Notre Dame football played its best game of the 2018 season in the Bronx.
I am fully aware that the word “best” is an ambiguous word that means different things to different people. For the purposes of this article, I am defining the “best” game for Notre Dame football during the 2018 regular season as the one that most readily showcased the Irish firing on all cylinders throughout the duration of the game.
I considered offensive performance, defensive performance, play calling, magnitude of the game, and the way Notre Dame responded as a whole in light of said magnitude.
For these reasons, I have deemed Notre Dame’s contest with Syracuse as the best game of the 2018 regular season.
Before you disagree with me without reading any further, do not fret. I will be discussing another definition of the word “best” at the end of this article and include some honorable mentions in this regard.
The Syracuse Orange were unexpectedly ranked 12th by the College Football Playoff selection committee for this game, thus providing the Irish with an opportunity to impress the committee late in the season. For all intents and purposes, this game served as the final true hurdle for the Irish as they attempted to cap off an undefeated season and their first College Football Playoff berth.
As if there was not already enough hype, the Irish were taking on the Irish at Yankee Stadium, a place where the ghosts of legends are palpable — a place where a multiplicity of championship teams were immortalized. It is also a place where Notre Dame football has a deep history, from winning one for the Gipper and various bowl games to losing to Syracuse in 1963.
I had the privilege of being in attendance for this game. Yankee Stadium did everything right. The hype for this game for the Irish was matched in every capacity by Yankee Stadium and New York City. The stadium was adorned with more Irish images than one could count. The “Notre Dame” written in each end zone in the traditional Yankee script was a great touch. And the Empire State Building glowed gold and blue in homage to the Irish. Notre Dame and the Yankees came together in a perfect marriage that afternoon as the Irish sought to add to their vibrant history.
As for the game itself, this was undoubtedly the most complete one for the Irish. From start to finish, the Irish were on a mission to capture a marquee win in an attempt to silence the naysayers. They did just that by showcasing the best they had to offer in multiple capacities.
Offensively, Notre Dame was on fire. The Irish accumulated 463 yards of total offense and scored 36 points. And this score could have been much higher, had they converted two red zone visits in the first quarter into touchdowns as opposed to field goals.
Notre Dame was relatively balanced on offense with 292 yards in the air and 171 on the ground. Book spread the ball out to seven different Irish players. And the Notre Dame coaching staff even found a way to get a much-deserving Brandon Wimbush involved in the game.
The game was never in question with the Irish offense on the field, as they showed their ability to be incredibly efficient. While we have seen quarters like these throughout the course of the season, we had yet to see a game where Notre Dame sustained this kind of efficiency for the entire game.
Defensively, Notre Dame was perhaps even more impressive. They held a team that was averaging over 40 points per game to a measly three points. These three points were scored on a pitiful late-game field goal that I can only imagine was to avoid the outright shutout. The Irish defense held the prolific Syracuse offense to 234 totals yards — the same offense that still averages 467 yards per game even with the tilt against Notre Dame averaged in.
The Irish secondary nabbed three interceptions on the day — two by Alohi Gilman and one by Jalen Elliott. And the Irish defensive front logged six sacks. Considering the firepower that characterizes the Syracuse offense, this was the most impressive performance of the Notre Dame defense this season.
In terms of effective play calling, I found this game to stand out the most. Clark Lea brought a lot of pressure early and did not let up, often confusing the Syracuse offensive front with exotic looks. This resulted in ten tackles for loss and six sacks for the Irish.
The offensive play calling was dynamic and timely. Chip Long seemed to call all the right plays in the right situations. One of these plays was a brilliant fullback counter trap to Jafar Armstrong that resulted in a Notre Dame touchdown, a play that I believe may be the best play call of the year pound for pound.
All these things considered, I find that the Syracuse game checks all the boxes for “best” game of the season in the definition I outlined at the beginning of this article. However, if “best” means most pivotal to gaining momentum or for team morale, then I would not have chosen the Syracuse game. Games that boost morale or create an intangible element that fuels a season are not always the most statistically sound or complete games. But in games like these, a win is all that matters.
In this definition of the word, I would have certainly chosen the opening game against Michigan.
This game (although without Ian Book or Dexter Williams, two of the players who allow Notre Dame to play at their best) set the ground work for what was to come. It cannot be emphasized enough what an opening day win against such a storied rival does for the confidence of a team.
For the same reasons, I would put the win over Stanford just behind Michigan. The Irish have had many a battle against solid Stanford squads over the years as well. Defeating this rival a few weeks after defeating Michigan only added to the confidence Notre Dame needed to finish out the season undefeated.
No matter how you define the word “best,” I can honestly say that this has been the best Notre Dame season of my conscious life. The 2012 campaign was a charmed season for sure. But this team has a different feel to it. Unlike the 2012 team, defeat was never too close, save for the Pittsburgh game. My hope is that this talented Irish squad has saved a “best” performance we have not yet seen for December 29th.