Means to an end

Irish offensive coordinator Charley Molnar explains that the improved late-season rushing attack was more than the simple insertion of a senior runner.

Irish offensive coordinator Charley Molnar loves the passing game. His boss feels the same way, and neither will soon make apologies for an offensive attack that flings the football around the field. They still plan to challenge a defense vertically, horizontally, and with the intent to score in bunches – quickly – using each of the field's 100 x 53 1/3 yards whenever possible.

But when it became clear that approach was no longer in their deck of first-year cards, a season-ending winning streak still followed. Air Kelly embraced an old fashioned ground game because it was the vehicle that would deliver more quality Ws than the continued heavy reliance on a spread passing game.

"We have a picture in our mind of what our offense looked like at its very best over the last 4-5 years," Molnar said of a spread passing game that excelled at both Central Michigan and Cincinnati. "But right now our offense looks best based on its personnel.

"We have a talented big running back in Robert Hughes; we have two tight ends (Tyler Eifert and Mike Ragone) really picking up their game blocking and down this home stretch we thought it was really important that we could control the ball at times."

At times they did, including when it mattered most, completing touchdown drives of 16, 7, and 7 snaps in the season finale upset in Los Angeles while ending the season with a three-game winning streak in which the offense rushed for more yards (429) and attempted fewer passes (74) than any other three-game sequence of the season.

"We're not masters at it yet," Molnar said of a ball control attack. "But we've demonstrated the ability to do so and I think (November) was the right time and the right place.

"As we mature we'll have a better identity of who we are, but right now I'm pretty happy at the way we're involving a lot of different guys in our offense as we try to get our feet underneath us."

Tommy Rees represents Exhibit A among Irish players still working at getting their feet on solid ground. The freshman signal caller intermittently struggled vs. USC, albeit in his third win in as many starts. His three-interception outing vs. the Trojans put the fret back in Irish fans as the team heads south to the Sun Bowl at the end of the month.

"I think what USC will have him prepared for is playing against a defense that is so fast and so athletic," Molnar said of Rees' struggles. "I think they're very similar to Miami's defense in that regard. The speed of the game was notched up vs. USC and I'm sure it'll be the same thing against Miami."

Rees completed 46 of his final 72 passes during the three-game run to bowl eligibility. That 63.8 percent mark bettered his opening salvo in relief of starter Dayne Crist vs. Tulsa and was a full 4.5 percentage points better than Crist's 8-game stint at the helm. Crist approached that number just twice, hitting on over 73 percent of his throws vs. Purdue and just over 64 percent seven weeks later vs. Western Michigan.

While Crist had the benefit of a (comparatively) healthy batch of skill position starters around him, Rees had a much more consistent duo of allies on which to lean: a running game and a defense.

Power and production

After a particularly ugly Week Eight loss at Navy, a certain Irish Eyes writer questioned the whereabouts of senior ‘back Robert Hughes – the lone player who appeared to possess a true north-south approach for a running game lacking just that.

The answer was a curt: "he's third string."

(Not really the point of the query, then again, it was left open to interpretation. Lesson learned.)

One week later Hughes was second string (due to injury ahead of him). One month later he was barreling through the heart of the USC defense for more than 60 yards on five carries during the game winning touchdown drive.

Hughes was conspicuous in his absence, early. He improved, began to take coaching to heart, and added a thunderous punch to an offense in need of some power and production.

Did Molnar and the coaches see improvement from Hughes in practice that warranted his immersion in the offense?

"It was (improvement), and the other thing is that our tight ends started to block better, so we started to incorporate some tight end running game," Molnar offered. "After Kyle (Rudolph) went down we kind of shied away from (running) because the guys just weren't equipped to handle it. As we've progressed, Mike and Tyler have both done a really good job with it. With those two and with Robert our running game has picked up a little bit."

Brian Kelly noted last week that the two-tiered running attack (Hughes plus Cierre Wood from the shotgun spread) has made the Irish more difficult to defend. The tandem rumbled for 378 yards over the final three contests.

The approach also energized the offensive line perhaps placated an endless stream of doubting fans who wondered aloud what happened to the ground game at Notre Dame over the past 5 (and yes, 10) years.

Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh said it best after his Cardinal bloodied the Irish in September: "To be able to go into another stadium, into a hostile environment, I mean, nothing makes you feel quite like a man like that does."

It's what the Irish did in the regular season finale: running the ball through your chief rival for the game-winning score engendered a sense of empowerment, one not present in South Bend in many years.

"That's the way it was because that's where our talent took us," Molnar said of the power running game. "If our personnel takes us in another direction, we would easily and gladly adapt there."

Run 'em if ya got 'em

Notre Dame's offensive personnel shifted throughout the season. Six wide receivers saw ample playing time as did three running backs and three tight ends along with two triggermen at the helm. That wasn't necessarily by design.

"The injuries were the biggest adaptation," Molnar admitted when asked about the season's offensive evolution. "Even in practice, day-to-day, (coaches wondered) who were you going to have out there, and who were you going to be able to work with because the guys were so limited, hampered, or not even out there.

"That really helped our run game become consistent, because you looked out there every day and you saw Tyler (Eifert) and Mike Ragone, Robert Hughes and Cierre Wood and we said, ‘You know what, let's work on running the football. We have all of our cats out there, let's do it,'" and we've gotten better at it."

The improvement and offensive adjustment arrived not a moment too soon: with the Irish holding a 4-5 record and two teams to which they'd be underdogs on tap.

November 2010 featured defense and a running game…but it's a fluid situation.

"We're going to adapt to our personnel and our talent and go from there."

That approach didn't take root as quickly as predicted on these pages, but the end result was satisfying for longtime Irish fans nonetheless. Top Stories