Back Inside The Numbers: Syracuse-Notre Dame

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Inside The Numbers: Syracuse-Notre Dame

By Jim Johnson
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Diving into the matchups within the matchup between the Orange and the Fighting Irish.

It appears that Syracuse is humanity’s last worthwhile hope to keep Notre Dame out of the College Football Playoff because, as everyone anticipated, the Orange are better than USC at football in 2018. To make matters worse, the Fighting Irish will sporting some truly horrifying Yankees themed uniforms during the game, which is taking place in Yankee Stadium. In other words, this is the height of evil in sports.

There is, however, a clear path for goodness to prevail.

That starts with a wildly inconsistent, occasionally brilliant Eric Dungey-led passing attack that has been plagued by bouts of inconsistency. He has posted a passer rating above 170 four times this season, and a rating below 110 five times; his most recent performance versus Louisville the only one in between. So although his total body of work looks pretty average, it’s really more that he’s either on fire or ice cold.

Still, for what it’s worth, factoring in some similarly inconsistent, albeit often impressive, showings from Tommy DeVito, Syracuse ranks 67th in passing S&P+ (, 89th in marginal efficiency and 21st in marginal explosiveness.

6’5 senior wideout Jamal Custis has emerged as one of the nation’s elite big play receivers, leading the team in marginal explosiveness and ranked 12th in the FBS with 16 catches of 20+ yards. Sean Riley, a perfect complement, meanwhile, has proven to be a reliable safety valve, his 76.1% catch rate leading the receiving corps, as does his marginal efficiency average. Nykeim Johnson, though, who is garnering just over half as many targets as either of the two aforementioned, has been the best of both worlds, trailing Riley alone in both catch rate and marginal efficiency, and only Custis in marginal explosiveness, not to mention actually leading the team in yards per target.

The pass protection, too, has been uniquely average when looking at their comprehensive 6.6% allowed sack rate (70th in the FBS), but they’re only allowing one on 3.1% of standard downs, which ranks just outside the top 25, and yet 12.2% on passing downs and 16.4% on blitz downs, which sit at 114th and 117th, respectively.

Notre Dame’s pass defense, on the flipside, has arguably been the greatest strength of the team, ranking 8th in S&P+, and the top ten in both marginal efficiency and explosiveness allowed.

Up front, though they are merely 70th in sack rate, with relatively comparable numbers on standard, passing, and blitz downs, they are 20th nationally in pressure rate. Julian Okwara and Jerry Tillery are enjoying breakout seasons and currently lead Notre Dame in sacks. Tillery, in particular, has been impressive, using those long, powerful arms to consistently win at the point of attack and rack up a team high seven sacks from the interior.

In the secondary, Notre Dame’s top cornerback Julian Love excels in off coverage, and has the long speed to help limit Syracuse’s explosiveness, but could have trouble with the spacing and timing based Dino Babers offense. At safety, Alohi Gilman plays with the physicality necessary to hang with Custis, although he’s at his best playing in the box. Their respective counterparts, Troy Pride Jr. and Jalen Elliott are solid in their own right but can be exploited underneath. Based on the construction of Notre Dame’s defensive backfield, Custis may have a tough time winning downfield, but look for Riley and Johnson to have big days if Dungey is willing to be patient and dink and dunk a little more than usual.

It’s also of note that, as good as Notre Dame’s defense has been for the most part, two of their three worst percentile performances have come against quarterbacks who, like Dungey, are mobile, comfortable improvisers, and can extend plays with their legs or even take it themselves, in Michigan’s Shea Patterson and Virginia Tech’s Ryan Willis.

And speaking of taking it himself, Dungey also happens to be Syracuse’s leading rusher (excluding sack numbers as everyone always should because there’s literally no good reason to include them) in a year in which the team is running the ball more often and more effectively than in either of Babers’ previous two seasons.

Together, he, Moe Neal, and Dontae Strickland have Syracuse ranked 44th in rushing S&P+, 89th in marginal efficiency and 40th in marginal explosiveness. Behind solid run blocking, all three are gaining at least five yards at an average clip, and Neal’s 58% rate is considerably above the mean. The only problem is that, aside from freshman Jarveon Howard, neither of the aforementioned backs offer much in the way of playmaking at the second level.

The offensive line is doing its part, ranking 42nd in standard down line yards per carry, 10th on passing downs, and allowing a stop at or behind the line of scrimmage just 13% of the time (7th). Still, in spite of the lack of rushing explosiveness, this remains a pass-first offense and this development on the ground only serves to add another dimension to what is already one of the trickier units to gameplan for.

That said, Notre Dame’s run defense is very good in its own right, ranking 15th in S&P+, 25th in marginal efficiency and 17th in marginal explosiveness allowed. It’s also limiting opponents 5+ yard runs to a 44.7% rate (14th), but isn’t making a ton of plays in the backfield, ranking 42nd in stuff rate. As good as Syracuse has been in the latter respect, don’t expect that to change this weekend.

There’s really nowhere to specifically attack Notre Dame on the ground. The entire front seven is remarkably sound, but there’s also no real elite run defenders either. Tillery is very good in the interior, but pass rushing is his forte. Linebackers Te’Von Coney and Drue Tranquill are extremely reliable. Everyone is just good, not great.

Altogether, Syracuse’s offense ranks 39th in S&P+, 92nd in marginal efficiency, 24th in marginal explosiveness, 64th in drive finishing, and 19th in points per drive (excluding garbage time and clock kills).

