Notre Dame Football Pre-Spring Opponent Preview: Syracuse
There were many low points at Notre Dame in the Charlie Weis era. The lowest of lows may have come on Senior Day in 2008 when a 2-8 Syracuse team with already fired coach Greg Robinson and quarterback Cameron Dantley (son of Notre Dame basketball great Adrian Dantley) rallied to stun the Irish, 24-23.
Weis never recovered and lost his job 12 months later (although an official visitor that day named Manti Te’o was impressed enough to sign with Notre Dame).
The Fighting Irish and Orange will tangle for the first time since that snowy November Saturday this season when Notre Dame travels east to MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. Notre Dame has played just once previously in the new home of the NFL’s Giants and Jets, a 35-17 debacle against Navy in 2010.
Syracuse is coming off a 7-6 season in Scott Shafer’s first year as head coach and the program’s first year in the ACC. The Orange are hoping to take another step forward in 2014 and improve on their tied for third-place finish in the ACC Atlantic Division but again face a difficult schedule.
The Orange began spring drills Tuesday with practices running through the team’s spring game on Apr. 12. Let’s look at where things stand in upstate New York heading into the start of practice.
Date: Sept. 27 (Time and TV TBD)
Site: MetLife Stadium (East Rutherford, N.J.)
Last Meeting: Syracuse 24, Notre Dame 23 (2008)
Last Meeting in New York City/New Jersey: Syracuse 14, Notre Dame 7 (1963)
Current Win Streak: Syracuse—1
Record: 7-6 (4-4 ACC)
Bowl: Texas Bowl (defeated Minnesota 21-17)
Leading Passer: Terrel Hunt (So.)—167-of-263, 1,638 yards, 10 TD, 8 INT
Leading Rusher: Jerome Smith (Jr.)—200 carries, 914 yards, 12 TD
Leading Receiver: Ashton Broyld (So.)—52 receptions, 452 yards, 0 TD
Stats That Matter
Yards Per Play: Syracuse—5.48 (78th nationally, 10th in ACC); Opponents—5.46 (55th nationally, ninth in ACC)
Turnover Margin: +2 (49th nationally, seventh in ACC)
Red-Zone Touchdown Percentage: Syracuse—63.04 percent (60th nationally, eighth in ACC); Opponents—62.50 percent (75th nationally, ninth in ACC)
Third-Down Conversions: Syracuse—38.57 percent (81st nationally, sixth in ACC); Opponents—33.51 percent (16th nationally, fifth in ACC)
Explosive Plays*: Syracuse—53 (80th nationally, 10th in ACC); Opponents—52 (36th nationally, fifth in ACC)
*Explosive plays are plays in which a team gains 20-plus yards
The Orange thought that they had found Ryan Nassib’s successor in Drew Allen when the Oklahoma transfer decided to play his final season at Syracuse. After two starts, both losses, Allen’s time as Syracuse’s quarterback was, for all intents and purposes over. Sophomore Terrel Hunt emerged to guide the Orange to seven wins in their final 11 games.
Hunt is a dual-threat quarterback with good size at 6’3” and 215 pounds. He overcame a rough stretch at midseason in which he went six games without a touchdown pass (while throwing seven interceptions) to end the season on a high note with consecutive wins over Boston College and Minnesota.
Completing just 61 percent of his passes, Hunt’s game still needs plenty of polish. Without having to compete for a job this spring, Hunt should be able to focus on taking the necessary steps to improve as a passer. His legs will always make him dangerous, but the Orange offense lacked enough balance last year to be able to compete with the upper echelon of the ACC.
The running back legacy of Syracuse goes back almost 60 years to the great Jim Brown. The Orange were hoping that Jerome Smith would be able to finish his career with statistics on par with many of those all-time greats, but Smith opted to enter the NFL draft with a year of eligibility remaining.
Smith’s decision leaves the Orange without its top two rushers from the running back position from 2013. Sophomores George Morris and Devante McFarlane both were surprise contributors as redshirt freshmen, combining for 127 carries and over 600 yards behind Smith and Prince-Tyson Gulley. The duo enters the spring battling for the No. 1 role in the fall.
With Hunt’s contributions in the running game, whoever emerges atop the depth chart is unlikely to match the 200 carries that Smith had a year ago. This unit will be down a notch or two without Smith and Tyson-Gulley, but the good news is that Morris and McFarlane aren’t completely green.
The Orange passing game was one of the Big East’s best in 2012 behind Nassib and a top-flight pair of receivers, Van Chew and Alec Lemon. All three left following the 2012 season, leaving offensive coordinator George McDonald with little to work with in the passing game when Scott Shafer hired him away from Miami (Fl.).
The quarterback switch last season turned Syracuse into more of a running team, but expect a greater emphasis on the passing game with Hunt in his second season and the loss of Smith and Tyson Gulley. Having six of their top seven pass-catchers returning also bodes well for the Orange’s aerial attack.
