That theory worked well against Washington as ND averaged 8.3 yards per attempt (and much higher than that in the critical first half) while UW averaged only 5.1 per attempt.
But the other side of the coin is that a good yards per attempt figure allows teams to run more.
Teams that pass effectively don't have to devote as many plays to passing the ball. A team that averages only five per attempt is much more likely to have to throw the ball twice in a sequence of three downs to pick up a first down. A team that averages eight per attempt will probably only need to throw once in a three-down sequence.
Some proof of this is the run-pass distribution for ND over the last three years. In 2002, when ND had a decent per-pass average the Irish ran 56.4 percent of the plays while ND's opponents ran only 45 percent of the plays. For these purposes, I count sacks as passes.
In the miserable 5-7 campaign of 2003, ND ran only 50.7 percent of the time while Irish opponents ran 54.3 percent of the time.
Thus far this year, Notre Dame has run 53.8 percent of the plays (well over 60 percent the last three games) and ND's opponents have run only 44.2 percent of the plays. Notre Dame's ability to run the ball more often and better than Irish opponents correlates to winning games.
While I've argued that the total passing yards statistic is less significant than yards per attempt, total rushing yards take on more significance.
Running often and picking up yardage, even if not necessarily in big hunks, generally tires out a defense and keeps the clock moving.
In the 29 games that Willingham has been coach, Notre Dame has had more total rushing yards than Irish opponents 19 times. In those 19 games, Notre Dame is 16-3 and wins by an average score of 26-16.
In the 10 games that Notre Dame has been outrushed, the Irish are 2-8 and loses by an average score of 28-15. (The two wins, in case you're curious, were the 14-6 win against Pitt and the 30-23 win over Navy, both in 2002).
In fact, the total rushing yards statistic correlates more closely with winning games than does total yardage. When ND was 10-1 under Willingham, the Irish were 6-1 when winning the total yardage battle, and 4-0 when losing it. And some of the wins, including the Michigan and FSU games in 2002, were clearly games that ND deserved to win.
The differences are even starker if we look at games where ND has either won or lost the rushing battle by more than 50 yards.
Under Willingham, Notre Dame has won the rushing battle by more than 50 yards 11 times, and the Irish are 11-0 in those games, winning by an average score of 30-12.
Under Willingham, Notre Dame has lost the rushing battle by more than 50 yards seven times and ND is 1-6 in those games (the lone win was Navy in 2002) and loses by an average score of 34-11.
Run the ball, stop the run, and you'll win a lot of football games.