Eye in the Sky: The Runners

O'Malley's first film review of Saturday's Irish offense examines the team's commitment to the running game with a detailed look at each member of a trio of backfield weapons...

Through winter, spring, and summer 2012, Irish fans pondered the identity of their team's offense in Brian Kelly's third season.

Seven games and seven wins in, its quite clear: Notre Dame runs the football. The Irish run because it involves seven of the offense's eight best players in the proceedings; they run because they don't pass it all that well, and they run because frankly, with a defense like that designed by Bob Diaco, they're better off running and punting than bumbling the ball all over the field as they did in four of five losses last fall.

Saturday vs. Brigham Young, the running game won vs. the Cougars two-season strength: their rush defense.

If beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder, old school football fans should be in love with Kelly's 2012 Irish.

Commitment to -- and Belief in -- the Running Game

Former Irish head coach Charlie Weis once mused, "Oh we're going to pound it," of his 2008 team. The Irish instead mostly ran on occasion to set up 3rd and 9 that fall.

Kelly, conversely, and after two seasons of dabbling, has embraced the ancient method of gridiron transport -- Notre Dame is married to its version of the power game, with three 'backs in tow and a five-man front that outplays its opponents over the course of a 60 minute contest if not at all points throughout. Leading the way are three backfield weapons:

Cierre Wood

The team's best back though not if singularly examining 2012, Wood's first carry was a beauty: a 22-yard gain over the left side made possible by his spin move at scrimmage before gathering in one-step, then exploding to the outside…Is Wood the best natural Irish runner since Autry Denson? Julius Jones ran with (far) more abandon; Darius Walker was more versatile as an all-around 'back, and Ryan Grant more of a north-south productive slasher, but Wood's footwork and instincts are second to none in the post-Holtz era in South Bend…

Wood was the recipient of some phenomenal blocking on outside zone runs, but his patience and vision were also key…You have to take the good with the bad, however -- his patience sometimes leads to an unnecessary bounce outside and a little dancing when the initial hole isn't there...I'm going to got one step further on the Wood/Theo Riddick conversation most fans have engaged in this season: If Wood ran with Riddick's purpose and fury on every carry, he'd be one of the Top 10 runners in the nation. He still picks and chooses a bit too much to join the true elite…

Wood was guilty of bouncing inside runs outside twice on Notre Dame's failed goal-to-go situation following a 55-yard Riddick run, turning four yards into just two when he hit a hole too late, and on the next snap, turning 2-3 yards into no gain by bouncing a run outside…(Riddick did the same on third down to force a field goal attempt)…

The senior contributed two rushes to Notre Dame's go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter, first for five yards to pick up a first down on 2nd and 4, showing nice vision after left guard Chris Watt was uncharacteristically pushed into the backfield, then bursting up the gut to move the sticks…Wood also burrowed for four yards behind Watt and left tackle Zack Martin just prior to another big gain by his classmate Riddick…

Leading 17-14 with just over six minutes remaining, Wood hammered home most of the final nails in BYU's coffin, running for 7 yards on a counter thanks to tremendous blocking from Martin and tight end Tyler Eifert (Watt might have held), then five more for a crucial first down as Braxston Cave, Mike Golic, Christian Lombard all won at the point and Watt handled his defender on a pull from left to right…Wood added three more despite the Irish being outnumbered in the box by eight Cougars and after Riddick picked up the game's key first down (below), Wood changed field position with a 22-yard burst behind Martin, Eifert and Watt again -- the latter hitting a 'backer at the second level to give Wood room over the left side…

The Irish were forced to punt late, but took nearly six minutes off the clock first, with Wood changing field position and pinning the Cougars 80 yards from victory.

