As the Blue-Gold game draws near, a lot of attention will be focused on how Brady Quinn and the receivers are picking up the new offense. But football is really a pretty simple game. Control the line of scrimmage, move the ball downfield steadily, control the clock and field position, and you'll probably win.
Let's look at the relatively close games played in the Willingham era. I defined "close" games as being either games decided by seven points or fewer, or ones that had no more than a one score differential at halftime and a two score differential by the end of the game.
Games where everything worked for ND (like the 57-7 win over Stanford in 2003) or where nothing worked (like the 38-0 loss to Michigan the same year) don't really tell you much about what a team needs to do to win in crunch time.
Also, I looked here just at runs by running backs. QB sacks and scrambles, reverses and so on all count as runs, but they don't really say much about a team's willingness and ability to stick with a power rushing attack.
OK, let's start with the losses. The numbers in parentheses indicate the rushing attempts and yards (and again, these are just those for running backs, so they don't exactly correspond to the final rushing totals in the box scores.Boston College 2002, L 7-14 (34-130)
MSU 2003, L 16-22 (21-61)
Purdue 2003, L 10-23 (16-25)
Boston College 2003, L 25-27 (26-71)
BYU 2004, L 17-20 (16-24)
Boston College 2004, L 23-24 (31-107)
Pitt 2004, L 38-41 (34-166)
Average: 25.4-83.4 (Yards per carry: 3.28)
Now let's look at the wins in close games.Purdue 2002, W 24-17 (30-141)
Michigan 2002, W 25-23 (34-145)
Michigan State 2002, W 21-17 (30-131)
Pittsburgh 2002, W 14-6 (26-51)
Air Force 2002, W 21-14 (47-247)
Florida State 2002, W 34-24 (27-99)
Navy 2002, W 30-23 (30-69)
Washington State 2003, W 29-26 (30-172)
Pittsburgh 2003, W 20-14 (53-356)
Navy 2003, W 27-24 (40-240)
Michigan 2004, W 28-20 (38-130)
Michigan State 2004, W 31-24 (43-174)
Stanford 2004, W 23-15 (44-161)
Tennessee 2004, W 17-13 (31-107)
Average 35.2-158.8 (Yards per carry 4.58)
So what does this show? When Notre Dame won they obviously ran the ball better (almost a yard and half per carry more and almost double the total yardage) but it also ran the ball a lot more.
A college team will usually get 60-70 offensive plays in a game. When ND won those close games they ran the ball with running backs over half the time. When they lost those games the offense was heavily pass oriented.
In only one of these losses did Notre Dame have a really effective rushing attack, and that was the 41-38 loss to Pittsburgh in 2004. That loss, however, really was more due to a completely ineffective pass defense than any fault of the offense. The Irish also managed an adequate rushing attack in terms of yardage against Boston College 2002, but seven fumbles doomed ND that day.
On the winning side of the ledger, ND was occasionally able to win without a rushing attack of consequence, but always in the blessed season of 2002 and never thereafter. ND managed to pull out the Pitt game that year without any real rushing game (or offense to speak of) but managed to make the most of its drives and capitalized on Pitt turnovers. The FSU victory was also spurred by huge turnovers and some timely running (Grant's longest run of the year staked ND to a 34-10 lead). Only the Navy game that year could really be counted as a game that ND won on the back of its passing offense in the Willingham era.
Once 2002 was finished, failure to run the ball 30 times or more and gain at least a 130 yards or so on the ground spelled doom for ND.
If Weis is willing and able to stick with the run and do so with a least reasonable effectiveness, a whole bunch of other problems will magically take care of themselves.