Reinventing the running game

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When Notre Dame averaged 202.5 yards rushing during its undefeated 2012 regular season, it marked the first time in 12 seasons the Irish had cracked the 200-yard mark.
Running game numbers are not the end-all indicator for a team’s success. Notre Dame’s 2012 offense ultimately proved inefficient in the red zone, and thus, the Irish needed every bit of their dominant defense to remain unscathed until the national championship game against Alabama.
But through the years, Notre Dame has had its greatest success when the ground game is king. For 10 straight seasons (1987-96), Lou Holtz’s rushing attacks never ranked lower than 20th nationally and finished among the nation’s top 10 five times. Although Ara Parseghian’s first Irish squad (1964) nearly captured the national title on the arm of Heisman Trophy winner John Huarte, it was the ground game -- and great defenses, of course - that led the Irish to national titles in 1966 and 1973. Dan Devine’s 1977 national championship squad had a respectable ground game, but a great defense and a guy by the name of Joe Montana leading the way.
Times have changed dramatically. The emphasis on the passing game has increased exponentially, and Brian Kelly rode the crest of that wave from the snow-covered roads of Allendale and Mount Pleasant, Mich., to Cincinnati to South Bend.
And yet when the Irish made a run at the 2012 national championship, they parlayed one of the great defenses in Notre Dame history with a pass-run quarterback who loosened up the ground game to allow the top three running backs - Theo Riddick, Cierre Wood and George Atkinson III -- to combine for more than 2,000 yards.
The return of quarterback Everett Golson in ’14 gives the Irish a chance at the best of both worlds. Golson, despite his inexperience in his first year of collegiate competition, still managed to throw for more than 2,400 yards (with Tommy Rees pitching in relief), complete nearly 59 percent of his passes and double up on touchdowns passes (12) to interceptions (6).
It was a prelude to better things in 2013, but alas, it wasn’t meant to be. Now Golson is back, so too are a bevy of running backs with what looks like an offensive line on the verge of prolonged productivity, and a host of weapons on the receiving end of Golson’s throws that has the Irish poised for their most efficient and complete offensive attack in Kelly’s five years at Notre Dame.
Of the 10 teams that appeared in BCS bowls this past season, seven ranked among the nation’s top 28 rushing attacks -- national title runner-up Auburn (1st), Ohio State (5th), Baylor (13th), Oklahoma (18th), Stanford (22nd), Alabama (25th) and national champion Florida State (28th). Notre Dame ranked 80th in ’13 after finishing 38th in ’12.
Of course, these are mere numbers that can be slanted to make a stronger argument. Florida State didn’t win the national title because of its ground game per se. The Seminoles had the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback and a phenomenal defense.
Auburn, however, didn’t have a suffocating defense, yet the Tigers made it to the national title game. Stanford has become a consistent double-digit winning program without Andrew Luck because of its great defense and a hammering ground game. Oklahoma struggled defensively and through the air in ‘13, yet managed to defeat the Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl. Baylor landed in a BCS game sans Robert Griffin III by averaging 260 yards rushing per game. Ohio State couldn’t stop anyone’s passing game, but still won all 12 of its regular-season games because it had a nimble-footed quarterback and rushing attack that averaged 308.6 yards per game.
An effective ground game means your offensive line is controlling the line of scrimmage, and if there’s one area that is evolving into a current strength of the Fighting Irish, it is the offensive line where Kelly and line coach Harry Hiestand have accumulated the finest collection of prospects in the country the last two recruiting campaigns.
The Irish lose mainstays Zack Martin and Chris Watt from the offensive line, but Christian Lombard, Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin return as starters while back-ups Steve Elmer, Conor Hanratty and Matt Hegarty received ample playing time and some starting experience in ’13.
It is imperative, of course, for a ground game to have some balance through the air, and Golson and a corps of young, talented receivers give the Irish a chance to have its most dynamic passing game since Jimmy Clausen passed for more than 3,700 yards and 28 touchdowns in 2009. That team didn’t succeed because the Irish couldn’t run it (84th nationally) or stop opposing teams’ rushing attacks (89th).
Simply by having Golson at quarterback instead of Rees, the Irish will have an extra dimension in the ground game, and when Notre Dame has that extra dimension - as they did in the late ‘80s with Tony Rice as well as with Golson in 2012 - good things happen.
The added benefit for the defense -- which will be going through a transformation with a new coordinator and without some bedrocks along the front seven -- is that effective ground games positively impact time of possession. Time of possession takes on a more critical role when an offense struggles in the red zone and the defense needs some help.
The ground game in and of itself is not a cure-all. Chances are the Irish will not be able to duplicate Bob Diaco’s outstanding 2012 defense, at least not in 2014, so they’re going to need an offense that averages in the 30s, which none of Kelly’s units have done in his first four years with the Irish.
But with a host of talented running backs, an offensive line built to lean on people, and a quarterback who can turn ineffective pass plays into productive running plays, the evolution of Kelly’s offenses needs to tilt toward the rushing attack, which helped carry the Fighting Irish to the rarified air of the national championship game just two seasons ago.