Take one look at the box score, and it’s easy to blame the Syracuse defense for the team’s 50-33 loss to Notre Dame on Saturday. The Orange allowed the Irish to pile up 654 yards, and if the game had remained competitive down the stretch, the Golden Domers would have put an even bigger number on the MetLife Stadium scoreboard. Notre Dame had 47 points halfway through the third quarter, thanks in large part to SU’s toothless pass rush and flammable secondary.
But some of the fault must be placed on the shoulders of another unit: special teams. One could argue that the difference in the contest was Syracuse’s performance in the third phase of the game.
Any special teams discussion begins with the kicking game, and SU’s Cole Murphy continued to struggle away from the Carrier Dome’s friendly conditions. The junior missed from 40 yards as the clock expired in the first half, wasting a chance to cut the Irish’s lead in half before the teams headed to the locker rooms. For a kicker who was named to the preseason All-ACC third team, Murphy is fairly inconsistent — over the past two seasons, the California native is 18-for-22 (81.8 percent) at home, and 5-for-10 (50 percent) everywhere else. It’s easier to kick indoors, and Murphy is exhibit A.
That 40-yard miss was Murphy’s only field goal attempt, but it wasn’t Syracuse’s worst kicking miscue on Saturday. After the Orange scored its first touchdown of the game, Murphy’s extra point attempt — which would have knotted up the score — was blocked and returned to the house by Notre Dame for two points. Then, with roughly seven minutes left in regulation and SU desperately trying to claw back into the game, Dino Babers’ team blew another PAT: holder Sterling Hofrichter couldn’t handle the snap, and the Irish took him down in the backfield. In total, Syracuse’s kicking game cost the team seven points (-3 on the missed FG, net -3 on the blocked extra point, and -1 on the second botched PAT).
The Orange lost another seven points on special teams early in the first quarter, when Notre Dame wide receiver C.J. Sanders returned a kickoff 93 yards to the end zone for the Irish’s third touchdown in the opening five minutes. Sanders needed to make only one cut on the play, and wasn’t touched as he sprinted down the right sideline, eliciting an “Are you kidding me?!” from play-by-play man Bob Wischusen.
In all, Syracuse cost itself 14 points on special teams. The Orange struggled in that area against UConn, but it didn’t matter. Against elite programs like Notre Dame, though, every point counts.
Brisley Estime, who was named to the All-ACC third team as a specialist last year, began returning punts again after two weeks away from the role, and he was the lone bright spot for Syracuse special teams. The senior wideout averaged an astounding 42.7 yards on his three returns, providing his team with fantastic field position.
But that wasn’t nearly enough to offset the rest of SU’s special teams struggles. The unit has to be better if the Orange wants a legitimate shot to knock off a juggernaut.