Notre Dame Notebook: Running Game Making And Taking Huge Steps
Following its 308-yard rushing performance in this weekend’s 30-27 victory versus USC, Notre Dame improved to 11-0 under 10th-year head coach Brian Kelly in which it eclipsed the 300 benchmark on the ground.
Seven of those victories occurred in 2017, when the Quenton Nelson/Mike McGlinchey-led line produced a 269.5 average that was seventh best in the nation and easily the highest at Notre Dame since Lou Holtz’s final season in 1996 coincidentally matched that total.
The average fell to 178.9 in 2018 despite advancing to the College Football Playoff in a transition year on offense. It looked like it was going to dip even lower following a 46-yard rushing effort in the 23-17 defeat at Georgia on Sept. 21.
However, since the fourth quarter of the Virginia game the following week in which Notre Dame closed that game with 120 yards on 15 carries in the final 15 minutes, the attack has is now up to 188.5 yards per game for a No. 45 ranking.
This has been achieved minus junior Jafar Armstrong, who was projected to be the bell cow figure in the backfield. An abdominal injury during the first series in the opener at Louisville Sept. 2 shelved him for a month. He received extensive work during the week of preparation for USC, and the hope was that he would play 10 to 15 snaps against the Trojans.
However, per Pro Football Focus, he took only four snaps versus USC, with his lone carry resulting in a four-yard loss.
“We wanted to be very specific in terms of what he was going to do for us,” Kelly said during his Sunday afternoon teleconference regarding Armstrong. “The way the game unfolded, it never really materialized. We thought we would get him involved in more of a passing game, but because of the way they played us, we didn’t get those kind of opportunities.”
The structure of USC’s two-deep zone focused on limiting Notre Dame’s passing attack, but that left it vulnerable to the run. Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long responded by having senior power back Tony Jones Jr. carry a career high 25 times for 176 yards.
In between, he mixed in a misdirection reverse to game-breaking wideout Braden Lenzy, who put Notre Dame ahead 14-3 on a 51-yard scamper, designed quarterback draws to Ian Book — 49 yards rushing, highlighted by the eight-yard touchdown to put the Irish ahead 30-20 with 3:33 left — and a second consecutive quality relief effort from hard-charging sophomore Jahmir Smith, whose five carries netted 32 yards.
With Long giving Jones a rest during that crucial 75-yard touchdown drive after USC pulled within 23-20, Smith had three consecutive carries for 23 yards.
Two weeks earlier when Smith was just recovering from turf toe, sophomore C’Bo Flemister, a more elusive runner, provided Notre Dame a 14-7 lead on an 11-yard scoring run in which he shed two would-be tacklers during a 35-20 victory.
Former cornerback Avery Davis against Bowling Green a week later flashed his pass-catching capabilities with three catches for 39 yards and a score.
“It definitely gave us a better glimpse of where they are right now and where they can be,” summarized Kelly of a backfield stable that appeared to be in dire straits following the loss in Athens.
The 6-1, 220-pound Armstrong is an amalgamation of the Jones/Smith/Flemister/Davis quartet with regard to physicality, experience, elusiveness and pass-catching ability.
Running is only one part of the equation. After watching the tape, Kelly singled out the interior of the line with guards Tommy Kraemer and Aaron Banks, along with center Jarrett Patterson, for more than holding their own against what he indicated would be the best interior the Irish would confront this season in the 6-3, 305 combination of Jay Tufele and Marlon Tuipulotu.
“The physicality and the size of Banks and Kraemer really paid off for us in that we were able to get some combinations going, because they were able to hold their point,” Kelly said.
College Football Playoff hopes for the Irish remain marginally alive, with the No. 8 Irish the highest ranked one-loss team. More pertinent to the operation in the present is continuing to develop the versatility where the offense can call on either the run or pass, depending on the matchups presented.
“Each week has required our team different ways to win,” Kelly said. “I just like the fact that our guys, regardless of what the situation is, can adapt and adjust during the game, late in the game, to whatever the situation is and find ways to win games.”
Ground control is always an excellent place to start.
DONTE VAUGHN: TO PLAY OR NOT TO PLAY?
The senior cornerback was needed and provided quality play against a superb USC receiving corps, but it was also the fourth game he participated in this year.
That means if he is to redshirt this season so he can apply for a fifth year in 2020, which he and the staff have planned to do, he cannot play again in this campaign. So much right now depends on health at the cornerback position.
With the bye week coming up, fifth-year senior starter Shaun Crawford is projected to return to see action versus Michigan Oct. 26.
Other than senior Troy Pride and fellow starter in sophomore TaRiq Bracy, the corner corps is extremely green, which has the coaching staff in a dilemma they will try to sort out.
“It’s not an easy answer for us right now,” Kelly admitted. “We want to be able to do what’s right for the program (in 2019), and for the young man too. I don’t have an answer yet.”
NEWS & NOTES
• Unlike in recent years, the bye week coming up does not coincide with fall semester break (Oct. 19-27), so a lot of self-scouting will be on the docket this week for the staff and players, per Kelly.
• With Braden Lenzy coming to the forefront a little more, the Irish head coach indicated he’d also like to get fellow sophomore wideouts Lawrence Keys III and Joe Wilkins up to speed as well in the coming weeks.
• On USC’s on-side kick with 1:03 left that Irish junior tight end Brock Wright caught, Kelly could clearly be seen on the field during the kick, but it apparently was overlooked by the Pac-12 officiating crew.
Kelly said he was trying to get the attention of the crew by signaling for a time out in an effort to get Keys to move up in the alignment.
“Generally speaking, if [a coach] is on the field they’re either going to throw a flag or give you the time out, and they didn’t do either. So the play went on and subsequently ended up the way it did,” Kelly said.
• The weekly critiques of Book continue in sometimes a critical fashion by the public. He completed only 17 of 32 passes for 165 yards — but he also oversaw the offense not committing any turnovers again (it has among the nation’s fewest with four in six games), rushing for 49 yards and helping the unit to 30 points.
“Can he better in certain areas?” Kelly said. “Absolutely, and I think he would tell you that. He’s making good decisions, he’s taking care of the football, he’s using all of his assets to his abilities, meaning running and throwing. And he’s working on the things that he needs to work at each and every week. I’m proud of what he’s doing.”
• Upon further review of the tape, Kelly and defensive coordinator Clark Lea were mostly pleased with the three-man front strategy with three safeties in back in the efforts to help slow down USC’s explosive receiving crew.
There were some missed fits, which happen in any game, but the plan of attack was “excellent,” per Kelly, and the final late Trojans score came more the result of trading yards for time running down.
“We stuck with the plan — it was the right plan,” Kelly said.