No. 3 Notre Dame is in the final stretch of a Playoff run. A surprisingly serious hurdle still in the Irish’s way is No. 12 Syracuse on Saturday at Yankee Stadium.
The Orange are 10.5-point underdogs, but they do have a clear advantage in one area. It’s the same area Syracuse has already used to almost spring the biggest upset of the season.
Syracuse is No. 1 nationally in Special Teams S&P+. In Week 5, the Orange nearly used that phase of the game to beat Clemson.
Syracuse head coach Dino Babers credits second-year special teams coordinator Justin Lustig with the unit’s success this season.
“The one thing that I’ve always told these young men,” Babers said, is, “‘I’ve been a special teams coordinator before, but the way to help the team is to be a special teams player.’”
With six minutes to go in Death Valley and the Orange up a field goal, Syracuse punter Sterling Hofrichter had already shown the value of his booming leg. Late in the third quarter, he’d hit a 52-yard punt that ended up being muffed by the return man, in part because of hang time. As the Orange clinged to a field-goal lead, he hit a 55-yard beauty:
ESPN play-by-play man Sean McDonough quipped, “it might have hit a satellite on its way back down to Earth.”
Clemson punt returner Hunter Renfrow had to back up about 10 yards to fair catch it. When Cuse had to have it, its guy came up with his longest punt of the day to force an offense with a third-string quarterback to drive nearly the entire the length of the field to win the game.
Clemson pulled it off, but the special teams unit kept the Orange in an ugly game they had little business staying in for that long.
S&P+’s play-by-play data gave them a 15 percent chance postgame win expectancy (how often a team would usually win while playing that well) and a 14-point adjusted scoring margin ... in a game they lost by four.
The Orange have also dominated on kickoffs and their own returns.
They’re No. 1 in Kickoff Efficiency and No. 13 in Kick Return Efficiency. Both are measurements of how often kickoffs get brought out past the receiving team’s 25.
Punt returner Sean Riley, who also runs back the kickoffs, averages a nation-leading 17.4 yards on punts. He’s got the shiftiness to make stuff like this happen:
All of this adds up to create a real field-position edge.
In that Clemson upset bid, the seven Syracuse punts averaged a season-high 48.6 yards. Four punts went inside the 20, but none were touchbacks. That led to the Tigers having an average starting field position of their own 24-yard line, compared to Syracuse starting at its own 33.
The Orange have built similar edges all year. The defense has the No. 7 average field position nationally, and the offense has the No. 1 mark: its own 37. Last year, Syracuse’s offense was 104th in average starting field position, at its own 28.
“Everyone says that special teams is one-third of the game,” Babers said. “It’s not, but it is one-third of the yardage of the game. Every time you punt, it’s 40-50 yards of territory. Every time you kick off, that’s 60-65 yards of territory if you look at it from a battle standpoint. And that’s the thing that you have to protect. If you don’t spend a lot of emphasis on it, you can find yourself on long fields or short fields.”
And Syracuse has learned how to turn short fields into real points.
Through 10 games, Syracuse has more field goal attempts (and made kicks) than it had in any of Babers’ first two full seasons. The Orange are seventh nationally in in points per game despite being 59th in yards per play and 39th in Offensive S&P+.
It works because of Cuse’s special teams and the field position they create.
Kicker Andre Szmyt is 27-of-29 on the year and has made every extra point. He’s one of three freshmen among the 20 semifinalists for the Lou Groza award. He’s also a walk-on who hadn’t kicked a football in a game before the end of his senior year in high school. He’s a true diamond in the rough, who Babers said “kind of came out of nowhere.” He’s been key for a team that got unreliable placekicking in Babers’ first two seasons.
This year, Syracuse is getting Scoring Opportunities — i.e., moving inside the other team’s 40 — on 58 percent of its drives. That’s No. 12 nationally, and it’s happened despite Syracuse’s average drive length going slightly down from last season. It’s easy to see how simple field position has translated to Syracuse putting more points on the board.
Coaching up special teamers is a pride point for Babers and Syracuse.
“I’ve had over 50 guys make the National Football League, and I’ve coached only two types of guys,” Babers said. “One, athletic freaks where God said, ‘I’m gonna make myself a football player,’ and two, guys who were overachievers who did everything consistently good, not occasionally great, and they just didn’t make mistakes, and those guys were special teams players.”
The roadmap to Syracuse beating Notre Dame is clear, because the Orange have been using it all year and almost beat Clemson with it.
Notre Dame, like Clemson, has decent overall special teams, ranking No. 54 in Special Teams S&P+. The Irish are good on both other sides of the ball, though, and tend to face favorable field position.
The question is whether Cuse can take full advantage and actually win the game this time.