The Orange and Golden Domers are set for an epic clash. It’s often used to describe must-see college football games in the fall but the phrase “Showdown Saturday” definitely applies to the No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup when Syracuse University takes on Notre Dame at 12:00 p.m. at Arlotta Stadium.
The two teams are a combined 12-1 on the season and many pundits feel this matchup could be a preview of a possible Final Four or national championship game two months from now. Notre Dame boasts the top defense in the ACC, allowing 7.5 goals per game, while the Orange counters with leagues top scoring offense at 15.4 goals per game. However, this game is not a clash of styles as Notre Dame brings in a very potent offense with skilled offensive players and Syracuse boasts a top end defense led by shutdown close defenders Brandon Mullins and Sean Young that is allowing only 7.7 goals per game, nearly matching Notre Dame. After two one goal classics last season between the two teams, Saturday promises to be more of the same.
Here are a few of the matchups and individual players I will be keeping a close eye on Saturday.
Ben Williams vs Notre Dame at the X
Ben Williams continues his historic performance at the X for the Orange. Williams, who is stilling winning draws at a scorching 68%, dominated Duke in the first half of last week’s woodshed beating. Williams faded a bit in the second half, losing a few draws, but still finished an impressive 14-of-22 at the X and helping Syracuse to an insurmountable 13-1 halftime lead over the Blue Devils. Notre Dame will attempt to counter with multiple faceoff options but on paper there doesn’t appear to be any obvious answers to match Williams. Notre Dame as a team is under 50% on the year at the X and despite the fact that they shut Ohio State 9-0 last week they finished only 4-of-13 at the X. The Irish’s top two options are starting midfielder Nick Osello and FOGO PJ Finley. Osello adds a unique dynamic to the X, as being a starting midfielder he is comfortable handling the ball after winning a draw and can generate instant offense. However, he is under 50% on the year (30-of-69) and going against a skilled player like Williams doesn’t appear to be a favorable matchup. I expect PJ Finley to take a majority of the draws over Osello and third option John Travisano, Jr. With Notre Dame having a top end defense they clearly don’t need to win a majority of the draws to win the game, but if Williams is hitting his average and winning over 60% of the draws it’s hard to see how Syracuse won’t eventually wear down the ND defense and come away with the W. ND may attempt to counter Syracuse faceoff dominance with a 10 man ride, which they have been known to play – especially when trailing. Syracuse had some experience against a 10 man ride in the preseason against Bucknell, so it will be interesting to see how Syracuse and Desko counter should ND attempt it.
Syracuse D vs the ND offense
Saturday’s game will bring some highly anticipated defensive matchups on both sides. For Syracuse it-s clear that Preseason All-American Brandon Mullins will draw the assignment of marking junior attackman Matt Kavanagh the clear offensive leader and QB for the Irish. Kavanagh is a deadly left handed finisher who leads the team in points with 27. Mullins and Kavanagh have tangled before with Mullins effectively shutting Kavanagh down in the regular season matchup last spring, only to watch Kavanagh counter with six points in the ACC tournament championship game. This will be a key matchup for Syracuse. If Mullins can severely limit Kavanagh, ND will have a hard time competing in a higher scoring game.
Another matchup to keep a close eye on will be shut down crease defender Sean Young against Notre Dame’s super frosh Mikey Wynne. Wynne is second on the team in points but is far and away the leading goal scorer, with 19 tallies. Dynamic in close, Wynne has made teams pay for playing to close attention to Kavanagh and leaving him open or lightly guarded around the goalie. Wynne has had a blazing start for the Irish but was held without a point against Ohio State last week. Going up against a seasoned veteran in Young, who has made a career of shutting down crease players, you would have to give a slight edge to Young in this matchup, at least on paper. The key to the game, however, may be how well the Syracuse short stick and long stick middies perform against the Notre Dame midfield. Sergio Perkovic and Nick Ossello are both dynamic and super skilled midfield players who have helped to transform the ND offense into a unit that can finally hold its own with the constant strength of the ND defense. Perkovic has the ability to shoot from outside and scored twice against the Orange in the ACC championship last year. Expect to see a heavy dose of Peter Macartney and Scott Firman on Perkovic. Firman excelled last week in limiting Myles Jones to his worst game of the year. I don’t expect Syracuse to double pole the midfield as third attackman Connor Doyle had five points (2 goals, 3 assists) against SU in the ACC tournament. This will in turn put pressure on Tom Grimm, Mike Messina, Paolo Ciferri, and Joe Gillis to continue their strong play. Some teams have attempted to zone ND but I don’t believe the Orange will go this route unless the defense is struggling immensely.
