Before the season started I wondered if the Notre Dame running game would be transformed by a new system, better coaching of fundamentals and the addition of a redshirt freshman eager to bring his talents to the field.
After a promising first game of the season against Purdue (153 yards, 4.3 average) and quality production against Michigan (154 yards, 4.8 average), the Irish running attack has come to a screeching halt over the past two games.
Over the past two weeks Notre Dame has only mustered 136 yards on the ground for a paltry 2.7 average per rush and now the Irish sit at 99th overall in national rushing.
So, what is going on with the Notre Dame running attack?
A lot of chatter this week surrounded the nature of the spread option attack and quarterback Dayne Crist’s refusal to keep the ball and take off running.
Is Crist holding the Notre Dame ground game back?
I think there is some truth to this and the Stanford game pretty much made this as clear as day. Even though the Cardinal were only rushing four and sometimes three defenders, they were still able to bottle up the Irish runners at the line of scrimmage.
Without the threat of Crist taking the ball around the edge in the opposite direction, Stanford was able to completely collapse towards the ball carrier and limit the amount of room and running lanes the Irish runner had to work with. In most cases, this resulted in gains of only two or three yards or less.
Will the Notre Dame running game ever be effective is this continues?
Is Crist a Good Enough Runner?
I was reading some comments this week that say Crist just isn’t a good enough runner to be a threat in the running game for Notre Dame. While I disagree with this thought, it really misses the point.
Notre Dame doesn’t need Crist to rush for 50, 75 or 100 yards every game for this offense to open things up on the ground, there just needs to be enough of a credible threat that Crist will keep the ball on read plays and scamper down field.
It doesn’t even matter if Crist only runs for five yards before being taken down, the offense needs to prevent the defense from collapsing on the running back and the only way to do this is for Crist to keep them honest.
And anyway, Crist has good enough speed where he can make teams pay from time to time. His problem is initial burst and quickness (also a product of learning a new system, making a split second read, and recovering from a knee injury) but once he gets going Crist has decent enough speed for a big quarterback.
Can the Team Afford Crist Running the Ball More?
This is the five million dollar question right now.
Right now we’re left wondering if Crist is under orders to hand the ball off on almost every play, if he’s having trouble with the read, or if he’s just hesitant to take off for a whole variety of reasons.
But for the fan base at large, many do not want to see Crist running with the ball for fear of injury and what waits behind him on the depth chart.
As much of a risk as it may be to have Crist carry the ball more, I think it is something that needs to be done. Head coach Brian Kelly said this much at his weekly press conference and told reporters that the team was moving in the direction of Crist running the ball more often.
Like Kelly said before the year began, this offense cannot play scared.
Also, Crist will be a target for big hits if he’s running with the ball down field, but as Stanford showed us last weekend, Crist is exposed (maybe more so) and prone to injury while sitting in the pocket and taking shots from blitzing defenders.
And one of the main reasons is that Stanford didn’t have to worry about Crist keeping the ball and could focus exclusively on crashing the running back and attacking the pocket.
Sure the offensive line and running backs have to block better, but Crist’s quarterback keeper plays on the option read add another dimension to the offense that has to be accounted for by the defense and which over time will open up larger running lanes for Allen, Wood and others.
Is There Ever Going to be a Focus on Running the Ball?
At this point, there just isn’t enough evidence to make a judgment either way.
Certainly the last two games have many worried that Brian Kelly will fall into the Charlie Weis school of thought and throw the ball whenever the pressure is on. Yet, the glaring weakness of all of Notre Dame’s first four opponents has been their secondaries, so it is hard to blame the coaching staff for trying to take advantage of that.
What’s important to remember is that we are not seeing the full playbook in action and it is going to take quite a while to get the entire roster adjusted to this new offense. Right now Notre Dame is running a very stripped down and vanilla version of Brian Kelly’s offense with minimal amounts of the various screens and other non-traditional plays that Cincinnati ran so often the past couple of years.
Once we see the play book open, both later this year and next year, we should see an improved running game and more of a reliance to keep the ball on the ground. As much as people like me wanted to believe that the running game could be as explosive as the passing game, it’s just not a reality right now.
