Notre Dame stands 4-3 as it hits the road for Saturday’s tilt against No. 16 Syracuse (Noon ET, ABC).

Over the summer, the Syracuse game seemed like an afterthought, a mere bump in the road Notre Dame had to survive before the national spotlight was on South Bend, Ind., for the Clemson contest the following week. Now, the game seems like an inflection point in Notre Dame’s 1st full season under coach Marcus Freeman. With a win, the Fighting Irish will have 2 wins against ranked opponents during 2022, a respectable figure despite stunning home losses to Marshall and Stanford. Lose, and Notre Dame is 4-4 as it arrives at the Clemson matchup, with a loss to the No. 5 Tigers likely. If Notre Dame does indeed lose its next 2 games, the Fighting Irish would need to close 2-1 just to reach a bowl game, and even if that happened, the Fighting Irish wouldn’t be playing in a marquee game, something the program became accustomed to under Brian Kelly.

A game no one paid much mind during the offseason, then, has become a marquee, must-win game for the Fighting Irish. Can Notre Dame keep it together for 4 quarters against a quality opponent? Will Syracuse have a hangover after its heartbreaking loss at Clemson last weekend? Can the Fighting Irish replicate their fast start against Nevada-Las Vegas, the 1st game that Notre Dame scored a touchdown during the 1st quarter all season? Will Syracuse leave All-American running back Sean Tucker in the witness protection program for a 2nd consecutive week? These questions and more predominate the buildup to this game, which sees Syracuse just slim favorites despite a 6-1 record.

Here are Saturday Road’s 3 thoughts on the game, along with a prediction.

Who is the bellcow at running back Saturday, and can Notre Dame’s offensive line finally impose its will on a quality opponent?

Syracuse is 6-1 because its offense, a liability during 2021, is competent and its defense, very good last year, now is great. The Orange ranks 13th nationally in total defense and yards allowed per play, and 15th of 75 teams I rate in my success rate defense metric (measuring how often a defense allows an opponent to “succeed” and gain a certain number of yards per play, given down and distance). The Orange’s defensive weakness at times this year has been slowing the run. Clemson and Will Shipley exploited that during the 2nd half Saturday, and you can bet Notre Dame noticed on film.

The Fighting Irish also have been at their offensive best this year when they’ve had balance. If Notre Dame runs the ball for 200 yards or more, they are 3-0. If they don’t, they are 1-3. The ability to run has opened up the passing game for the Fighting Irish, and taken pressure off do-it-all tight end Michael Mayer, who is a monster of a run blocker, since we mentioned it.

Notre Dame’s best runs tend to be with Audric Estime, who has the best blend of athleticism and physicality in Notre Dame’s running back room. The problem for Estime has been fumbles. He has lost 3 during the past 4 games, and as a result, the staff has turned more to Logan Diggs, who played his best game against UNLV and has been the team’s most top running back in terms of success rate over the past 3 games. Chris Tyree, a tremendous weapon, has been less effective as a running back this season than Estime or Diggs, but he can’t be overlooked in a game on turf where his speed in space is magnified even more than usual.

The distribution of carries probably matters less than whether the Fighting Irish can block the Orange, but based on video and pure success rate, the best back on the team is Estime and if he doesn’t fumble, Notre Dame might just ride him Saturday afternoon.

What does Isaiah Foskey do for an encore?

Isaiah Foskey was having a good season until last weekend, when things went from good to All-American-caliber good. Yes, it was UNLV, but anytime you have 5 tackles, 3 sacks and block 2 punts, you have had a special day. How special? Foskey became the 1st player in Notre Dame history — and you might have heard they have some history in South Bend — to block 2 punts in a game.

Foskey will be matched up against a Syracuse offensive line that has been solid but not spectacular. The Orange is tied for 51st in the country in tackles for loss allowed, a good number, but tied for 96th in sacks allowed, a not good number. Garrett Shrader’s emergence as a reliable player who occasionally is a playmaker under center also has helped turn the engine in Syracuse’s 2022 revival, but the Notre Dame line will be 1 of the 2 best the Orange has played this season, and it will get Notre Dame a mere week removed from a brutish, physical affair with Clemson, the best defensive line it has faced.

Notre Dame needs big plays from its defense and special teams, because it just isn’t quite good enough offensively to go the length of the field consistently. If the Fighting Irish can get another huge game Saturday from Foskey, or even a game during which his presence is known consistently, it would raise the Fighting Irish’s chances to win considerably.

Can Notre Dame win on 3rd down offensively?

Third down conversions have been an issue for the Fighting Irish this season regardless of whether Tyler Buchner or Drew Pyne has been under center. Notre Dame ranks 50th in the country on 3rd-down conversion percentage, but those numbers are inflated somewhat by an excellent 9-for-17 performance in that category against UNLV.

Notre Dame’s biggest issues lately have been throwing the ball on 3rd down. Even including the UNLV game, Pyne has converted just 1 of his past 9 pass attempts on 3rd down. That’s not good.

The problem is compounded by the fact the Fighting Irish have struggled against quality defenses — No. 2 Ohio State and Marshall being the lone 2 Notre Dame have played inside the top 25 nationally, per CFB Stats — to gain yardage on 3rd-and-3 or less. In those 2 games, Notre Dame was just 3-of-10 on 3rd and short. It will need to convert those against a stingy Syracuse defense Saturday if it hopes to win.

Prediction: Notre Dame 20, Syracuse 14

Who knows? Maybe this is just a green-colored glasses-type view, but I think Notre Dame gets Syracuse at the right time. The Orange is coming off a close loss when the whole country was watching. It was an emotional, physical game on the road that wasn’t decided until the final minutes. A loss like that — and the end of your unbeaten season — is tough to swallow under any circumstances. It’s even harder when you have to come back home, play a team with more talent than you, and do it on national television again. Say what you will about coach Freeman and the Fighting Irish in Year 1 — and we’ve said plenty at The Road — but Notre Dame is used to big games and used to the spotlight. The Fighting Irish will make Shrader beat them, and while it’s hard to not see wide receiver Oronde Gadsden II getting loose a time or 2 in the Fighting Irish secondary, I think Notre Dame comes up with enough stops, and just enough offense, thanks to the run game and Mayer’s brilliance, to get a huge win — and build some momentum as it readies for Clemson at Notre Dame Stadium next weekend.