Against Purdue, Notre Dame rushed for 287 yards and passed for 264. Against Air Force, the Irish had 266 yards on the ground and 294 yards through the air.
No one will mistake USC for Purdue or Air Force. But when you have 226 yards through the air and just 41 yards on the ground, as the Irish did against the Trojans, it puts Brian Kelly’s spread offense in a predicament.
A lack of balance throws the whole system out of whack.
“I think it’s important every week,” said Kelly Tuesday of the running game, which managed just 14 attempts against the Trojans.
“We got down 14-0, and then we got down after the turnover, 24-10. We got behind schedule, so it’s very important that we get off to a good start. If we get off to a good start, then our running game is going to be part of what we do.”
The Irish couldn’t have started more poorly than they did against the Trojans. Notre Dame took the opening kickoff, ran three plays and punted. USC then went 66 yards on 13 plays for a touchdown. Notre Dame ran three more plays, punted, and then the Trojans embarked upon a six-play, 62-yard touchdown drive. The Irish had run six plays from scrimmage and were trailing, 14-0.
Compounding the problem was an off night from running back Cierre Wood, who entered the game averaging 108 yards rushing per game and finished with five yards on five carries.
“Part of my job is to get the best out of our players, and I didn’t get the best out of him,” said Kelly of Wood. “He’s got to figure it out. He’s an adult and he’s got to figure out what he needs to do to play at a high level. There are so many circumstances that we could talk about other than it’s game time. When the lights are on, you’ve got to go play.”
Kelly said that Wood’s backup, Jonas Gray, has earned the right to get more playing time, which translates into more touches. Through seven games, Gray averages just 7.2 carries per game. But he’s averaging 8.4 yards per carry with touchdowns in each of the last four games.
“It’s a very competitive situation,” Kelly said. “Jonas has done more from his production per se than Cierre playing poorly. (Wood) did not play his best. I can give you a long list of guys that did not play their best. Jonas Gray, by his play, has warranted more time on the field.”
In certain games this year, Kelly has “over emphasized” the running game early, just to make sure the rushing attack gets launched. Navy might be a good opponent to try that approach again. The Midshipmen are allowing 4.9 yards per carry and 198.3 yards rushing per game.
“We don’t want to be in a situation where we don’t run the ball enough because it makes it more difficult to throw the football,” Kelly said. “It’s very important to get off to a good start.”