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Notre Dame's Running Game Becomes Grounded Again

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Josh Adams set a Notre Dame single game freshman rushing record with 168 yards versus Stanford last year. (Bill Panzica)

In Brian Kelly’s first five meetings against Stanford as the Notre Dame head coach, scoring and running the ball against the Cardinal were enormous labors.

Those five contests in regulation time resulted in Fighting Irish point totals of 14, 14, 13, 20 and 17 for an average of 15.6 per game. On the ground, Notre Dame averaged a meager 108.8 yards per game versus Stanford, with the 44 carries for 150 yards in the 20-13 overtime victory in 2012 the summit.

Last year, though, there was a dramatic change. During Notre Dame’s 38-36 defeat on a Stanford field goal as time expired, the Irish ground attack dominated with 299 yards rushing. That was highlighted by Josh Adams breaking a 40-year Notre Dame freshman single game rushing record when his 168 yards eclipsed the 148-yard standard Jerome Heavens set in the 1975 “Rudy Game” versus Georgia Tech.

Among Adams’ carries were a 62-yard touchdown jaunt, but even without that his other 17 runs netted 102 yards, or exactly 6.0 yards per attempt.

“Overall, I think I played that game with a lot more confidence than I did in previous games,” said Adams — whose 835 yards rushing in 2015 also set the single season mark by a freshman at Notre Dame — after Tuesday’s practice. “I would say that I was in tune with my responsibilities a little bit more. In terms of playing with confidence and playing with an awareness of knowing my responsibility, I would say it definitely was one of my better games.”

It also was the best season under Kelly in rushing the football, finishing with 207.6 yards per game. When including bowl games, it was the first time since 1998 that Notre Dame finished about the 200-yard mark in rushing for a season.

It happened because a veteran offense line led by first-round pick Ronnie Stanley at left tackle and second-round selection Nick Martin at center asserted the need to “lay it on the line” to enhance the running game. That was cultivated first in the 2014 Music City Bowl win over LSU when the Irish decided to develop a physical identity the entire month of practice and rushed for 263 yards versus the Tigers.

Minus Stanley, Martin and right guard Steve Elmer from last year, it hasn’t had a carryover this year. Notre Dame is averaging only 149.5 yards rushing this season to rank 92nd nationally in that category.

One of the oldest clichés in football is you achieve what you emphasize, and the Notre Dame emphasis this year has reverted to the pass. Never was that more manifested than in last week’s 10-3 loss at North Carolina State. Despite playing in a monsoon from Hurricane Matthew, Kelly called 37 pass plays (including five sacks and six scrambles by quarterback DeShone Kizer) compared to 27 designed runs, with Adams’ 14 carries for 51 yards leading the way in a 59-yard rushing effort overall.

Halfway through the 2016 campaign with an ultra-disappointing 2-4 record, Notre Dame’s mentality on offense does not include the more physical identity it possessed last season.

“You have to have a demeanor on offense and it's one that we don't have yet,” admitted Kelly. “But we're working on it. There has to be a mental approach to this. It's not just about scheme. It's about exerting your will, and I think our guys are working toward that and understand it and what has to happen. It's more about exerting will than anything else.”

Adams leads this year’s team in rushing with 391 yards on 81 carries (4.8 yards per carry), while Kizer at QB is a distant second with 202.

“I don’t know if there is any big difference,” replied Adams on why the ground attack has faltered since last season. “We had a lot of success last year, and a lot of it is just on the running backs. We just have to do a better job.”


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A point of emphasis this week in practice is enhancing effectiveness on first down in order to become more efficient on third down, where the Irish are only 27-of-81 (33.3 percent) after last week’s 1-of-15 debacle at NC State. But even when the opposition “loads the box,” Adams said it’s still about possessing the mentality and confidence that it can execute.

“We have to go with our plan and not worry about what the defense has planned,” Adams said. “We know we’re an explosive offense and can score whenever everyone is on the same page.

“We just have to focus on what we need to focus on, because a lot of times we’re the ones stopping ourselves … Just being more aggressive out of the gate, bringing the right tune from the start, running harder, being more aggressive as running backs, trying to do our job whether we throw or run on first down.”

For all of 3-2 Stanford’s own travails after getting crushed 44-6 at Washington and then 42-16 at home last week against Washington State, its identity remains that of a hard-nosed, blue-collar team that builds its success on running the ball and stopping the run.

Since 2010, Stanford ranks third nationally in allowing fewest rushing yards per game (107.0). It is still a solid 26th nationally this year in that category at 120.2 yards per game. In its three victories to start the season, it limited Kansas State to 92 yards on 32 carries, USC 117 yards on 26 tries and UCLA 77 yards on 33 attempts.

“We always take it upon ourselves to take responsibility and to be the ones that lead this team,” Adams said of the ground attack. “That’s something we pride ourselves in and we have to do a better job of that.”

Otherwise, the Irish will remain grounded while the season remains up in the air.

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