#8 Running BacksThe offense compiled 930 rushing yards in its seven victories vs. 520 over its five defeats (numbers include QB sacks).
Starters/key reserves: Senior Armando Allen and sophomore Cierre Wood split the starting duties. Senior Robert Hughes emerged as a key backup late while junior Jonas Gray also earned intermittent playing time.
IrishEyes' pre-season rank: No. 4 (of 12)
Quote to note: "I believe that we have great depth at the running back position; that they all have unique styles but great depth." -- head coach Brian Kelly in his first August press conference.
By the numbers: Notre Dame's lead runner (either Allen or Wood) compiled the following game-by-game rushing yardage totals:
Rushing Yards (#1 'back): 93 (PU), 89 (UM), 71 (MSU), 49 (Stanford), 90 (BC), 56 (Pitt), 94 (WMU), 66 (Navy), 58 (Tulsa), 71 (Utah), 88 (Army) and 89 (USC).
It's notable that there was no 100-yard rushing effort through the first season of the Kelly era. But necessary to include in the numbers is the total yards from scrimmage (rushing and receiving) compiled by Irish ‘backs as a unit in each contest:
Yards from scrimmage: 165 (PU), 118 (UM), 156 (MSU) 106 (Stanford: a good chunk of this was garbage time), 138 (BC), 94 (Pittsburgh), 186 (WMU), 144 (Navy), 128 (Tulsa), 168 (Utah), 154 (Army), 163 (USC).
Allen battled injuries from the outset (Kelly noted that his season-ending hip injury was perhaps years in the making) but managed to account for 93 (PU), 98 (UM), 141 (MSU), 51 (Stanford), 116 (BC), 63 (Pitts) and 90 (Navy) yards from scrimmage before his season was truncated by surgery.
Gray seemed to stake his claim to the No. 2 role behind Allen entering Week Four before suffering multiple injuries (knee and groin) that afternoon vs. Stanford. He finished with 100 yards rushing on 20 carries with one notable 36-yard burst to set up a touchdown vs. Utah.
Hughes carried 41 times, the first 13 of which were fairly inconsequential vs. BC, Pittsburgh and Western Michigan. His final month of action featured 24 carries for 129 yards and two touchdowns including the game-winner at USC. Remarkably, those two rushing scores tied him for the position's high water mark (Hughes, Allen and Wood all scored just twice on handoffs).
Wood's first year unfolded as Irish Eyes predicted (there's a first time for everything): as the team's leading rusher over the season's second half. He logged 24 rushes for 105 yards through five games with four receptions totaling 18 yards and no touchdowns 419 rushing yards on 83 carries; added 15 receptions for 150 yards and scored four touchdowns (2 rushing/2 receiving).
He became the first former red-shirt running back in program history to eventually lead an Irish team in rushing (The Anomaly).
Best momentsThe Irish thrived as a run-first, defensive team in the season's final month. The Irish were 4-0 when they ran more than threw; 2-5 when they passed more than ran, and were nearly dead even (32 rushes vs. 34 passes) in the win over USC.
But no performance was more satisfying than that of Robert Hughes and Cierre Wood on the team's game-winning drive in the rain at the Coliseum.
Trailing 16-13 at their own 23-yard line with 6:18 remaining, Notre Dame began with an 11-yard pass from Tommy Rees to Michael Floyd to move the ball to its own 34. From there, the running game took over as a well-timed counter to Wood over the left side gained 26 yards to the USC 40. Hughes then battered through the Trojans rush defense for 31 yards on the next three snaps.
A sideline audible allowed Rees to hit Floyd - who was receiving a huge cushion - for a gain of four yards down to the USC 5-yard line before Hughes finished the drill, running through the heart of the Trojans front seven for the game-winning score.
For the first time in recent memory, Notre Dame simply imposed its will on a talented defense when it mattered most.
Moment to forget: Fittingly, it was the day the Irish forgot they had a ground game. Notre Dame ran the football just 23 times vs. Stanford's defense, one that primarily employed a "Drop 8" look (three defensive linemen with eight players in coverage to combat Notre Dame's pass happy attack). No Irish runner gained more then 49 yards (Allen on 15 carries); no single rush exceeded 11 yards.
The running game produced 44 yards on 23 carries and was stuffed for negative or fewer than two yards on 11 of those rushing attempts.
Trailing 19-6 to begin the final period, the Irish were stopped short of the marker on 4th and 1 near midfield; the Cardinal then drove for its first offensive touchdown in more than 40 game minutes, effectively ending the contest.
Notre Dame attempted 45 passes in the 37-16 defeat.
Class status: Armando Allen and Robert Hughes will graduate in May. Junior Jonas Gray has not red-shirted and 2011 will be his final season. Sophomore Cierre Wood is eligible through the 2013 season. Freshman Cameron Roberson, singled out by Kelly this week as an emerging player, was withheld from action in 2010 and is thus eligible through the 2014 season.
Final Analysis: It can't be argued that the running game lacked consistency, but is "blame" necessary? (I've unloaded quite a bit above), or did the running backs simply improve as the season progressed?
As a unit, they amassed 1,355 yards on 275 carries. Each of the Allen/Wood/Hughes/Gray quartet had a rush in excess of 30 yards; each averaged at least 4.8 yards per carry. They caught a total of 43 passes for 378 yards (two touchdowns).
Their collective average was higher than team's past…their total rushes far below our projections. Those offsetting facts should be considered a wash, especially since the group improved in November. But six rushing touchdowns (plus four from QB Dayne Crist) is an indictment of both the blockers in front of them and the runners themselves - not to mention the play calling in the red zone for a team that finished in the middle of the pack (52) in red zone efficiency.
No bowl team scored fewer rushing touchdowns than did the Irish.
Yet it was Notre Dame's running game, mainly in power sets, that augmented the defense in the team's 3-0 finish. It was the power and determination of Robert Hughes that carried the Irish through the final drive at USC. It was Cierre Wood's emergence when Allen was lost that helped the Irish earn a post-season berth.
Judging running backs separate from their offensive line is difficult (but hey, no one said final unit rankings should be easy or obvious). The O-Line thrived when it turned to a power attack in November, but following a strong opening week effort vs. Purdue, it struggled to open consistent holes for the ground game save for a mismatch vs. Western Michigan. All things considered, I believe the ‘backs performed better than did the group in front of them…and could have accounted for more wins over the season's first nine games had the staff entrusted them to carry the load.