When is three yards more valuable than 13?
And why, exactly, are two handfuls of rushes that result in gains of 10 yards or more so easily offset by a handful that go nowhere?
Meet college football’s Jekyll and Hyde, aka, the Notre Dame rushing attack through the first two games of 2015. A small sample size to be sure, but one framed by a troubling pattern that must cease Saturday if the Irish are to upset (yes, they’re home underdogs) the 14th-ranked Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets.
Among Notre Dame’s *125 competitive offensive snaps (*not including the final two series vs. Texas), 30 have resulted in gains of 10 yards or greater including a whopping 17 rushes.
The squad has likewise surpassed its tell tale 200-yard rushing total in successive weeks – a first for the program since 2012 – and the Irish are 17-2 under Kelly when rushing for 200 yards or more.
So what’s the problem?
A staggering 33 offensive plays have resulted in gains of two yards or fewer. Comprising the total are 29 rushes, 2 sacks, and 2 tunnel screens.
The number “29” is alarming because it has continually presented on the sport’s money downs: 3rd- and 4th-and-short.
Including a 4th-and-1 false start penalty against Texas, the Irish are 1 for 7 when faced with 3rd- or 4th-and-short to move the chains this fall. Add a loss of 13 yards on 3rd-and-4 against the Longhorns and the results worsen. Only DeShone Kizer’s clutch 4th-and-2 sneak on the game-winning drive against Virginia gained the necessary ground for head coach Brian Kelly’s short-yardage Irish offense.
In other words, when the opponent knows Notre Dame wants to run, the Irish can’t, or at least haven’t.
“As an offensive line we talk about (how they fare against) the obvious run and the obvious pass. And plain and simple we haven't been good enough in that situation,” said center and team captain Nick Martin. “Good thing is every week's new, every week's different. You can't dwell in the past, you can only learn from it and move on from there.”
TOUGH SLEDDING, SOMETIMES
Martin’s forward thinking will serve him this well this week because he and his front-line mates posted a rush line last Saturday that reads like a “How-Not-To” manual for power football.
Once Notre Dame’s offense breached Virginia’s 30-yard line (scoring territory), the rushing attack produced the following unseemly results:
5 yards, 3, 0, 2, 2, 0, 2, 8, 0, 1, minus-1, 4, and a 24-yard TD.
The latter number represents the silver lining and points to the upside of the Irish running game – C.J. Prosise’s unique athletic gifts.
“He's a natural football player,” said Martin of Notre Dame’s breakout ‘back. “Unbelievable vision, and he works really hard.
“It's why you play the game,” Martin continued. “When five guys are on their blocks and on their man, and you see him spit out and break a few, get yards after he's hit it, it's just fun.”
Prosise has posted 10 carries in excess of 10 yards (four of 20 or more) including seven such runs on Saturday in Charlottesville. Much of his success has occurred running north-south and breaking the tackle attempts of second-level defenders. He’s been a revelation to watch – along with Will Fuller, the star of the season to date.
But Prosise has come up short in every instance, 0-for-3, when tasked to pick up first downs facing 3rd- and/or 4th-and-short. And among his 37 carries are 13 that have ended in negative, 0, 1, or 2-yard gains.
“You have to have that mentality that no matter what, you get those1-2 yards,” said Prosise of short-yardage situations. “That’s something I didn’t do well and something I’m going to change.”
ONE CHALLENGE MET, ANOTHER TO GO
Another thing Prosise admittedly didn’t do well, at least not when he first moved from slot receiver to running back, was pick up a blitzing defender in pass protection. That changed in a timely, spectacular manner Saturday in the waning moments of a thrilling Irish victory.
“That was the happiest, proudest moment I’ve had in a game,” said Prosise of his blitz pickup that allowed Kizer time to fire a 39-yard game-winning touchdown to Will Fuller. “I was locked in and ready to make that block. That’s definitely something I wasn’t used to doing (previously).”
Prosise’s remarkable ascent and numbers notwithstanding, the Irish rushing attack must become more consistent in obvious rushing situations if it’s to propel the program into the 2015 playoffs. Only four touchdowns have resulted in the offense’s eight trips to the red zone this season, and one came courtesy a fake field goal.
“It’s definitely something we’ve been looking at, obvious run situations,” echoed team leader and future first round draft pick Ronnie Stanley. “We’ve been harping on that, working on those types of runs. It’s about fundamentals and coming off the ball. Getting under people. Gaining those yards has to do with the offensive line first.”
“There’s definitely a mentality in those short yardage situations. It’s who wants it more.”
We’ll find out who does Saturday afternoon in the season’s toughest test to date.