Can Notre Dame’s defense deny, disrupt, and discombobulate talented Syracuse quarterback Eric Dungey? Answer that question, and Saturday’s meeting at Yankee Stadium (NBC, 2:30 p.m.) picks itself.
Undefeated No. 3 Notre Dame likely will be favored by about 10 points at kickoff, as the Irish try to maintain their grip on a spot in college football’s final four. That line is striking many observers as too high. It isn’t a home game. Syracuse is 8-2 this season, and has soared to No. 12 in the nation on the wings of a four-game winning streak. Plus, the Orange have an explosive offense that could hang with the Irish straight up, or score a garbage-time touchdown to turn a late 11- to 16-point deficit into a money maker.
The problem with that line of thinking is that Syracuse has faced an incredibly soft slate of defenses this season. Its offense couldn’t move the ball consistently the only time it faced an elite stop unit. That was in a 23-20 loss at Clemson (close because Clemson lost its starting quarterback early). One of Syracuse’s TD drives was just 10 yards after a Clemson turnover. Multi-faceted Dungey rushed for just 13 yards on 11 carries. The Orange were a woeful 3-of-15 on third down conversions.
Here are the current total defense rankings for Syracuse’s other opponent: Western Michigan, 59th; N.C. State, 66th; Florida State, 68th; Pittsburgh, 82nd; North Carolina, 109th; Louisville, 117th; Wake Forest, 120th; Connecticut,130th; Wagner, not an FBS team.
There are 130 FBS defenses (UConn ranks dead last). Half of Syracuse’s slate has come against defenses ranked 109th or worse (if we assume Wagner would rank that poorly if it had to play a major schedule).
We know Dungey and the Orange can run roughshod over poor defenses, particularly at home on a fast track. We know they couldn’t do that on the road against the No. 2 defense of Clemson. What’s going to happen on neutral grass against Notre Dame’s 25th-ranked defense?
Note that Dungey struggled passing in a road game at Pitt, which is definitely a better “site/surface” match for Saturday’s battle in The Bronx than anything that happened in the Carrier Dome. He was 18-38-2-195 in the air in a 44-37 loss.
Syracuse’s hopes rest on Dungey’s shoulders. Though, it’s worth remembering the metaphorical target on Notre Dame’s backs. VSiN’s Brent Musburger used to call it “BCS Chaos” under a prior acronym. Many college football powers dreaming of January have been known to stagger in November when a dangerous live ’dog has them in its sights.