Notre Dame needs to avoid turnovers, sloppy play for upcoming stretch

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By BRIAN HARTNETT
College Contributor Network

When looking at Notre Dame's seemingly lackluster 31-15 victory over Syracuse at MetLife Stadium on Saturday night, several statistics jump out: Notre Dame held Syracuse to a paltry three conversions on 15 third-down attempts, Irish quarterback Everett Golson completed 25 consecutive passes (many of them short screens) leaving him one completion shy of tying the FBS record, Notre Dame turned the ball over five times, finished minus-four in turnover margin and still won the game by 16 points.

According to ESPN's Ivan Maisel, teams with a minus-four turnover margin went 1-28 against power-five conference teams over the last two seasons. What can Notre Dame fans take away from that fact?

Well, two main things. The first is that Notre Dame seems to have developed the consistency to handily beat lesser competition. The second is that the Irish have legitimate concerns heading into a difficult October stretch.

Saturday's game is one that Notre Dame would have found a way to lose at several points over the last decade. Heck, it felt very similar to last season's matchup against Pittsburgh, in which the Irish finished minus-three in turnover margin and lost 28-21. It had all the hallmarks of those past miserable losses -- players failing to carry the ball properly, inexplicable interceptions and giveaways in the red zone.

Yet, despite all that, Saturday's game never really felt in doubt. After a scoreless first quarter, the Irish opened up a 14-0 lead and never looked back. They were able to do that through an offense that dared Syracuse to stop it on the edges, something the Orange were unable to do. And they did it through a defense that forced pressure on Syracuse quarterback Terrel Hunt and held the Orange duo of Prince Tyson-Gulley and Adonis Ameen-Moore to less than 50 yards rushing combined.

That's a good sign for Notre Dame, as Syracuse presented the toughest test for the Irish thus far. Granted, that's not saying much when the other opponents were Rice, Michigan and Purdue, but the Orange have a solid offense and should be fairly competitive in the ACC.

But at the same time, Syracuse is no Stanford or Florida State. In fact, there's a chance it might not even be North Carolina. And that's what has to concern Notre Dame fans. The tune-up portion of the team's schedule is now over, and the Irish now must gear up to face the Cardinal, Tar Heels and Seminoles, respectively, over a three-week period.

Fortunately, for Notre Dame fans, this three-game slate isn't as daunting as it originally seemed. Stanford has one loss and is 80th nationally in scoring offense, North Carolina can't seem to stop any half-decent team and Florida State doesn't quite resemble the Seminoles squad that won the national title in January.

But these three teams are good enough to capitalize off the mistakes Notre Dame made this past Saturday. That particularly rings true for this week's opponent, Stanford, which currently ranks first nationally in scoring defense and allows less than a touchdown per game. For the Irish to get past the Cardinal, the team's recent trend of coughing the ball up and making mental mistakes needs to stop.

It's not too fair to pin this trend on Golson, who hadn't turned the ball over in the team's first three games, but the senior can't resemble the flustered signal-caller he looked like against Stanford in 2012, when Tommy Rees was called on to earn the late-game win, or even the one he looked like in the first quarter at MetLife Stadium over the weekend.

The Irish running game has faced difficulties all season -- some inflicted by a retooled offensive line, some inflicted by the team's young running backs -- but the talented sophomore duo of Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston need to keep the ball off the ground and avoid the fumbles each had against Syracuse. And that revamped offensive line needs to be able to better provides necessary protection for its skill players, as well as avoid the multiple false start penalties it received Saturday night.

It's possible that such gripes are just a bit nitpicky. After all, the Irish have surpassed expectations so far this season, outscoring opponents 140-46. But at the same time, Notre Dame has minimal room for error if it is to compete for a College Football Playoff slot, and ball protection could make all the difference between a playoff berth and another season of disappointment for a fanbase with high expectations.


Brian Hartnett is a senior at the University of Notre Dame with a major in Marketing and a minor in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. Originally from central New Jersey, he's also a fan of the Yankees, Nets and New York Giants. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianGHartnett
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