little help from Syracuse quarterback Garrett Shrader, who had thrown just 13 interceptions in a career that started back in 2019 at Mississippi State.

“I dropped down in the zone,” Joseph said. “The quarterback was staring at me. Threw it right to me, and I took it. I mean, that’s pretty much that.”

Oct 29, 2022; Syracuse, New York, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish safety Brandon Joseph (16) returns an interception for a touchdown against the Syracuse Orange in the first quarter at JMA Wireless Dome. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Unspoken behind the sly smile was the rest of the explanation, the one he offered back in early August during a three-hour visit to Unity Gardens back in South Bend.

The subject was baiting.

“Oh, I bait,” he said then. “That’s when I get to play with the quarterback: ‘I’m looking at you. I know.’ My mindset is: ‘I know more than the quarterback. I know exactly what the quarterback wants to do.’ ”

After digging deep into the film of Syracuse’s last game, conveniently matching the Orange against the next team Notre Dame will face (No. 5 Clemson), Joseph was ready to pounce. When field-stretching tight end Oronde Gadsden Jr., all 6-foot-5 of him, ran a sloppy slant route, Joseph took full advantage.

Three weeks earlier, when TaRiq Bracy opened the win over No. 16 BYU with a room-service pick, that first-play thunderbolt had been somewhat squandered. Notre Dame’s offense sputtered at the 8-yard-line and settled for a field goal.

Joseph didn’t let that happen again. He raced for the end zone and made a beeline for his parents, Gina and Jerome, in the first row of the Irish family section.

Reaching past the railing above the entrance to the visitors’ tunnel, Joseph carefully handed his father the football from his first-ever pick-six — at any level.

A three-star recruit at College Station (Texas) High School, Joseph reached the end zone plenty as a quarterback-turned-receiver, not to mention as a kick and punt returner, but he’d never made it there after an interception.

“I didn’t even have one in high school,” Joseph said. “That’s the first of my career. That’s why you (saw) me point, go straight over to my mom. We’ve been talking about this since Day One. For it to be my first pick-six and to be able to go celebrate with them was huge.”

Limited to just 10 defensive snaps in last week’s comfortable win over UNLV, Joseph was able to shake off a lower-leg contusion and get in a full week of practice. He was a different player Saturday, around the ball far more than Irish fans had seen at any point since he arrived.

Oct 29, 2022; Syracuse, New York, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish safety Brandon Joseph (16) lifts Syracuse Orange running back Sean Tucker (34) to make a tackle in the fourth quarter at JMA Wireless Dome. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Joseph even had a two-point wrestling takedown of Sean Tucker, the 210-pound bowling ball of a running back for the Orange. Joseph retweeted a photo of that stop of No. 34 and added a caption dripping with snark: “Today we defeated Syracuse and I am #PL34SED with my performance.”

The interception Joseph liked even more, however, was the diving grab linebacker Marist Liufau made early in the fourth quarter. It came near midfield after the Orange, behind the strong arm of their other transfer quarterback (Florida transfer Carlos Del Rio-Wilson), had pulled within 24-17.

Defensive tackle Howard Cross III got his left paw on the pass, the first such deflection of the year for the Irish.

“Huge moment of the game,” Joseph said. “At that point of the game, for (Liufau) to get that pick and for us to get the momentum back and get the ball back to the offense , it was huge. Absolutely the turning point of that game.”

Notre Dame linebacker Marist Liufau, left, intercepts a tipped pass from Syracuse quarterback Carlos Del Rio-Wilson during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Syracuse, N.Y., Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)

Saturday felt like a turning point for Joseph’s season as well. With mighty Clemson up next, more takeaways would be helpful.

“We want that emphasis on turnovers,” Joseph said. “It’s something we’ve expected since Game One of the season. For them to start falling now with the games that we have up next and everything that we have coming, it’s a great confidence booster for our defense.”

Just like that, the swagger is back. Along with the horseshoe.

Follow Notre Dame football writer Mike Berardino on Twitter @MikeBerardino.