Theo Riddick

The offense's MVP Saturday, Riddick ran as he has most of the season: angrily, beginning with a 7-yard burst through tackles on The Opening possession…Riddick showed nice vision and a natural instinct to cut inside in the second quarter, running behind a Martin seal block for nine yards, then powering for a first down through the pile, turning no gain into three yards to move the sticks -- a ridiculous personal foul by Troy Niklas post-play pushed the offense back 14 yards. (We'll discuss the offensive hiccups in Part II)…

Riddick's best run was a 27-yarder in the second quarter in which he discarded a pair of arm tackles, then did his best Irv Smith imitation, carrying Cougars for 10-plus yards into the red zone…His 55-yard run in the third quarter was a testament to his senior season desire: burying his pad level through a tiny interior crease, maintaining his balance with his knees barely six inches off the ground, then bursting downfield for 50 yards in the open field after contact…

I knew Riddick was more quick than fast, but it was clearly illustrated when the senior was easily caught from behind by his pursuit…Riddick ended a three-play goal-to-go effort with a bounce outside that was destroyed by a BYU run blitz; he missed a hole through right guard that likely would have set up the IRish with 4th and G from about the 1-yard line…The Irish settled for a field goal and 14-13 disadvantage instead...

I have no problem with three consecutive running calls inside the 8-yard line, but bouncing outside can't be part of the plan on interior rushes. If your true identity is a running team, you have to try to stubbornly run it in from the 4- or 5-yard line at times. BYU has scholarship players too…

Riddick hit for 27 yards on two carries on the team's go-ahead touchdown drive, first an 8-yard hammer job behind Watt and Cave in which the senior ran through more arm tackles, then a 19-yard kill-shot to set up the winning score, first delaying through the hole, then destroying a solo tackle attempt in space with his best asset: a vicious one-step to the right and cut left to leave his fallen, twisted, would-be tackler on the turf…

The emerging senior concluded the best game of his college career with a clutch 3rd and 5 carry at his own 37-yard line, following a hole up the middle as Cave and Watt sealed defenders outside while Martin peeled off his initial double team block to bury an oncoming tackler approaching Riddick in the hole. (tight end Ben Koyack got a block outside as well.)

If Riddick uses his 15-plus carries in similar fashion this Saturday, Notre Dame might escape Norman with a major upset.

The Future of GA3

Delayed detonation…that's the reality of George Atkinson's raw talent, impending impact vs. opportunity and real-world progress to date.

Atkinson is going to hit a few more big runs this season -- likely vs. Pittsburgh, Boston College, and/or Wake Forest. At present, and to borrow from a message board poster on our subscriber's Football Forum, the sophomore sprinter "slows down to cut." He often gathers his feet rather than doing what Kelly has begged of him: plant and turn north-south.

Play-calling hasn't always helped Atkinson's plight: instead of motion handoffs that are telegraphed and require a backfield cut, why not implement "The Riddick Routes" from 2011 -- short crosses as the receivers clear out underneath and Atkinson can catch an easy 5-yard pass, turn it up field and beat an oncoming defender in space?

Atkinson hesitates a bit in traffic, the best example an outside zone run to the wide (left) side in which wide receiver Daniel Smith sealed the edge, giving Atkinson an outside lane vs. a cornerback coming up from 7 yards away -- that's a matchup he's supposed to win. Instead, Atkinson gathered his feet, cut inside, and was dropped for a loss...

Atkinson looked better on a similar run later in the contest, receiving room outside thanks to Troy Niklas, Martin, Eifert, and a Cave pancake block, but he again slowed to cut back rather than step hard and go or simply look to bury his solo tackler in space -- if you can't evade, inflict some pain…

The sophomore finished strong, executing an end around for a three-yard touchdown. Most important, the play was contained to the far side but Atkinson offered a pair of quick shakes (In-out-and back in) to run turn his defender off balance and through an arm tackle for the game-winning score…

Notre Dame has but one untapped weapon remaining in its 2012 offensive arsenal: GA3 has to contribute one big play and a handful of other solid efforts for the Irish to survive and advance in Norman this Saturday.

He'll be a star in 2013 -- a BCS title berth is possible if he arrives ahead of schedule

Note: Part II and a review of the team's passing game as well as offensive line notes will be published shortly.


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