NEW YORK – No. 3 Notre Dame made it look easy with a 36-3 win against No. 12 Syracuse at Yankee Stadium. With one game left in the regular season, the Irish are close to going unbeaten in the regular season and securing a spot in the College Football Playoff. Here are three takeaways from the win:
This was impressive. But also not. An injury to quarterback Eric Dungey in the first quarter essentially ended chance Syracuse had of notching an upset of the third-ranked Irish – not that the Orange were doing much even with Dungey in the lineup. Notre Dame did what a team knocking on the door of the Playoff should: Take care of business against an opponent struggling with injuries and weather. Defensively, the Irish put together the sort of performance that bodes well for a potential postseason matchup with one of the many spread-based teams crowding the top of the Playoff rankings. Notre Dame's defense has been outstanding for much of the regular season. The Syracuse field goal came with 10 seconds left.
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And the offense was efficient on a down-by-down basis and often explosive, just not when it mattered: when knocking on the door of the Syracuse end zone. The 20-0 edge at halftime should've been more, but the Irish were stymied by a handful of self-inflicted errors near the goal line – such as a holding penalty on one series and a botched quarterback-center exchange on another. Both drives should have ended in a touchdown. It did not matter against Syracuse, largely due to the stingy play of the defense. But a failure to convert in those situations would be magnified in a hypothetical pairing with Alabama or Clemson in a national semifinal. In the Irish's defense, you have not been a season-long issue: Notre Dame entered the weekend ranked 28th nationally in red-zone scoring.
Ian Book looked healthy. This was a positive sign for the Irish, who were without their starting quarterback in last week's 42-13 win against Florida State. It's clear that this offense operates at a higher gear with Book, who was inserted into the lineup in September, so to see the junior comfortable in the pocket as a thrower and agile on the run eases any worries over the health of Notre Dame's starter heading into the final week of the regular season. Book threw for 292 yards and 2 touchdowns before being replaced by backup Brandon Wimbush midway through the fourth quarter.
One more test. The Irish close the regular season with a road trip to Southern California, one of college football's most disappointing teams, needing a win against the rival Trojans to lock in a berth in the College Football Playoff. There's no argument on this fact: Notre Dame is in the four-team field at 12-0, with only seeding left to be determined. Whether that Playoff berth resembles the program's last trip on college football's biggest stage – a complete wipeout against Alabama in early 2013 – remains to be seen.
There may even be an argument for the Irish cracking the final top four at 11-1, though not without help. For one, Michigan would need to beat Ohio State next Saturday and Northwestern a week later to win the Big Ten Conference; the Irish topped the Wolverines in the season opener. It would also help one-loss Notre Dame to have some chaos in the Big 12 Conference, where Oklahoma and West Virginia top the list of Playoff contenders.