The sophomore didn't have much running room, but the 6-foot, 222-pound Aldridge kept pounding away. He gained 59 yards, nearly half of the Irish's 140 yards of total offense, against the nation's 10th-ranked rush defense. It didn't look like much, but Aldridge's dirty work played a large role in the Irish's (1-5) first win of the season.
That kind of tough running, on top of being Notre Dame's most complete back, has moved Aldridge ahead of the other four Irish running backs, and earned him the starting duties the last three games.
"Actually last week, he ran about as hard as you could possibly run," head coach Charlie Weis said. "You go back and look at that, I knew that they were going to get an eighth or ninth guy up there and they were going to get you outnumbered, but we already said that this is the way we're going to play that game. That doesn't mean that's the way we're going to play this game, but what he's done is he's shown to be the most consistent of the runners. That's why he's listed one now. I mean, they're all different. Every one of them is different. But he's shown to be the most consistent with all the things we do. I mean, he's not as fast as Armando (Allen) and he might not catch the ball as well as Robert (Hughes) or he might not pick up the blitz as well as Junior (Jabbie) or he might not be as good on the goal line as Travis (Thomas), which is kind of different roles that all those guys have. But if you put them all together, he's been the most consistent of all of them."
Aldridge has been sticking to the same company line. When Weis calls his number, he goes in and runs hard. Since the fourth quarter of the Michigan game, that has been a lot more often. He wouldn't bite, but flashed a smile when asked if he took a little extra pride in being the starting running back at Notre Dame.
"Just a sense of being recognized that I'm continuing to work hard," he said.
Aldridge working hard has never been a question. He busted his butt to return last season from a knee injury that kept him out the spring and the start of the season to play in the Irish's final seven games. He was never completely healthy and unable to do any weight work with his legs, but he climbed to No. 2 on the depth chart behind Darius Walker and rushed for 142 yards on 37 attempts.
Completely 100 percent this fall, Aldridge went into the position battle with his four backfield mates, waiting for his opportunity.
It took a couple weeks.
In the season opening 33-3 loss to Georgia Tech, Aldridge carried six times for 19 yards. The next week at Penn State he had just one carry for minus-three yards. Relegated to the bench against Michigan, Aldridge entered the game during mop-up time in the fourth quarter of another blowout, and led the team in rushing with 51 yards. Showing a physical presence Weis and the Irish were looking for in that game, Aldridge was the main man against Michigan State, rushing for a career-high and Notre Dame season-high 104 yards against the Spartans the following Saturday.
"James has always been right there in the mix," Weis said. Aldridge has 232 yards rushing on 62 carries this season. "It's just to take all those different elements we talked about, taking all those different guys and having one guy who's, I wouldn't call him a "jack of all trades, master of none," but you'd said the one guy who can handle all those jobs together so you didn't have to substitute in every situation. I think James has just done the best job of being that guy."
That's been Aldridge's aim all along.
"That's something that I've always wanted to focus on, is being at least decent at all facets of being a football player," he explained. "Being able to block, catch, run with power, a little finesse, everything, I take pride in all that."
The next two Saturdays, Aldridge and the Irish (1-5) rushing attack will face two more rush defenses ranked in the top-10 nationally. No. 4 Boston College (6-0) comes in this week with the third-best defense in that department, allowing just 49.7 yards per game. No. 10 Southern California follows the Eagles into South Bend, ranking seventh at 75.8 yards allowed per game.
This isn't good news for an Irish rushing attack that ranks last in the country at 33 yards per game. The glimmer of hope is that the quarterback sacks factor into that stat, and Notre Dame has surrendered 32 of those, and Aldridge's 104-yard performance against Michigan State.
"I just have to continue to run hard and trust my line and trust what I see, and I'm guessing everything is going to pay off," Aldridge said.
As far as who is No. 2 on the Irish depth chart at running back, that is tough to say, with the or word used three times. But Weis did say who is the most like Aldridge as far as being a complete back.
"I'd say the guy who has the best chance of being like that would probably be Robert (Hughes) because Robert is a big back, he's physical enough to pick up the blitz, he's got really soft hands, he's a power runner. I mean, you need to have all sorts of elements. Like Armando (Allen) is a different style of player. Armando is a guy who can pick up the blitz, he can catch the ball, he can run with the ball. I just don't think that you'd want him to run the ball inside 22 times in a game like you were doing with James Saturday."