Rising junior Ashton Broyld led the team a year ago with 452 yards but did not catch a touchdown. Tight end Josh Parris is the lone player returning who had multiple touchdown receptions last year. Senior Jarrod West is the most explosive of the bunch, averaging more than 15 yards per catch last season.
Syracuse stayed remarkably healthy along the offensive line last season with all five starters starting every game. At least three of those five return this season with the status of a fourth up in the air.
Center Macky MacPherson is the lone loss, but it’s a big loss. MacPherson started every game over the past three years and was a second-team All-ACC performer last year. Right tackle Ivan Foy is currently not with the team in order to focus on academics. His status will be re-assessed in the summer.
Regardless of Foy’s situation, this unit appears to be in pretty good shape. The Orange allowed only 18 sacks a year ago and may only need to find one new starter. Junior Jason Emerich is the leading candidate to replace MacPherson, while junior college transfer Michael Lasker, a backup a year ago, is next in line if Foy does not return.
The Orange play a traditional 4-3 defense under coordinator Chuck Bullough, who Shafer hired from the NFL after he was promoted to succeed Doug Marrone. Bullough likes to bring plenty of pressure, which helped finish third in the ACC and in the top 20 nationally last year with 35 sacks.
The lone loss from the 2013 starting defensive line is third-team All-ACC tackle Jay Bromley, whose nine sacks led the team. The two bookends, Robert Welsh and Micah Robinson, are back for a final season along with 325-pound tackle Eric Crume.
The team added in Iowa transfer John Raymon last season, but Raymon was beaten out by Crume for the starting role alongside Bromley last season. In his lone start against Georgia Tech, Raymon tore his ACL. If healthy, he’ll play a larger role this season with Bromley and key reserve Zian Jones no longer around but won’t be a participant in the spring.
Another top-30 finish in rushing defense is a realistic but lofty goal for this unit.
The heart and soul of the Syracuse linebacking corps for the past few seasons is gone with the departure of four-year starting middle linebacker Marquis Spruill. The Orange added in junior college linebacker Luke Arciniega before last season to groom as Spruill’s successor. He’s out for the spring but will return in the fall.
Both outside starters return, easing the loss of Spruill. Dyshawn Davis was a freshman All-American in 2011 and has continued to grow. More than half of his career sacks came in that 2011 season, but he’s grown to a well-rounded linebacker despite being just 212 pounds.
Cameron Lynch returns at the other outside position. His 69 tackles were second most on the team and he also had two interceptions. If Arciniega gets back to full strength, this group could be more productive than last year despite losing a player likely to play in the NFL.
Playing Penn State, Florida State and Clemson didn’t help the statistical rankings, but overall, Syracuse wasn’t bad against the pass last year. Half of its starting secondary returns this fall, led by junior free safety Durell Eskridge. Eskridge’s four interceptions and 78 tackles led the team. Hip and finger injuries will sideline him this spring, but he should be 100 percent in August.
The other returning starter is cornerback Brandon Reddish. The senior took over for Keon Lyn at midseason after Lyn suffered a season-ending leg injury that prematurely ended his Orange career. Junior Wayne Morgan, who became the primary backup at cornerback after Lyn’s injury, takes over for two-year starter Ri’Shard Anderson on the opposite side.
The strong safety battle is between seniors Ritchy Desir and Darius Kelly. Desir was the backup to Jeremi Wilkes last season, but Kelly earned the starting role alongside Wilkes in the Texas Bowl when Eskridge was out.
Ross Krautman burst onto the scene as a true freshman in 2010, earning All-Big East and Freshman All-American honors after converting 18 of 19 field-goal attempts. He was never quite able to match his early success, hitting 15 of 23 kicks as a junior in 2012. After taking a medical redshirt last season, he returns for a fifth year, but he will have to hold off junior Ryan Norton.
Junior Riley Dixon had a solid first season as punter after surprisingly beating out Jonathan Fisher for the job. Dixon's 42.2 yards per punt average tied for sixth best in the ACC.
Syracuse’s punt return unit was ineffective last year, averaging less than eight yards per return last season with Desir the primary returner. It wasn’t much better in kickoff returns with Morris, McFarlane and Tyson Gulley sharing duties. The Orange led the ACC in covering kickoffs in 2013 season, allowing less than 17 yards per return.
Syracuse has gone to three bowl games in the past four years and started 5-2 in the season that it failed to earn a bid. Simple geography puts a ceiling on how far this program can go, but the past few seasons have been a far cry from where this team was in the 2000s.
The 2014 Orange need to find balance offensively. Hunt should be more comfortable in his second season under center, but the schedule is tricky. Syracuse has a five-week stretch at midseason where it faces Notre Dame, Louisville, Florida State and Clemson. A 3-0 start (Villanova, at Central Michigan, Maryland) is imperative for bowl hopes.
Although it’s technically a Syracuse home game, expect more blue and gold than orange in MetLife Stadium on September’s final Saturday. Combine that with a significant talent advantage and two weeks to prepare, and the Irish should atone for their no-show in the stadium against Navy four years ago.