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Notre Dame Football: The Top 5 Running Back Performances of the Brian Kelly Era

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Highlighting the best one-game efforts since 2010.

Notre Dame v Pittsburgh Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

What are the best performances by Notre Dame Fighting Irish running backs in the Brian Kelly era? It depends on what metric you use, so let’s look at a few.

Here are the top 10 by total rushing yards (minimum 10 attempts):

Best Rushing Performances of Brian Kelly Era

Year Opponent Runner Total runs Total rush yards Run successful Run unsuccessful Percentage Total TDs S&P+ defense
Year Opponent Runner Total runs Total rush yards Run successful Run unsuccessful Percentage Total TDs S&P+ defense
2017 BOSTON COLLEGE ADAMS 18 229 10 8 55.56% 0 23
2018 FLORIDA STATE WILLIAMS 20 202 10 10 50.00% 2 37
2017 NORTH CAROLINA STATE ADAMS 27 202 11 16 40.74% 1 38
2015 GEORGIA TECH PROSISE 22 198 14 8 63.64% 3 53
2011 PURDUE WOOD 20 191 14 6 70.00% 1 52
2017 USC ADAMS 19 191 9 10 47.37% 2 24
2016 USC ADAMS 17 180 11 6 64.71% 0 9
2018 VIRGINIA TECH WILLIAMS 17 178 7 10 41.18% 3 77
2015 STANFORD ADAMS 18 168 9 9 50.00% 1 45
2018 STANFORD WILLIAMS 21 161 10 11 47.62% 1 43
@ndjrs / Twitter

I prefer Bill Connelly’s success rate metric, because I believe it gives a fan a better sense of which running backs performed when it was most needed.

For example, Josh Adams ran for 202 yards in a 2017 game against the N.C. State Wolfpack. By rushing yards, it’s the third best performance by a Notre Dame running back in the Brian Kelly era.

No doubt there were big plays. Adams ran for a 77-yard touchdown to put the game out of reach, and had runs of 14, 21 and 35 yards earlier in that game. What you likely don’t remember is that the junior from Warrington, Pa. gained two or fewer yards on 10 of his 27 runs. Six of those plays were stuffs, meaning he gained zero yards or lost yardage on the play.

Here’s a refresher on success rate:

The goal of success rate is to create an on-base percentage-style efficiency measure. Depending on a given down and distance, each play is deemed successful or non-successful:

First downs: gaining at least 50 percent of necessary yardage (usually 5 yards) is successful.

Second downs: gaining at least 70 percent of necessary yardage is successful.

Third or fourth downs: gaining at least 100 percent of necessary yardage is successful.

This is intentionally simple, but it can do powerful things over time, especially when adjusted for opponent.

So here’s the five best running back performances of the Brian Kelly era.

HONORABLE MENTION: THEO RIDDICK VS. NAVY, 2012

Notre Dame v Navy Photo by Barry Cronin/Getty Images

Success rate: 73.7 percent
Rushes: 19
Total rushing yards: 107
Total rushing touchdowns: 2
Opponent S&P+ defense rank: 103rd
First downs: 9
Explosive plays (runs of 12+ yards): 1
3rd downs converted: 4 for 4
Stuffs (gained zero or negative yards): 1
Additional notes: Riddick also caught two passes for 25 yards.

The Navy Midshipmen defense that Theo Riddick tore up in Ireland was inarguably bad. Both George Atkinson III and Cam McDaniel were successful on seven of their nine runs. But it’s still a hell of a performance that deserves a mention.

#5: ROBERT HUGHES VS. USC, 2010

Notre Dame v USC Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Success rate: 72.7 percent
Rushes: 11
Total rushing yards: 69 yards
Total rushing touchdowns: 1
Opponent S&P+ defense rank: 45th
First downs: 4
Explosive plays (runs of 12+ yards): 2
3rd downs converted: 1 for 1
Stuffs (gained zero or negative yards): 0
Additional notes: Hughes caught a eight-yard pass on second and 10 in the first quarter.

When all else failed, Robert Hughes delivered against the USC Trojans in 2010.

The Irish’s rushing success rate for the game was 40.6 percent; Hughes was the only back capable that day of getting the needed yardage. With the Irish trailing by three — and not having won in the Coliseum since 2000 — Hughes rushed for six, 12, 13 and five yards, scored a touchdown and secured the victory.

#4: JOSH ADAMS VS. NEVADA, 2016

Nevada v Notre Dame Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Success rate: 80 percent
Rushes: 10
Total rushing yards: 106
Total rushing touchdowns: 0
Opponent S&P+ defense rank: 118th
First downs: 6
Explosive plays (runs of 12+ yards): 3
3rd downs converted: 2 of 3
Stuffs (gained zero or negative yards): 0
Additional notes: Adams caught a pass in the second quarter, but lost one yard.

