EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Notre Dame will count this as progress after a week of upheaval and adjustments for a beleaguered defense. They might have been only leprechaun-sized steps forward, but the Fighting Irish will take it.
Notre Dame tightened up its tackling and held Syracuse to seven points in the second half, and DeShone Kizer made up for most of the Irish’s ills with one of the best passing games in school history.
Kizer threw for a career-best 471 yards and the Fighting Irish snapped a two-game losing streak by defeating Syracuse 50-33 Saturday.
In the first game since coach Brian Kelly fired coordinator Brian VanGorder, the Irish (2-3) allowed more than 30 points for the fourth time this season and 489 yards to Syracuse’s up-tempo spread offense.
“I wasn’t crazy about going against this offense. I much rather have been going against something a little bit different because of their tempo and how they spread you out and with all the freshman DBs that (we) play. That’s not always the greatest matchup,” Kelly said. “But I felt like the morale was really good on Wednesday and that’s what I was looking to get back. The morale.”
The tackling on punt coverage still needs work. Syracuse’s Brisly Estime had a 74-yard return late in the first half that setup a touchdown and left Kelly fuming on the sideline. Estime added a 38-yard return.
Kizer made it all OK for Notre Dame at MetLife Stadium.
He connected on three touchdown passes — two to Equanimeous St. Brown — that covered at least 54 yards each and ran for a score. Kizer hit a rough patch at end of the first half when he took a 17-yard sack that knocked the Irish out of field goal range and threw an interception.
Kelly said he told Kizer at halftime to stop trying to force big plays.
“When we went back out, relaxed up, took his words and ran with it,” said Kizer, who threw for more yards in a victory than any quarterback in Notre Dame history.
Eric Dungey passed for 363 yards and two touchdowns and ran for three scores for Syracuse (2-3).
Syracuse: The Orange defense has already been shredded by Lamar Jackson and Louisville and now Kizer and Notre Dame. An in-season fix seems unlikely. The middle of the field always seems to be open against the Orange secondary.
“That is a very, very young defense,” first-year Syracuse coach Dino Babers said. “You have to give them time to grow up.”
FYI: Clemson and Deshaun Watson play the Orange on Nov. 5.
Notre Dame: Kelly elevated Greg Hudson from analyst to coordinator and got more involved in the defense this week. Kelly kept his pledge to play more defensive players and make tweaks. The Irish mixed in some 3-4 alignments and their defensive backs changed techniques to better guard deep routes. Cornerback Luke Cole was moved to nickelback, lining up inside instead of out.
There is still work to be done. The secondary, at times playing four freshmen, was porous and the front got little pressure. Positives: The Orange ran for only 3.4 yards per carry and the Irish did a solid job of tackling after the catch. Syracuse had 266 yards in the last three quarters.
“We need to continue to improve on tackling,” defensive lineman Isaac Rochell said. “I would say we did better, but we still left a lot out there.”
ONE FOR THE NEW GUY
The players picked Hudson to lead the singing of the alma mater after the win. They did it acapella since the band didn’t make the trip.
“He put a lot of power in the position coaches’ hands and he put a lot of power in our hands as player and said, ‘Let’s just come together as a family,’” safety Drue Tranquill said.
TOUCHDOWN PER MINUTE
The first five minutes produced five touchdowns, one for each possession. Plus, Notre Dame had its second blocked PAT returned for a 2-point defensive conversion this season. The Irish did it against Texas, too. Jarron Jones got the block again and this time Cole picked up the bouncing ball and scored.
Add it all up and it was 23-13 Irish with 10:06 left in the first quarter.
“They have a dynamic offense and when they come out it’s a big splash,” Babers said.
Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish make their first trip to North Carolina State.
Syracuse: The Orange play at Wake Forest.