Much like the Duke game the Syracuse defense will need to continue to be aggressive and look to harass Perkovic and the midfield when they have the ball and not allow them to have open looks. Should Brandon Mullins be able to limit Matt Kavanagh it’s likely Mikey Wynne will struggle as well, which will put immense pressure on the ND midfield. Syracuse could also use a repeat performance from Bobby Wardwell, who played arguably the best game of his season last week against Duke. Wardwell struggled against ND immensely last season, along with Mullins and the SSDM. I will be extremely interested to see if last week’s performance was a product of Wardwell’s fantastic senior campaign or a product of an opponent that he has a history of success against.
Man up Offense/Defense
ND leads the nation in efficiency for extra man opportunities by scoring at an incredible 67% rate (10-of-15). Syracuse will need to limit its penalties this game and try avoid multiple man up opportunities. In a similar situation against Johns Hopkins Syracuse (for the most part) was able to limit its penalties, and its man down defense did a solid job limiting the Jays to two goals on four attempts. Syracuse did pick up a 2-minute unreleasable penalty that game, which luckily only resulted in one goal for the Jays. Syracuse would be wise to avoid a repeat of that penalty against ND. For the Orange man up unit, they need to take advantage of potential man up opportunities to ensure a good look. With the Notre Dame defense as stout as it is they will need to capitalize on any opportunities.
Randy Staats and the Syracuse offense
Despite not having one of the best attackmen in Division 1 last week the Orange were able to put 19 goals on the board against Duke. A repeat of that performance, however, is unlikely. Notre Dame has two extremely talented close defenders in Matt Landis and Garrett Epple. Furthermore, ND unbelievably shut out Ohio State 9-0 last Saturday. For a DI team to shut out another DI team in this day and age is nothing short of remarkable. Notre Dame does an excellent job of communicating and sliding at the correct time, which can be difficult for any team. ND also did an excellent job of forcing its opponents to settle for bad shots. Last week the Buckeyes struggled immensely to generate early offense and were often stuck taking a low percentage shot or forced to take a desperation look late in the shot clock.
For individual matchups, Matt Landis is one of the best defenders in the nation and will surely draw Kevin Rice. Epple is likely to draw Donahue, leaving ND coach Kevin Corrigan with a tough choice on whether to double the Orange midfield or place his third close defender on Tim Barber. Jack Near is an excellent short stick defender who won’t hesitate to handle the ball offensively off a turnover or save. Should ND choose to double pole the midfield the pressure will be on Barber to make the ND defense pay, as he will likely draw Near. Barber showed some serious skill last week against Duke, scoring on a rocket shot after a dodge from behind the cage, but he also wasn’t counted on to contribute much with Rice and Donahue putting on a two man show and combining for a ridiculous 14 points. With ND likely to place extra attention on Rice and Donahue, the remaining offensive players will need to step up and produce goals. If the midfield and Barber can put up points it will force ND to pay less attention to Rice and Donahue, which will open up their two man game. Syracuse has faced a top defense this year in Army and had mixed results despite winning a majority of the faceoffs. Even though they scored 19 goals last week, this game provides the Orange with a real opportunity to make a statement offensively.
Should the Syracuse duo of Rice and Donahue struggle, where should John Desko and the staff look for answers? Keep an eye on Nicky Galasso, who has been relatively quiet the last two games as Henry Schoonmaker has broken out. Galasso has scored 13 goals on the season for the ‘Cuse and seems to be flying under the radar a bit going into the game. The second midfield will also be an interesting watch on Saturday. With Barber forced to move to attack and Hayes McGinley indefinitely suspended the Syracuse midfield depth has taken a significant hit. This far into the season makes burning a redshirt highly unlikely despite the fact that the Orange have several well regarded freshmen middies on the bench. This will force Desko and the staff to continue to rely on Jordan Evans, Nick Westin, Sergio Salcido, and Derek Dejoe to man the second mid line. Evans and Salcido have struggled significantly this year to live up to preseason expectations, and now would be a good a time for one to break out.
With both teams coming off of dominant performances and the game matching No. 1 vs. No. 2 it’s hard to feel either side has an edge in this game. If Randy Staats is out again, as many expect, ND will catch a nice break as Staats scored five goals last year against the Irish and looked dominant at times. ND has the offensive firepower and skilled defensemen to beat this Orange squad, especially playing at home. That said, Syracuse does have a few things in its favor that I feel give it a slight edge in this game. The Orange are 8-2 against ND all-time and despite last year’s 15-14 loss in the ACC tournament, the Orange have had success against the Irish, especially defensively. In 2013 the Orange beat ND twice and used a stifling defense that limited ND to under 10 goals combined for both matchups. Syracuse appeared unprepared for the explosiveness of the ND offense last year in the ACC tournament, and I don’t think that’s likely to repeat itself on Saturday. Syracuse also has the X factor in Ben Williams, who has continued to dominate every faceoff opponent this year (save for the Cornell FOGO). With Ben Williams and a veteran offense that appears to be hitting its stride I like the Orange in a close one.