Notre Dame rushed for 239 yards against a very inept Nevada Wolf Pack defense. Josh Adams had runs of 14, 16 and 43 yards — and was effective early when the game was still in doubt.

#3: JONAS GRAY VS. MARYLAND, 2011

Navy v Notre Dame

Success rate: 81 percent
Rushes: 21
Total rushing yards: 136
Total rushing touchdowns: 2
Opponent S&P+ defense rank: 87th
First downs: 8
Explosive plays (runs of 12+ yards): 4
3rd downs converted: 3 of 4
Stuffs (gained zero or negative yards): 1
Additional notes: Gray also caught a five-yard pass on 1st and 10 in the third quarter.

Jonas Gray was an unstoppable force his senior year, and no game provided clearer evidence than the Shamrock Series win against the Maryland Terrapins.

Offensive coordinator Charley Molnar and head coach Brian Kelly kept feeding Gray the ball after it became evident that the Terrapins defense had no answer for his power.

Without Gray, the running contingent had a 36 percent success rate. The Pontiac, Michigan product upped the Irish’s overall average 20 points, to 56 percent.

Gray opened the scoring with a 1-yard dash, and helped extend the Irish’s lead to 24-7 with a second 1-yard score on fourth down. He also converted an improbable 3rd-and-17 with his longest run of the day, a 19-yard scoot.

#2: CIERRE WOOD VS. NAVY, 2011

Navy v Notre Dame

Success rate: 81.8 percent
Rushes: 11
Total rushing yards: 66
Total rushing touchdowns: 2
Opponent S&P+ defense rank: 110th
First downs: 6
Explosive plays (runs of 12+ yards): 2
3rd downs converted: 0 of 0
Stuffs (gained zero or negative yards): 0
Additional notes: Wood also caught two passes for 13 yards.

I hesitate to praise Cierre Wood at a time he is facing a murder charge for his alleged involvement in the death of his girlfriend’s daughter. What prosecutors say Wood did is unconscionable, and my only consolation is that this poor innocent girl is no longer suffering at the hands of two reportedly terrible people.

#1: TAREAN FOLSTON VS. NAVY, 2013

Navy v Notre Dame Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Success rate: 88.9 percent
Rushes: 18
Total rushing yards: 140
Total rushing touchdowns: 1
Opponent S&P+ defense rank: 93rd
First downs: 10
Explosive plays (runs of 12+ yards): 5
3rd downs converted: 1 of 1
Stuffs (gained zero or negative yards): 0
Additional notes: Cam McDaniel had a 100 percent success rate in this game (7-for-7).

This was freshman Tarean Folston’s coming out party, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.

The Irish squeaked out a victory behind Folston’s 18 rush, 140 yard performance, which included his first career touchdown. It was an important win for the Irish, who improved to 7-2 and re-earned a Top 25 AP ranking.

Folston was shifty, following his blockers for big gains while also consistently beating Navy defenders around the edge. When five yards was needed, Folston gave 10. When 10 was required, the freshman came up with 15.

OTHER FUN FACTS

  • There are 53 100-yard rushing performances in the Brian Kelly era, from 14 different players. Of those, 11 were running backs and three were quarterbacks.
  • The 10 worst performances by a running back in the Brian Kelly (by success rate, minimum 10 attempts):

10. C.J. Prosise vs. Clemson Tigers, 2015: 15 rushes, 50 yards (26.67 percent success rate)

9. Theo Riddick vs. Oklahoma Sooners, 2012: 19 rushes, 74 yards, 1 touchdown (26.32 percent success rate)

8. Cierre Wood vs. Utah Utes, 2010: 19 rushes, 71 yards (26.32 percent success rate)

7. Dexter Williams vs. Northwestern Wildcats, 2018: 19 rushes, 56 yards, 1 touchdown (26.32 percent success rate)

6. Deon McIntosh vs. Michigan State Spartans, 2017: 12 rushes, 35 yards, 1 touchdown (25 percent success rate)

5. Riddick vs. Michigan State Spartans, 2012: 12 rushes, 30 yards (25 percent success rate)

4. Prosise vs. Temple Owls, 2015: 14 rushes, 25 yards (21.4 percent success rate)

3. Cam McDaniel vs. USC Trojans, 2013: 18 rushes, 97 yards (15.8 percent success rate)

2. McDaniel vs. Stanford Cardinal, 2014: 15 rushes, 41 yards (13.3 percent success rate)

1. McIntosh vs. Miami-Ohio Redhawks, 2017: 12 rushes, 47 yards (7.7 percent success rate)