Running into Trouble

Examining the successes -- and notable weakness -- of Notre Dame's ground game to date.

Notre Dame's rushing attack has enjoyed ample success over the first nine games of the 2014 season, posting five outings with more than 150 rushing yards including three straight heading into its date with Arizona State last Saturday.

The Irish offense has registered 16 rushing scores this fall, a number that's already eclipsed the program's full-season total (a paltry 12) last year. And the 2014 Irish are on pace for 22 more rushing first downs than head coach Brian Kelly's crew recorded in 2013.

But weekly, myriad minimal gains have likewise made it difficult on the Irish offense to operate consistently.

Through nine games, Notre Dame's trio of running backs plus quarterback Everett Golson have combined for a whopping 95 carries that resulted in negative, 0, 1, or 2 yards gained on a given rush.

Not included in that total is anything positive, e.g., a short-yardage conversion for first down or touchdown, or a kneel down at the end of a half or game. Also omitted are pair of botched field goals officially scored as rushes, all sacks in which Golson was actually a runner but instead taken down behind scrimmage, and any "last-drive" situation in which the Irish were merely running out the clock (Rice, Michigan, Syracuse, North Carolina, Navy and Arizona State fit the description.)

I was likewise observant of 2nd-and-Goal rushes from either the 3- or 4-yard line that gained 2 yards, because in theory, that 2-yard rush aids a scoring effort.

Thus removing all of the positives or irrelevant rushes noted above, a whopping 92 of Notre Dame's remaining 323 carries have resulted in negative, 0, 1, or 2-yard gains. (And it could be worse if you subtract Malik Zaire's 56-yarder and Greg Bryant's subsequent 17-yard TD when the subs hit the field vs. Rice.)

In other words, 28 percent of the team's handoffs end up putting the Irish offense "behind the chains."

Below is a game-by-game collection of low-yardage rushes, plus the end-game official rushing totals:

Rice: 10 total of negative, 0, 1, or 2 yards -- 42 carries, 281 yards
Michigan: 11 total -- 31 carries, 54 yards
Purdue: 11 total -- 38 carries, 139 yards
Syracuse: 8 total -- 41 carries, 161 yards
Stanford: 15 total -- 32 carries, 129 yards
North Carolina: 8 total -- 43 carries, 216 yards
Florida State: 8 total -- 35 carries, 157 yards
Navy: 10 total -- 39 carries, 218 yards
Arizona State: 11 total -- 38 carries, 41 yards

Finishing Strong?

End-game numbers against the Sun Devils are ugly, but also skewed by the botched field goal and seven sacks, each of which counted against the team's official rushing total.

Not skewed vs. ASU, or in any game noted above, are the aforementioned low-yardage carries, and 28 percent is a troubling total. It also partially explains why Irish running backs and Golson have combined for just *seven carries of 20 or more yards this season -- Irish running backs can't wriggle free at the second level when they're too often encountering obstacles at scrimmage.

(*The number is six regarding designed runs. Golson had a 22-yard scramble vs. Syracuse included above -- he subsequently fumbled.)

Still, on the whole, the Irish run with success more often than not. Subjectively, consider Michigan a rough outing in which the ground game's aid wasn't needed, and last week at Arizona State an abject failure in that regard. The rest have been "winning" efforts when considering the opponent.

Notre Dame's final three foes, Northwestern (No. 68 rush defense), Louisville (No. 2) and USC (No. 40) bring to the table rush defenses of disparate levels.

Louisville's numbers are doubtless skewed by competition, but the Cardinals also rank 69 spots higher than last week's scrimmage eviscerators Arizona State. Its fair to think Louisville and their 70 tackles-for-loss could have success vs. Notre Dame at scrimmage as well.

USC's No. 40 ranking is heavily influenced by a Boston College team that racked up 452 rushing yards against the Trojans in mid-September -- that's 36 percent of the team's total rushing yards against this fall occurring in one miserable game.

Since, USC has held four of six PAC-12 foes to fewer than 80 rushing yards and all-run Utah to 137 -- at just three yards per carry. In good health, the Trojans rush defense can present problems for the Irish.

As for Northwestern Saturday? The Wildcats offer Kelly's rushing attack a chance to get back on track. They yielded 147 to lowly Michigan last week; 221 at Iowa; 234 to Nebraska; 284 (in a win) vs. Wisconsin.

Notre Dame can't finish 3-0 if it relies on Golson's arm alone, but unlike the oft-registered complaint of season's past, Kelly and the offensive staff have not abandoned the run in favor of throwing it all over the yard this fall. Golson is the focal point of the Irish offense, but he, like most quarterbacks, needs a complimentary rushing attack to aid his play-action shots downfield.

Kelly has stuck with the run to date, and has done the same with a quintet of linemen over the last six contests.

It's imperative the group rewards the staff's patience with production.


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