Key to Syracuse vs. Notre Dame: Who Can Limit Big Plays?

Less than a month after entering the 2016 season inside the top 10 in both the Coaches and AP polls, Notre Dame’s bowl prospects are in serious doubt. The Irish enter Saturday’s showdown against Syracuse with a 1-3 record, and suddenly, it feels like the Orange has a legitimate shot to knock off one of college football’s most prestigious programs.

The main culprit behind Notre Dame’s disappointing start is the defense, which has already allowed 143 points this season, the highest total through four games in program history. Every team not named Nevada has hung at least 36 points on the Irish, and after Duke walked into South Bend and escaped with a 38-35 victory, head coach Brian Kelly fired defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.

The unit isn’t doing anything right. Notre Dame has allowed 454 total yards per game (103rd in the country), and can’t stop anyone on the ground (96th) or through the air (87th). After losing bona fide studs at every level of the defense — Sheldon Day on the line, Jaylon Smith at linebacker, and KeiVarae Russell in the secondary, among others — it was expected to be the team’s weaker side of the ball, but no one thought it would be this bad.

Those numbers look ugly, but SU has been even worse in every category. The Orange’s opponents have piled up an average of 466.8 yards, leaving the defense at 111th in the country. Syracuse is getting torched for 209.3 rushing yards (103rd) and 257.5 passing yards (92nd) per game. The raw yardage totals are a bit misleading, because SU foes get so many extra possessions thanks to Dino Babers’ up-tempo offense, but the Orange’s defense has been far from stellar this season.

The two defenses share a bad habit: they each allow big plays at an alarming rate. Notre Dame is the only team in the nation that has allowed five plays of at least 60 yards, and the Irish rank 92nd or worse in limiting plays of at least 20, 30, 40, and 50 yards. Syracuse, meanwhile, is outside the top 113 (out of 128 FBS teams) in each category — in other words, the Orange sits no higher than the 12th percentile in terms of limiting big plays at any increment.

 
Both defenses regularly surrender enormous chunks of yardage, and the team that most effectively limits the opponent’s offensive explosions will probably end up winning. Syracuse travels to Metlife Stadium as 10-point underdogs, but if the Orange can rip off a few big plays against a vulnerable Notre Dame defense, the Irish should be on upset alert.