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Notre Dame Football

Notebook: Good & Ugly Trends From Win Over No. 16 Syracuse

October 30, 2022

Notre Dame’s up-and-down 2022 campaign hit a season high on Saturday with a 41-24 win at No. 16 Syracuse (6-2). The Irish improve to 5-3 and host No. 5 Clemson next weekend. 

The Irish are trending in the right direction in a few key aspects of the game, including its rush attack and special teams. 

On a negative note, the Irish now have the worst red zone defense in the country.

Post-Marshall Rush Offense 

Against Syracuse, Notre Dame exceeded 220 yards on the ground for the fourth time in the last five games. 

Yet seven weeks ago, it would have felt impossible for the Irish to produce so many dominant performances on the ground. 

The run game held the offense back in season-opening losses to Oho State and Marshall. At the time, Notre Dame ranked 117th of 131 FBS teams in scoring offense (15.5 points per game) and total offense (302 yards per game).

Coach Marcus Freeman knew that establishing a reliable had to be priority No. 1 heading into week three against California, especially given quarterback Tyler Buchner’s season-ending injury.

"It's been the plan since Cal to try to establish the run game,” Freeman said. “We have to. We've got to. That's our identity right now.”

Against the Golden Bears, the Irish offensive line struggled initially and the team ran for 1 yard on 4 carries in the first quarter. Notre Dame found its rhythm in the second half and still ran for 146 yards against Cal’s top-30 rush defense.

In the five games since, Notre Dame is 4-1 and averages 230 rush yards per game, which would give the Irish a top-10 rush attack among non-triple option offenses. This has provided a jolt to the Irish offense as a whole, which has averaged 34.4 points and 434.6 yards per game during that span.

Of course, the offensive line often gets a boost in the run game from Notre Dame’s reliance on 12 and 13 personnel.

“Everybody's on board with that identity to win,” Freeman said. “If that gives us our best chance to move the ball, running the ball, and at times being able to throw it out of 13 personnel, that's what this team is on board with is whatever it takes to win. That's why you love coaching these guys. They're unselfish and willing to do whatever it takes.”

Irish No. 1 in Blocked Punts

In the fourth quarter, defensive back Clarence Lewis blocked a punt at the Syracuse 26-yard line. The Irish recovered at the goal line and scored one play later to go up 38-17.

“It's amazing what our special teams unit is doing, especially that punt block unit,” Freeman said.

It was the third punt Notre Dame blocked in the last two games. Defensive end Isaiah Foskey blocked two punts against UNLV.

The Irish are now tied with Central Michigan and South Carolina for No. 1 in blocked punts/kicks with five. They blocked just one punt/kick in 2021.

What impressed Freeman the most is that Notre Dame continues to block punts despite opponents preparing for it.

"It's very similar to how you try to run the ball when they know you're going to try to run the ball,” he said. “You can't do the exact same thing, but you got to spend time trying to attack the deficiencies of the opponent.”

At the same time, he’s aware that opponents could use Notre Dame’s aggressiveness against them and attempt a fake punt. 

“I tell them, 'How do you prevent a fake? Everybody does exactly what they're supposed to do,' Freeman said. “But it's really kudos off to coach [Brian] Mason and that punt block unit. They're hungry for it.”

Defensive Struggles Continue in Red Zone

The Irish continue to struggle in the red zone on defense. 

Syracuse entered Saturday’s contest having scored a touchdown on 63.3 percent of its red zone opportunities, which ranked 64th in the FBS. 

Against Notre Dame, the Orange scored a touchdown on all three of its red zone opportunities. 

The Fighting Irish defense has now given up a touchdown on 17 of 20 red zone opportunities. Their 85 percent touchdown rate ranks dead last among FBS teams after Rutgers improved theirs to 83.3 percent in a 31-0 loss to Minnesota on Saturday. 

This is in stark contrast to the last few seasons. Notre Dame allowed touchdowns on 38.3 percent of red zone opportunities in 2021 (4th), 53.3 percent in 2020 (23rd), 56.7 percent in 2019 (45th) 52.8 percent in 2018 (27th) and 52.1 percent in 2017.

Fortunately for the Irish, the defense rank 14th in fewest red zone opportunities allowed this season, but the last time an opponent attempted a red-zone field within the 20-yard line was on Cal on Sept. 17.

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