Comparatively, Notre Dame’s defense ranks 3rd in S&P+, 13th in marginal efficiency, 7th in marginal explosiveness, 4th in drive finishing, and 9th in points per drive allowed.

On paper, this is not a matchup that favors Syracuse, but there are some notable matchups within the matchup that could be exploited.

Beyond the previously noted tidbits about mobile quarterbacks and the potential utilization of Sean Riley and Nykeim Johnson, Notre Dame ranks 102nd in the country in average opposing third down distance. Syracuse isn’t elite in that respect, but is still much better. More importantly, however, 78.3% of ‘Cuse’s chain movers have come on first or second down. Michigan also ranks 101st in third and short success rate allowed. Basically, it’s imperative that Syracuse stays on schedule.

Sure, the numbers reflect an offense that has been reliant on big plays more than efficiency, but that’s partly due to the sheer volatility of their play from one week to the next. If good Dungey shows up, and this also goes back to the usage of Riley and Johnson, that can be achieved.

Offensive production is to be expected at Syracuse, though, and the special teams were similarly elite last year. Probably the biggest reason for the improvement this season is the strides taken on defense.

It’s not an elite group yet, but it’s no longer a liability, ranking 68th in S&P+, 55th in marginal efficiency, 99th in marginal explosiveness, 33rd in drive finishing, and 36th in points per drive allowed.

Notre Dame’s offense ranks 27th in S&P+, 36th in marginal efficiency, 53rd in marginal explosiveness, 27th in drive finishing, and 17th in points per drive.

The Irish have taken a step forward with Ian Book behind center, but he missed last week’s game versus Florida State and may not be 100% on Saturday. That’s not good for an offense that, despite leaning on the run more so than the pass, especially on passing downs, is far more effective through the air than on the ground.

They rank 26th in passing S&P+ (18th in marginal efficiency and 60th in explosiveness), but only 68th in rushing S&P+ (84th in marginal efficiency and 60th in explosiveness).

Most of their problems with the run game come at the line of scrimmage. Dexter Williams has actually been pretty incredible, gaining an average of 9.24 highlight yards per opportunity upon reaching the second level. The issue is that he gets those opportunities so sparingly behind truly abysmal run blocking that ranks 79th and 108th in standard and passing down line yards per carry, and 103rd in percentage of stops allowed at or behind the line of scrimmage.

Ryan Guthrie and Alton Robinson, who lead the Orange with 16.5 run stuffs apiece, could absolutely eat against this unit.

And though the passing game has been good, behind much better pass pro than run blocking, it lacks any semblance of a big play threat.

‘Cuse has been one of the best teams in the country on blitz downs, ranking 1st in success rate allowed, and third downs, ranking 9th in success rate allowed -- specifically in third and long and third and medium scenarios where they once more rank 1st and 4th, respectively.

If Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman continue to do what they’ve done all year, lead the team to a top 20 sack rate in the nation, that is, Ian Book and company could be in for a long day, especially if he’s not operating at full strength.

Similar to how the key for Syracuse’s offense was staying on schedule, the key for the defense is keeping Notre Dame off schedule. The Irish inexplicably try to run the ball at a much higher rate than one would expect when they get behind the sticks, and their offensive line is a nightmare. Plus, even when they don’t, Robinson and Coleman are not to be trifled with when they can just pin their ears back and go.

Nevertheless, the greatest advantage Syracuse holds over Notre Dame, and just about anyone else they have played or will play, is special teams. Babers’ group ranks 1st in the country in combined S&P+ for this oft-forgotten, vitally important third facet of the game. Notre Dame is fine at 54th, but the Orange are the best in the country here and it shows.

Freshman kicker Andre Szmyt is 27/29 for the year and his .64 points per kick above the expected average is good for 5th in the nation. Sterling Hofrichter, alongside some elite kickoff coverage, has Syracuse at number one in kickoff success rate. He also has them in the top 20 in punt success rate, as does Sean Riley in the kick return game. The lowest ranked part of the special teams unit is punt returns, at 43rd, and yet they’ve still managed to score two touchdowns.

Notre Dame is terrible on kick returns, which does not bode well against the top team in America, and everything else ranges from slightly above average to decidedly subpar. The only somewhat scary aspect of their special teams is punt returner Chris Finke, but that shouldn’t be an issue for any team with a player the caliber of Sterling Hofrichter.

Thanks in large part to that special teams dominance, Syracuse ranks 1st in average offensive starting field position and 7th in average defensive starting field position. Meanwhile, Notre Dame is 53rd and 52nd in each.

Alongside Syracuse’s +13 turnover margin to Notre Dame’s +2 margin, and this is the quintessential recipe for an upset.

If bad Dungey shows up, none of it will matter, but if the red hot, win-at-all-costs field general that is no stranger to an upset is in attendance, this will be a ball game.’

Field position, turnovers, and controlling what it can control. It’s the most tried and true upset model there is, and arguably the three basic tenets of Syracuse’s largely unexpected success this season.

Notre Dame is good. Notre Dame is probably better than the Orange, in a vacuum. However, with sub-50% win expectancies in two separate games this season, not to mention a one score win over Pitt, they aren’t undefeated good. They aren’t Alabama. They aren’t Clemson, who Syracuse nearly beat anyways. They aren’t even one of the four best teams, and they don’t deserve to make the College Football Playoff.

With only USC left on the docket for the Irish, Syracuse might be the last team that can prevent that from happening. Fortunately, there’s a clear path to victory for Babers and company, and it’s the same one they’ve taken all season -- perhaps with a couple of minor tweaks.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP