SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame is clearly better than Syracuse.
That much was evident before the game and is even more so now, but the Irish didn't really play up to their potential for much of the first half. They lead 24-7 at the break, but it hasn't been the type of dominant performance that Notre Dame would have liked as it prepares for the ACC Championship Game in two weeks. The Orange have had something to do with that; they have come in and played inspired football that belies their 1-9 record, getting excited about big plays and generally acting like a team that believes it can hang with the No. 2 Irish, at least until Notre Dame scored three touchdowns in the final 3:18 of the half.
Notre Dame's first half offensive performance was uneven, but finished strong. The first drive was terrific, getting the ball to receivers in space on the outside and letting them go to work. Homestead graduate Ben Skowronek had two catches for 39 yards on that possession and a deep shot to Joe Wilkins Jr. was open, though Wilkins wasn't able to bring it in. The Irish should have had a touchdown on that drive, but a perfect Ian Book fade for Javon McKinley on third-and-goal slipped through McKinley's fingers in the corner of the end zone and the Irish settled for a field goal and a 3-0 lead. They re-took the lead later at 10-7 on a 28-yard run from Book. Skowronek provided a huge downfield block to help the quarterback find a way into the end zone on one of the biggest plays of the half. Skowronek has three catches for 60 yards. That touchdown seemed to relax the Irish a little bit and they scored easily on their next two possessions to take a 24-7 lead at halftime. Both scores were strikes from Book to McKinley, who made up for his early drop with six catches for 85 yards in the opening half.
Syracuse is selling out to stop the run and that, plus Notre Dame's injury woes on the offensive line, has allowed the Orange to hold the Irish running backs to just 36 rushing yards on 4 yards per carry and no big plays. Kyren Williams has continued to run as hard as he has all season and he's made some tacklers miss, but he hasn't had much space to maneuver. After a slow start, Book has been terrific, going 21 for 29 for 252 passing yards and three total touchdowns. He's needed to be today as the Orange have dared him to beat them. It wasn't a perfect offensive performance in the opening half by any means, however. The most telling development of the half was coach Brian Kelly inserting right guard Tommy Kraemer into the game. Kraemer had an appendectomy two weeks ago and Kelly said he would only play in an "emergency" situation this week. With the offense stagnant, the Notre Dame coach apparently thought the situation was dire enough to put the fifth-year senior into the action.
The defense has been similarly up-and-down. Syracuse, a relatively moribund offense that only gained 257 yards against NC State last week, moved the ball into Irish territory on each of its first three possessions. The Irish stood tall and forced punts on the first two of those, but the third time the Orange converted a pair of third-and-1 plays and then took the lead on a 18-yard touchdown pass from Rex Culpepper to Anthony Queeley. Nick McCloud should have intercepted the poorly-thrown pass, but he Queeley boxed him out with his body, made the catch and then escaped McCloud's tackle to run the rest of the way into the end zone. It was yet another play where the Irish were just a bit off and it resulted in the Blue and Gold falling behind 7-3 against a team that is 1-9.
So, Notre Dame leads at the half, as almost everyone expected. But it was not an impressive performance for the Irish, at least until the end of the half. They've given away some opportunities and gotten some help from Syracuse (the Orange have five penalties, including a costly roughing-the-passer penalty that kept the Notre Dame touchdown drive alive). The Irish have been one of the best teams in the country in recent seasons in halftime adjustments and they'll likely come up with some wrinkles for the Orange. One more score should do it.