Coming off a turbulent week that followed a shocking loss to Duke last Saturday after which the team fired its defensive coordinator the next day, Notre Dame was in desperate need of something positive that might serve as a turning point in a season off to a dreadful start.
Playing against Syracuse on Saturday at MetLife Stadium, the Irish got a long touchdown pass on the first play from scrimmage and went on to secure a 50-33 victory over the Orange in a crazy affair in which the teams combined for five touchdowns in the game’s first five minutes and together amassed 1,143 yards in total offense. (The teams also totaled 375 return yards.)
“It’s probably not the matchup you want when you’re making a change defensively. This [Syracuse] offense is difficult to prepare for,’’ Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “It took us a little bit to get acclimated to them, and once we did, I thought we did a good job.’’
Quarterback DeShone Kizer threw for 471 yards and three touchdowns for Notre Dame (2-3), connecting for two long ones to Equanimeous St. Brown — a 79-yarder on the first play from scrimmage, and a 67-yarder on the Irish’s second possession. Running back Josh Adams rushed for 102 yards and Dexter Williams ran for 80, including a 59-yard cutback run for a TD midway through the third quarter.
Kizer, who had been criticized by Kelly after the Duke loss, had been trying to do too much, the coach said. But Kelly said the sophomore seemed to settle down in the second half, and after the game, he sounded like a man who had just had a heavy weight lifted off his shoulders.
“The whole team had smiles on their faces,’’ Kizer said. “We’re dancing on the sidelines and we’re smiling. We’re getting back to what we should have been doing this whole season, which is playing the game.’’
Still, for a Notre Dame team that started three freshmen in the secondary, the victory was hardly a thing of beauty. The Irish defense, which entered the game ranked 100th in FBS in points allowed per game (33.5) and 103rd in yards allowed (454) didn’t look any better in its first game under interim defensive coordinator Greg Hudson, who replaced the fired Brian VanGorder. Syracuse (2-3) finished with 489 yards of total offense, and in the first half alone scored four touchdowns and had 324 total yards. Orange quarterback Eric Dungey passed for 363 yards and two touchdowns, and ran for Syracuse’s other three scores.
The game got off to a fast start when Kizer hit St. Brown on a crossing pattern on the first play from scrimmage and the 6-5 sophomore squeezed through two tackles and turned it upfield for the touchdown.
Syracuse responded with a 75-yard drive that ended in a 3-yard touchdown run by Dungey, but the extra-point attempt was blocked by Jarron Jones and picked up by Cole Luke and returned for a two-point conversion to put the Irish up 9-6.
After Kizer hit St. Brown for his second touchdown, Syracuse responded with a 72-yard touchdown pass to Amba Etta-Tawo to pull within 16-13. But on the ensuing kickoff, Notre Dame’s C.J. Sanders ran it back 93 yards to put the Irish up 23-13 with 10:06 left in the first quarter.
An apparent 70-yard touchdown pass from Kizer to Torii Hunter Jr. a little more than a minute later was overturned after video review, and the first quarter ended 23-13. Dungey and Kizer each scored in the second quarter and Dungey added a touchdown pass to Ervin Phillips as the Orange closed to within 33-27 at halftime.
But Notre Dame’s defense finally stiffened in the second half. Meanwhile, the offense kept scoring.
“Once you score a lot of points, you build a lot of confidence,’’ St. Brown said. “You just want to go out there, keep scoring points, and light up the scoreboard. We scored 50, so we did a pretty good job.’’