In Brian Kelly’s first season at the helm of the Fighting Irish (2010), the rushing attack was anemic. Not once in 13 games did the Irish crack 200 yards on the ground.
One could argue that the commitment to it was an inconsistent as the ground game itself.
By the third year of the Kelly regime, the Irish averaged better than 200 yards rushing per game during the regular season before Alabama brought the average below that mark in the national championship game.
But over the next two seasons, the Irish ground game resembled 2010-11 more than it did 2012.
The best, most consistent offensive line in six seasons, a breakaway running back, a quarterback capable of adding some yardage to the rushing equation and, quite frankly, the decision to emphasize it more have made the 2015 rushing attack far and away the best of the Kelly era.
“There are a number of things,” said Kelly of Notre Dame’s improved running game, which stands at 220.6 yards per contest and an eye-popping 5.7 yards per carry through nine games.
“It always starts with a commitment to it, and then an offensive line that’s working well together. The pieces are right. You’ve got the right people in the right position.”
The seeds of change were planted in the month leading up to last year’s Music City Bowl against LSU when the Irish ran it a season-high 51 times for a season-high 263 yards in the 31-28 victory over the Tigers.
Kelly – a devoted spread offense play-caller – warmed to the idea of a more concerted effort to establish a consistent rushing attack. He had the offensive line coach – Harry Hiestand – to pull it off. He had an offensive coordinator in Mike Denbrock who helped Kelly think more in terms of running the football with consistency.
Then came Mike Sanford, the young offensive coordinator from Boise State, who joined forces with Kelly and Denbrock to make the full commitment to a better rushing attack.
“We overhauled it and really looked at it from inside out,” Kelly said. “We added a more veteran approach on the offensive line. All those things contribute to a better rushing game.”
The Irish needed it badly. Consider that in the first year of the Kelly regime, Notre Dame had zero 200-yard rushing games and just three – versus Purdue, Air Force and Maryland – in 2011. Notre Dame averaged 126.6 yards rushing per game and 4.0 yards per carry in ’10; 160.4 and 4.8 in ’11.
With Chuck Martin making the play calls in 2012, and an inexperienced quarterback (Everett Golson) at the helm, the Irish played to the ground game, averaging 189.4 yards per game and 4.9 per carry. Seven of the 13 games resulted in plus-200 yards rushing.
But even in 2012, the Irish would revert back to their woeful ways against great competition (19 carries, 32 yards vs. Alabama), good competition (31 carries, 94 yards vs. Michigan) and poor competition (36 carries, 52 yards vs. Purdue).
In the first 65 games of the Kelly era spanning five seasons, the Irish were held under 100 yards rushing 16 times, or 24.6 percent of the time. In an eye-popping 47 out of 65 games – 72.3 percent – Notre Dame failed to reach the 200-yard mark.
So far through nine games this year, the Irish have been above 200 yards rushing five times. The worst total is 111 yards against Clemson, which currently has the 20th-ranked rushing defense.
But games in which the Irish rushing attack is at its worst aren’t nearly as bad as it used to be. It was tough going against Temple, but DeShone Kizer’s 78-yard run helped bring Notre Dame’s total to 168. The Irish were under 200 yards rushing against Navy and Pittsburgh, but 178 yards and four rushing touchdowns against the Midshipmen and 175 yards versus the Panthers are a far cry from the low-water marks of recent years.
“We did some things in the running game in the spring that have enhanced what we’re doing with our read-option game and misdirection,” Kelly said.
The Irish aren’t running more than they did a year ago. The 2014 team averaged 37.2 carries per game; the 2015 team is averaging 38.7. But a bevy of explosive runs – mainly by C.J. Prosise, who is seventh in the country in 10-yard runs with 35 – have improved Notre Dame’s average per carry by a shocking 1.4 yards per attempt.
As the defenses the Irish are facing over the final two-thirds of the ‘15 season have improved, they’ve still managed to run the football at a 169.2-yard clip over the last five games. Wake Forest, but especially Boston College and Stanford, are capable of reducing Notre Dame’s rushing attack down the stretch of ’15.
But the Irish are better equipped to handle the highs and lows. And when the Irish are running, they’re winning. Consider that in 2012 and 2015, when the Irish have averaged better than 200 yards rushing per game, they are 20-2 with the only losses against Alabama in the national championship game and Clemson this year.
“(Right tackle Mike) McGlinchey didn’t play much at all for us last year,” Kelly said. “Q (left guard Quenton Nelson) is a new starter. So you really have two new starters and three with Nick (Martin) back into the right position (from left guard to center).
“So if you’re looking at last year, we have three new starters in positions we believe they should be in. That’s a big difference from last year to this year, and then the way they’re working together.
“It’s a different running game from last year.”
And quite frankly, all of the previous five seasons, even 2012.