Quenton Nelson hobbled around campus Tuesday in an immobilizing boot to protect the sprained ankle suffered Saturday night at Clemson. Notre Dame’s run game was wounded, literally and figuratively, in that 24-22 loss when the Tigers jumped CJ Prosise like they knew what was coming before it actually did.
Some Clemson players suggested as much after the game, claiming Notre Dame had been tipping its plays. Brian Kelly dismissed that charge, noting that if Clemson knew what was coming that a red-shirt freshman making his first road start wouldn’t have thrown for 321 yards in a monsoon.
Regardless, the performance in Death Valley has Kelly and his offensive line searching for run game answers after a 116-yard performance that doesn’t do justice to how well the Tigers defended.
On zone read plays that went to backs or receivers, the Irish carried 14 times for 33 yards.
That’s just 2.4 yards per carry, including three tackles for loss and two stuffs for no gain.
In the season’s first four games in zone read concepts when quarterbacks handed off the ball, Notre Dame averaged 7.5 yards per carry.
“As for tackles behind the line of scrimmage, some of them were certainly Clemson getting a great push up front, some of them were where we could have done a better job relative to play calling and when we called certain plays,” Kelly said. “We put in some schemes that we needed to do a better job just coordinating at the time we put them in.
“So I think a little bit of coaching in that regard and probably a little bit of inexperience at running back contributed.”
Prosise finished with just 15 carries for 50 yards. All but four of those yards came in the second half. Josh Adams got just two carries that covered two yards. Kizer led the Irish in rushing with 15 carries for 60 yards, but just four of those came on designed runs. Kizer was best in scramble situations when he gained 60 yards, also his final net.
Notre Dame will prepare for Navy knowing Nelson might be out, replaced by Alex Bars. Tight end Tyler Luatua, however, is expected back after missing two games with a concussion.
Navy should be a run game fix regardless, even if Kelly compared this Mids defense to the one he faced in that 35-17 blowout loss five years ago. Notre Dame rushed 30 times for 106 yards (3.5 yards per carry) in that game. In the past three years under Harry Hiestand, the Irish have averaged 258.3 yards rushing and 6.4 yards per carry against the Mids.
That means Prosise and Adams are likely to snap back into form, even if Bars makes his first career start. The run game rediscovering its stride may have more to do with the backs and the play calls than the line, according to Kelly. But the Irish can improve in all three areas.
“I wouldn't put it all on the offensive line (last week),” Kelly said. “I think some of it contributed to it, but some of it, a little bit better coaching, a little bit better experience at the running back position, I think all of those things together kind of equaled some of the TFLs.”
Kelly also believes Notre Dame’s backs won’t be bothered if there is a change to the line, although they’ve already played with five different tight ends. The way Kelly sees it, Prosise and Adams don’t have a running style defined enough that they’re playing off specific blocking styles by specific linemen.
“They're just really finding themselves at their own position per se,” Kelly said. “I would say it probably means a little bit more to a guy like (Tarean) Folston, who knows how some guys are going to take on a particular block and how they're going to work.
“But the three guys that we've got back there right now, they're really focused on doing their job.”