Syracuse football loses to No. 2 Notre Dame in final game of season

SU football loses to No. 2 Notre Dame 45-21

The Orange surprised the Irish but penalties and turnovers took their toll on the struggling Syracuse team.
Published: December 5, 2020
Syracuse safety flys to make a tackle in the second half of the No. 2 Notre Dame-Syracuse matchup inside Notre Dame Stadium.
Syracuse safety flies to make a tackle in the second half of the No. 2 Notre Dame-Syracuse matchup inside Notre Dame Stadium.

Coming into Saturday’s game as the heavy underdog, Syracuse football had literally nothing to lose. Notre Dame entered the afternoon 9-0, earning a spot in the ACC Championship. Their quarterback, Ian Book, was chasing the chance to become the winningest quarterback in school history.

The Orange were the opposite, looking for just their second win of the season. The odds were stacked against them, experts placing Syracuse as the 34.5-point underdog, and there was little hope that the upstate New York team could hold their own against the team that beat Clemson to remain undefeated.

But Syracuse showed life early. The Fighting Irish received the opening kickoff and Syracuse wasted no time taking down their man at the 20-yard-line. After a couple of strong stops – including Garrett Williams breaking up a pass downfield – and intense pressure on Book, the Orange managed to hold the Irish to a field goal.

On the first possession for Syracuse, Rex Culpepper completed a 14-yard pass to Taj Harris. After two more completions to Harris and Sean Tucker, it was looking like the Orange had come to South Bend as a whole new team. It didn’t last long, however, and Syracuse was forced to punt from the 41-yard-line.

The Orange defense was impressive early on, going sideline to sideline against the Irish. The speed they’d shown in other games this season continued against the No. 2 team in the country. For the second straight drive, Syracuse held off Notre Dame, forcing a punt with a fair catch by Nykiem Johnson at the 22-yard-line.

Tucker pulled in a pass from Culpepper and took it downfield to move Syracuse past the 50. After a couple unsuccessful plays, an offensive pass interference call on Aaron Hackett pushed the Orange back 15 yards, and completely out of range for a field goal. Culpepper was unable to capitalize and the Orange punted again.

With the ball back in Notre Dame’s hands, the speed of the Syracuse defense continued. Geoff Cantin-Arku sacked Ian Book for a loss of three on the first play of the drive. The Orange continued to get under the Irish’s skin, interrupting plays that Notre Dame would typically complete.

Syracuse got the ball back on a punt and took it down the field, shaving four minutes off the clock. In the redzone for the first time, Anthony Queeley corralled a pass from Culpepper and tiptoed past Irish defenders for a touchdown. Surprising almost everyone, the Orange took a 7-3 lead with 9:55 remaining in the second quarter.

Syracuse quarterback Rex Culpepper completes a pass in the No. 2 Notre Dame-Syracuse matchup inside Notre Dame Stadium.
Syracuse quarterback Rex Culpepper completes a pass in the No. 2 Notre Dame-Syracuse matchup inside Notre Dame Stadium.

SU’s defense continued to dominate. Pressure from Williams on multiple plays forced a desperate Notre Dame to try and convert on 4th and 3. Lee Kpogba tackled Michael Mayer short of the first down line, handing the ball back to Syracuse at the 34-yard-line. Unfortunately, the Notre Dame defense that has helped win nine games this season seemed to snap out of it and forced a three-and-out late in the half.

Cantin-Arku delivered another sack to Book, but a pass interference call on senior Kingsley Jonathan gave the lost yards back to the Irish. Book threw two more completions to set up good field position, and then ran 28 yards to the endzone for the first Notre Dame touchdown. The extra point was good, and the Irish took a 10-7 lead with 3:18 remaining in the half.

After a strong start to the game, Syracuse got the ball back with standard field position. But two consecutive false starts to open the drive coupled with a substitution infraction pushed the Orange back. Culpepper was forced out of the pocket on 2nd and 8 and was sacked, losing the ball which was recovered by Marist Liufau. The Irish sophomore ran the ball to the 21-yard-line, giving the Irish ideal field position with just over three minutes remaining.

It took just one play for Notre Dame to score, going up 17-7. The Irish added one more touchdown before the half, going into the break with the 24-7 lead.

Syracuse received first in the second half. The Orange briefly lost the ball to Notre Dame, but back-to-back turnovers put the ball back in Culpepper’s hands just one play later. Just when it was looking like Syracuse had lost hope, Tucker took the ball 40 yards for a Syracuse touchdown, putting his team within 10 points.

The Irish’s time with the ball didn’t last long. Ja’Had Carter picked off Book, the quarterback’s second interception of the year. However, for the second time this game, back-to-back turnovers gave the ball back to Notre Dame. After seven plays, Book took matters into his own hands, rushing for a touchdown in an eerily similar manner to Notre Dame’s first of the game and putting the Irish up 31-14 with 6:32 left in the third.

Syracuse's Anthony Queeley makes his way to the endzone to score in the second of the No. 2 Notre Dame-Syracuse matchup inside Notre Dame Stadium.
Syracuse's Anthony Queeley makes his way to the endzone to score in the second of the No. 2 Notre Dame-Syracuse matchup inside Notre Dame Stadium.

It was the story of Book and Javon McKinley, who connected for another touchdown in the third quarter. With over fifteen minutes still left to play, the Irish were up 38-14.

The final quarter of the game was relatively quiet for both teams, save for a pass completion from Culpepper to offensive lineman Chris Elmore.

Irish freshman Chris Tyree rushed 94 yards for another Notre Dame touchdown, the third longest rushing touchdown in team history, giving his team a 31-point lead.

In the final game of his career, Culpepper was replaced by freshman Dillon Markiewicz. Cooper Lutz rushed for one yard and then, when handed the ball again, rushed 80 yards for a Syracuse touchdown. The Orange moved closer, down 45-21, with five-and-half minutes left.

Notre Dame switched out their own senior quarterback late in the quarter as well, but the Irish didn’t falter. They switched quarterbacks in the same drive, giving senior J.D. Carney a chance to play on senior day. Over 20 points ahead, the Irish had no concerns about switching out starters for seniors in the final minutes of the regular season. Notre Dame kicked away the ball, but not before shaving over four minutes off the clock.

The clock ticked down after three Lutz rushes to get him to 100 yards in South Bend. While Irish moved to 10-0, Syracuse dropped to 1-10. Culpepper completed 18 of 29 for 185 yards and 1 passing touchdown. Tucker led the Orange with 113 rushing yard and Harris led with 69 receiving yards.

Despite allowing 45 points from Notre Dame, the defense shined for Syracuse. They beat the Irish in tackles 65 to 54, with seven tackles for a loss over Notre Dame’s six. They also had two sacks and an interception against a very good Irish offense. Kpogba led the team with eight solo tackles, while Williams and Ifeatu Melifonwu each had seven.

Even with the loss and the 1-10 season, there were some positive takeaways from the season. The Orange had no positive COVID-19 tests throughout the season, which, compared to their opponent in Saturday’s game, is a huge victory.