Even as Notre Dame has marched toward an undefeated regular season, there have been questions about just how good the Fighting Irish really are. Their best victory, over No. 4 Michigan (10-1), came at home in the season opener, and the rest of their opponents have not been all that formidable.
And while Notre Dame is ranked No. 3 in The Associated Press poll, the team entered Saturday’s game against Syracuse just 15th in average scoring margin.
But in what amounted to an unofficial home game at Yankee Stadium, where the Irish have often played over the decades, they quieted skeptics with a 36-3 victory over No. 12 Syracuse, their most impressive showing since beating the Wolverines.
“This narrative of ‘Who’s playing great? Who’s not playing pretty good?’” Coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “We’re playing pretty good right now.”
Syracuse Coach Dino Babers was more direct. “Notre Dame is better than what people think they are,” he said, adding, “If they play the way they played us, they’re probably going to have a chance to play for a national championship.”
Notre Dame’s defense dominated a Syracuse offense that had entered the contest averaging 44.4 points per game, sixth best in the Football Bowl Subdivision. The Orange were held to just 234 total yards, did not get deep into Notre Dame territory until well into the fourth quarter and did not score until just 10 seconds remained in the game.
The Irish wore pinstriped uniforms — a nod to the stadium’s usual occupants that incited eye rolls on social media — while improving to 11-0 with one more regular-season game, against Southern California (5-6) next Saturday in Los Angeles. Syracuse, which already had more wins than in any other season since 2012, dropped to 8-3 and will finish its schedule next weekend at No. 22 Boston College (7-4).
In last Tuesday’s rankings, the College Football Playoff selection committee slotted Notre Dame third behind Alabama (11-0) and Clemson (10-0 going into Saturday’s late game against Duke). Barring a Duke upset, there is every reason to expect the three schools to remain ranked that way when this Tuesday comes around.
But what Notre Dame’s impressive victory did was put pressure on playoff contenders from other conferences — particularly the Big Ten, the Big 12 and the Pacific-12 — to distinguish themselves in the selection committee’s eyes. If Notre Dame wins its last game, there is likely to be just one playoff spot for those conferences to fight over.
Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book, a junior who took over as the starter a few games into the season and transformed the Fighting Irish offense into one with a greater vertical threat, had missed last weekend’s victory over Florida State after sustaining a rib injury.
As a result, he may have been a little rusty, at least in the first part of Saturday’s game. The Irish left three or seven points on the table, depending on how you look at it, when they elected to go for it on 4th and 1 from the Syracuse 1-yard-line, and Book tripped and aimlessly flung the ball into the end zone, where Syracuse safety Andre Cisco easily intercepted it. But by then the score was 13-0, Notre Dame, and by halftime it was 20-0, so Book could afford to make a mistake.
He finished the afternoon with 23 completions in 37 attempts for two touchdowns and also ran the ball six times for 16 yards.
One of his receivers, Chase Claypool, often seemed overpowering. Claypool is built like a tight end — he stands 6 feet 4 inches and weighs 227 pounds — but he moves far more nimbly. He turned a short completion on a crossing route into a 33-yard gain on an early drive and caught a 10-yard slant for a touchdown to ice the game late in the third quarter.
Claypool noted after the game that Syracuse had been in man-to-man coverage for most of his catches, and he simply “tried to beat them with my speed.”
It did not help Syracuse that its starting quarterback, Eric Dungey, left the game in the first quarter with what the team called an upper body injury. His backup, the redshirt freshman Tommy DeVito, completed 14 of 31 passes for 105 yards and threw two interceptions.
At least one of those interceptions wasn’t his fault. On maybe the game’s best defensive play, DeVito hit freshman receiver Taj Harris only for Notre Dame safety Alohi Gilman to rattle Harris into coughing up the ball right to him. Gilman then rumbled for 54 yards, setting up a 9-yard touchdown run by Jafar Armstrong on the next snap. Kelly gave Gilman the game ball afterward.
Syracuse’s first trip to the red zone did not come until midway through the fourth quarter, when it already trailed, 29-0. The Orange managed to get the ball to Notre Dame’s 5-yard-line, where, on fourth down, a face-saving field goal clanged off the left upright.
A good part of the crowd went wild. Still, Syracuse got one more chance to get 3 points and succeeded. But all of that was a footnote to the four-quarter statement by Notre Dame.