With a new quarterback making his first handful of starts in college Notre Dame is still seventh in the nation in passing offense and airing the ball out is probably going to be the modus operandi for the bulk of 2010.
Is Everything Alright in the Backfield?
Allen has been one of the team’s biggest leaders both statistically and emotionally through the first four games. There is no doubt that he is the number one guy at running back and that he is "the man" right now.
I expect a really big game from No. 5 very soon.
After a promising first career game against Purdue, Wood has looked timid and unsure of himself on kick returns and rushing attempts. In fact, he has been a target for a lot of easy ribbing this week for his poor blocking in the game against Stanford as well.
However, I am still 100 percent behind this kid and was happy to hear Brian Kelly give him a boost of confidence this week during his press conference. He’s only carried the ball nine times since Purdue, so it’s not like he has had a huge opportunity to prove himself, but he does have to re-focus and run a lot harder in the coming weeks.
My hope is that he turns things around soon because Wood is the future at running back and it will be important to develop him this year and have him ready for a possible starting role next year once Armando Allen graduates.
I’ve been pretty happy with the way Gray has played so far this year and he looks to be a little bit more explosive and powerful than in the past. He’s doubtful this weekend with a groin injury, but he has certainly earned a chance to carry the ball a lot more once he comes back.
A lot of people were relieved to see Hughes on the field in the fourth quarter against Stanford and now that Brian Kelly has moved the big senior to second on the depth chart those same voices believe that the Irish are ready to pound the ball on the ground now.
I remain skeptical, especially since Kelly basically said Hughes would be used primarily as a blocker and not a runner. I am all for Hughes coming in to block, but we are fooling ourselves if we think he is going to add anything to the running game.
Just look at his stats over the past two years against quality defenses:
USC 2009 (40th overall defense): 6 carries, 17 yards, 2.8 average
Boston College 2009 (26th): 4 carries, 5 yards, 1.3 average
Navy 2009 (34th): 7 carries, 20 yards, 2.9 average
UCONN 2009 (62nd): 4 carries, 11 yards, 2.8 average
Michigan State 2008 (59th): 5 carries, 9 yards, 1.8 average
Purdue 2008 (61st): 9 carries, 26 yards, 2.9 average
North Carolina 2008 (65th): 4 carries, 12 yards, 4.0 average
Pitt 2008 (28th): 8 carries, 25 yards, 3.1 average
Boston College 2008 (5): 3 carries, 18 yards, 6.0 average
Navy 2008 (53rd): 13 carries, 64 yards, 4.9 average
USC 2008 (2nd): 5 carries, 7 yards, 1.4 average
Hawaii 2008 (62nd): 17 carries, 55 yards, 3.2 average
That is a 3.1 yards per carry average and an even uglier average if you take out Hawaii and Navy who despite their rankings, were not very good defenses at all in 2008.
I know a lot of people will be quick to defend Hughes and say that he’s been a tremendous teammate and great guy during his time at Notre Dame (which I agree with 100 percent), but you can’t hide from those stats.
Guys who are 245 pounds and run 4.8 40 times are called fullbacks, and as the evidence above suggests, having one as a first or second option at running back will not improve a ground game, only weigh it down more.
Boston College Awaits
It doesn’t get any easier this week as Notre Dame plays yet another team with a solid defensive line, great linebackers and a weak secondary.
Brian Kelly mentioned at his press conference that he wants to see the team run the ball better, but the match ups are once again favoring another pass heavy game from Crist and Co.
Even though Boston College has only played one quality team this year, the Eagles are sitting pretty with the sixth ranked rushing defense and 31st total defense in the nation.
History is not on Notre Dame’s side either as the Irish have not played well in recent games at Chestnut Hill and the team has only totaled a combined 199 rushing yards in the last three meetings versus Boston College.
So this week offers another test from a team that will likely imitate what Stanford did against Notre Dame. If the Eagles only rush three or four defenders, it is crucial that the Irish make them pay on the ground.
That will happen with improved blocking, more assertive running and with Crist keeping the opponent honest on the option read.