If Brian Kelly intended the honor of carrying the ball nine straight times to close Notre Dame's 31-24 victory over Purdue to be a birthday present to junior running back Cam McDaniel, then the Irish head coach was a week early and forgot the wrapping paper.
Even if those nine carries were intended as a gift, the closest thing to a present last week came after McDaniel carried four straight times and headed to the sideline dripping blood near the end of the first half. While the medical staff tended to his head wound, trying in vain to stop the bleeding, Kelly called a timeout. Having lost his helmet on a run to get the ball within three yards of the goal line, McDaniel was required to sit out a play. By burning a timeout, Kelly allowed for McDaniel to reenter the game immediately.
When a coach supposedly has five capable running backs, rarely does he use a timeout to get one specific back on the field. McDaniel's father, Danny McDaniel, noticed the coaching decision while watching on his TV for the first time this season. He had made it to the first two games.
"It seemed like the coaches knew his presence on the field with what they were trying to do would give them the best chance at punching that ball in," said Danny McDaniel, a former coach himself. "I saw it as a great compliment."
Cam, meanwhile, spent no time worrying about the gash that required four stitches at halftime or appreciating the "compliment" from his coaches. His thoughts turned directly toward the next play, a 3rd-and-goal.
"What was going through my head at that time was we've just got to get it in the end zone," Cam said. "It was actually a pass play that was called so I was just thinking about pass (protection) and my responsibilities."
Notre Dame had to settle for a field goal on that drive, but McDaniel found the end zone in the second half as he ran for 58 yards on 16 carries to lead the Irish on the ground. Having run into the wrong end of a gauntlet machine in the pre-season -- "It was just a ball security drill," McDaniel will try to convince you -- and repeatedly gaining the tough yards for Notre Dame, the Texas native has earned himself a reputation for team-first, hard-nosed running.
"The best thing about Cam is he'll pretty much do whatever the team needs him to do," senior captain and offensive tackle Zack Martin said. "If we need him to run hard, he's going to run harder than anyone out there…It's definitely motivation for us to see our running back laying it on the line."
McDaniel laid it on the line, and, in Martin's words, "lowered his head and ran a few guys over a couple of times" to help Notre Dame run out the final 7:22 in West Lafayette. Though Kelly has said he is committed to a running back committee for the time-being, McDaniel took handoffs on 11 of Notre Dame's final 12 snaps, totaling 42 yards and converting two crucial third downs on that drive. His limited carries earlier in the game may have provided McDaniel the motivation necessary to hammer the final nail in Purdue's figurative coffin.
"I always run with a chip on my shoulder," the 5-foot-10 back said. "I love to take basically the people that have always told me that I can't do it or I'm not capable, throw me into some statistics column, and use that as motivation to play my best game."
Included among those people would be the coaches at the University of Texas, McDaniel's "dream school." Even though McDaniel and the Coppell High School Cowboys only lost three times in his two seasons as a starter, including an undefeated senior regular season, the Longhorns did not recruit the running back 200 miles away. Now, he's glad a self-described "southern boy" ended "up north" at Notre Dame.
"This is a special place, not just from a football perspective, but in general," McDaniel said.
This weekend, thanks to a quirk in Texas high school football scheduling which has his younger brother playing on a Thursday, McDaniel's whole family will be in town to celebrate his 22nd birthday. Whether he carries the ball once -- as he did against Michigan -- or 20 times, McDaniel will continue to do what the coaches ask of him, but make no mistake, he wants the ball.
"Right now the desires in his heart are to help his team win the next game and the next and the next," Danny McDaniel said. "His desire would be to carry the load and carry the team on his shoulders."
Just like he did in the final drive against Purdue.