NEW YORK — There was very little drama at Yankee Stadium on Saturday afternoon. Maybe that wasn’t expected given the high stakes involved for two top-15 teams going head-to-head. But it was just fine for Notre Dame.
The Fighting Irish cruised to a 36–3 win over No. 12 Syracuse and now are one win away from posting an undefeated regular season and clinching a spot in the College Football Playoff. Notre Dame nearly pitched a shutout, but the Orange knocked down a field goal in the final 10 seconds. Syracuse, which is in the midst of its greatest season in the Dino Babers era, is likely no longer in the running for a New Year’s Six bowl game with the loss.
Syracuse represented the best offense Notre Dame defended yet this season. The Orange were rolling with the nation’s sixth-best scoring offense, averaging 44.4 points and 482.2 yards per game, and seldom turn the ball over with a plus-13 margin. Saturday, Notre Dame’s stingy defense held the Orange completely in check: three points off a field goal in the final seconds, 234 total yards (season-low) and three turnovers. The Irish unit, led by first-year coordinator Clark Lea, has built character over the course of the season, especially in November. Over the last four weeks, it has played against Navy’s triple option (in the last week of October) on the West Coast, faced a physical Northwestern offense on the road, a prolific Florida State passing attack back at home and then Syracuse’s spread on the East Coast. The most points the Irish have allowed through this gauntlet of various schemes was 22 to the Midshipmen.
“I could tell you this, I really liked our plan going in. I liked the structure of it, I liked what we were going during the week, I liked the focus of our defense, they really trusted what we were doing,” Brian Kelly said. “If we were going to play with discipline—and we did—I thought we were going to have great success.”
Syracuse did lose veteran quarterback Eric Dungey to an undisclosed injury in the first quarter, but he went three-and-out on his first series and threw an interception—just his sixth of the season—on the first play of his second possession. It was that pick by Irish safety Jalen Elliott, who now has a team-high four this season, that allowed Notre Dame to dictate the pace the rest of the afternoon.
Alohi Gilman kept momentum going by intercepting backup quarterback Tommy DeVito twice in the second quarter. Interception No. 2 was essentially the epitome of what Notre Dame has become and why it's different this November than in past years: Gilman broke up DeVito’s pass, made the interception, returned it 51 yards; on the next play, Jafar Armstrong took a handoff from Ian Book and ran the ball in for a 9-yard touchdown and a 20–0 lead.
The Orange continued to crumble after that. In the third quarter, they ran nine plays for minus-8 yards. In the fourth quarter, with 8:20 left to play, Babers opted to kick a 23-yard field goal on fourth-and-4 and Andre Szmyt, one of the most accurate kickers in college football, hit the goal post. Notre Dame eliminated the passing game, holding Dungey and DeVito to 15 of 35 for 115 yards with three interceptions, and the two couldn’t evade pressure as the Irish tacked on six sacks. The Orange running game frustrated the Irish in the first quarter, but was ultimately held to 119 yards, Syracuse’s third-lowest total of the year.
In the aftermath, Babers likened Notre Dame’s defense to Clemson, a unit that held his offense in check in September for what was then a season-low 23 points and 311 yards.
“They turned the game from chess to checkers,” Babers said. “There were numerous passing combinations when we called and looked out and everybody was covered. And if there’s coverage, then there’s nobody for the quarterback to throw the ball to.
“If Eric is in the game, he’s going to create with his legs. Tommy, he does it a different way and there were a lot of throws he’s just throwing the ball away. He’s not being inaccurate, he’s looking, he’s looking and nobody he’s open. The rush is getting close, he’s putting the ball out of bounds and saving the down and distance so we can have another opportunity on the next down.”
Heading into this game, Syracuse was one of the top teams in making those big plays. They’d reeled off 27 plays of 30 yards or more already, 17 of which were 40-plus yards, both of which had them ranked in the top 10 nationally. Notre Dame only allowed one play of more than 20 yards Saturday, a 34-yard catch by Taj Harris on the Orange's final drive of the game.
“At the end of the day, it comes down to you versus the man across from you and we won a lot of those battles and that’s why we got the win,” said cornerback Julian Love, who posted five tackles, two for loss. “I looked up at one point and saw they had like 30 passing yards and that’s just us being dominant, making them try to throw it out on those quick throws and just eliminating big plays. We did our job.”
Over the last five seasons, since Notre Dame last competed for a national championship, the program was 9–12 in November. Now, the Irish are one win away from making such an unsatisfactory statistic insignificant.
“You are who you are this late in the year,” Kelly said.
Notre Dame might be a playoff team.