Rakes Report #159: Let's take that road before us and sing a chorus or two (The Syracuse Review)

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2020 Christmas Giving — benefiting the Center for the Homeless in South Bend — is live here.

1) In the months before the senior class that was honored on Saturday put pen to paper to officially sign on at Notre Dame, they watched the Fighting Irish embarrass themselves on the way to a 4-8 season. Four losses at home, an in-season defensive coordinator firing, fans taking out ads in newspapers and raising money for billboards – the situation in South Bend was not positive. The Class of 2021 joined up anyway, and over their four years they built the program to the point where the Irish just completed an undefeated regular season and the reaction is certainly happy but also sort like, “Sure, of course. Good job. This is what you do.”

From 2003 to 2011, Notre Dame couldn’t even make it into October undefeated! Now they’ve made it the postseason unmarred for the second time in three years. For a while Novembers were absolute death traps and the Irish haven’t lost a game in that month since 2017. The numbers become more staggering as you add them up: A single home loss in four years, including 24 straight following a one-point defeat to the national runner-up. 16 victories in a row overall, the nation’s longest streak. Undefeated against Southern Cal. A quarterback who just won his 30th game in 33 starts, setting a new record at a school that prides itself on its legends. I do not know how these next two (or three?...) games are going to go but at the very, very worst this class will finish with as many losses in a four-year stretch as Notre Dame had during their senior year of high school.   

2) The beginning of Saturday’s contest against the outmatched Orange was a little gross, to be certain, a bleak South Bend day with no students in the stands and a Syracuse team that at least brought the fire in the early going. The running game couldn’t click in, the defense was kind of letting Syracuse mess around, there were some drops and Michael Mayer ran backwards, but Ian Book was there for his final home start to make the Orange pay for the tiniest mistakes. In the final 198 seconds of the half he kicked in three touchdowns, including retaking the lead with a 28-yard run, putting the Irish up 24-7. After the break when Syracuse had cut it back to 10, Book responded by converting a 4th and 5 with his legs and then scoring three plays later with a 17-yard scramble, on his way to five touchdowns to close out an undefeated career of home starts.

In Javon McKinley’s final game, he scored his first three touchdowns of the season, abusing Syracuse in a variety of ways on the way to a seven catch, 111-yard day, giving him four 100-yard receiving games this year, more than Chase Claypool in 2019 or Miles Boykin in 2018 (three) (hat tip to Jamie Uyeyama for flagging this fun fact). Kyren Williams went over 100 yards on the day and 1,000 yards on the season by breaking a Syracuse defender’s soul and ankles while Chris Tyree got to flash the jets on a 94-yard score. This is not necessarily a traditional big-play offense but we’ve now seen McKinley, Williams and Tyree hit home runs, plus the still inscrutable Ben Skowronek magic and anything they can get out of Braden Lenzy to echo his closing stretch of 2019. Notre Dame’s offense didn’t play particularly well and they still put 7.4 yards per play, which is not a bad day at the office.

3) Before we move on, let’s talk about how good Notre Dame has been at the end of halves.

  • On Saturday, they went six plays and 68 yards in 32 seconds to make it 24-7 against the Orange.

  • Against North Carolina they went 7 plays, 61 yards in 70 seconds to set up the game-tying field goal before the half.

  • Against Boston College they went 10 plays, 49 yards for a touchdown make it 31-16 with four seconds remaining in the half.

  • They went 8 plays, 46 yards for a touchdown with 89 seconds remaining in the second quarter against Pitt to make it 21-3 before Isaiah Foskey blocked a punt with 11 seconds left to tack on another score.

  • 8 plays, 57 yards in 58 seconds to score a touchdown with 11 seconds remaining in the half against Florida State.

  • 9 plays, 54 yards, in 73 seconds to kick a field goal as time expired in the second quarter against Duke.

  • This is kind of an obscure one and also turning to the second half but they went 91 yards in 8 plays and 86 seconds to force overtime against the No. 1 team in the country last month before eventually winning the game in double overtime.

Having a fifth-year senior at quarterback is really cool.

4) The defense’s worst rushing effort of the season but they clamped down when needed, bringing the physicality we’ve seen all fall. They forced the fumble late in the second quarter and started the second half by forcing three turnovers and a negative-one-yard three-and-out in the first five possessions (the other was the long Orange run but set that aside). Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is Havoc Rate personified, a deity come down from Olympus to torment opposing offenses, contributing a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, two pass break-ups and half a tackle for loss. Daelin Hayes got an interception on his senior day! Guys who’ve been good all season (MTA, Drew White, Ade Ogundeji) stayed good and true freshman defensive tackle Rylie Mills, who appears to be roughly seven feet tall, even got in on the action. Clarence Lewis finished with 12 tackles (!!) as the Orange repeatedly targeted him with their quick stuff but overall I think he held up well considering the volume, as Syracuse did not have a wide receiver with a completion over 18 yards on the day.

A defensive note: They were playing against Western Carolina, so take this for what you will, but the Tar Heels immediately returned to their destructive ways, putting up 42 points in the first half. Sam Howell was 20 of 23 for 287 and two touchdowns (plus 2 carries for 41 yards) while Michael Carter ran for 73 yards and three touchdowns on eight carries. I am excited to see North Carolina and Miami square off on Saturday, and our rooting interest should be firmly in the corner of Mack Brown.

5) Stuff to maybe be worried about: Tommy Kraemer got in the game a bit so he should be close to 100 percent by next Saturday, but the Irish have to figure out what they’re going to do at center between now and then. Jonathan Doerer missed a field goal for the second straight week (and had an adventurous extra point) but he still hasn’t missed one that counted and was absolutely aces against the Tigers the first time around so I’m going to maintain the faith. The secondary has been solid but not spectacular and it’s likely to be first round opponents the rest of the way so that’ll need to tighten up. Tommy Tremble has had some drop issues and had a bobble on his lone reception but that is really starting to nitpick. It’s a good football team, folks!

(One note on Syracuse before we move on: They were absolutely Not Good this season, but they did play well in some of their biggest games. Clemson only led them 27-21 late into the third quarter in Death Valley before pulling away to win 48-21, essentially the same score as Saturday’s contest. They also played well last week against an NC State team that is going to finish 8-3.)

6) Winning Is Hard/Schadenfreude Round Up: None of the top level stuff really excites me so I would like to turn to Akron, who entered the weekend losers of 21 consecutive games, a streak that dated back to 2018 and including a 35-6 loss to Bowling Green last year. Want to fix what ails you? Play Bowling Green again, in Year Two of the Scott Loeffler/Brian VanGorder regime. Zips 31, Falcons 3.

We can take a break from hearing about Paul Chryst’s offense for a little since they managed to score six whole points in a home loss to Indiana, who is good but come on. Mario Cristobal is recruiting really well so Oregon has just been penciled in for a big jump but they just lost their second straight game, falling to an 0-3 (but kind of a sneaky good 0-3) Cal. Oklahoma State was considered a playoff dark horse but they blew a big lead to TCU and will end up not even sniffing the Big 12 title game. Undefeated Washington lost to a Stanford team that had been kind of whatever and was practicing in a park because they got kicked out of Palo Alto for COVID reasons. Arizona lost again, as Karl Dorrell remains undefeated with Colorado. Arizona State lost at home to UCLA and Chip Kelly is starting to cook a little.

Undefeated BYU flew across the country and played undefeated Coastal Carolina on short notice and fell about a yard short of a game-winning touchdown in a really fun game. In the weirdest result of the weekend if not season, undefeated No. 21 Marshall was a three-touchdown favorite at home to Rice and was shut out 20-0 after throwing five interceptions. What a silly sport.

Texas A&M trailed Auburn in the second half and might have lost if a Tiger linebacker had not volleyball set the go-ahead touchdown. Florida trailed Tennessee briefly in the second quarter before getting loose. Took a while for Oklahoma to put away Baylor and Clemson to put away Virginia Tech. Purdue lost at home to Nebraska - Jeff Brohm, what are you doing? Arkansas blew a couple of fourth quarter leads to Mizzou.

7) This has been a year of stolen joys and shared experiences but one that really bummed me out was the final game of legendary public address announcer Mike Collins taking place in front of the smallest Notre Dame Stadium crowd since the Great Depression. You can and should listen to his final words here, but there were few things more joyous than finding your seat and hearing Collins inform you that the latest weather report showed a perfect night for Notre Dame football. (Honestly got the chills just writing that and thinking about how it feels crammed in there, bouncing on your toes just before a big game kicks off.) A true legend and as important a part of the Fighting Irish football experience as anything else – his voice will be missed.

8) It is entirely possible Notre Dame finishes its season with two straight losses to two excellent football teams, which would obviously be disappointing but I’m not going to let the morose hypothetical take away anything from what we’ve seen this year even if it occurs. The Irish just went 10-0 amid a pandemic, knocking off the No. 1 team in the country and surviving multiple upset alert road trips. We saw the players step up amid the George Floyd demonstrations, resulting in the head coach of the University of Notre Dame speaking about the importance of Black Lives Matter at an on-campus Juneteenth rally, a previously unfathomable statement. The very, very worst their four-year record can possibly fall to is 43-8, an impressive and admirable clip. And on the flip side? Any win (or wins…) from this point on will go down among the biggest in program history.

Beating Clemson a second time is going to be tough. If you just told me two teams had played a double overtime game and that Team A was gaining back multiple starters in their front seven and Team B had lost their starting center, I wouldn’t feel great about Team B’s chances even before the whole Trevor Lawrence thing was factored in, but it’s not impossible. There’s going to be a lot of talk about Vengeful, Angry Clemson over the next couple weeks and I hope that’s broadcast far and wide for the Irish locker room to hear because Clemson might be out for blood but they’ll have to shed some of their own to claim the trophy against this Irish team.

Do I have reservations about whether the Irish can pull off the upset again? Sure, but I’m an idiot. I doubted them throughout the second half against the Tigers in round one and during halftime against the Tar Heels and all they do is keep winning. Believe in this team, because they’ve earned it. We have been absolutely blessed to watch this group for the last three months and the the last four autumns and there is still glory to be claimed. Keep going.

2020 Christmas Giving — benefiting the Center for the Homeless in South Bend — is live here. Thanks so much to everyone who has already given, this blows me away every year.

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