Ground Game Will Be Key

As Notre Dame attempts to return to prominence in 2008, a lot of attention will be paid to the quarterback position in Year Two of the Jimmy Clausen Era, but the true keys to the season may be directly in front of and behind the sophomore signal caller.

Clausen may have more eyes on him, but the offensive line, running backs and defensive front seven should be carrying the larger role. The offensive line was the team's most obvious weak link last year, allowing 58 sacks, the most of Football Bowl Subdivision teams. A year older, stronger and more experienced, that group is expected by the Irish staff to show marked improvement in 2008.

The running back situation in South Bend may be the most interesting of any on the roster with junior James Aldridge battling sophomores Robert Hughes and Armando Allen for carries. Many believe that the Hughes will ultimately get the bulk of the action with Allen being a change of pace back, leaving Aldridge on the outside. But Weis has yet to anoint anyone as the top back.

The poor offensive play last year consistently put the defense in difficult situations and although the Irish ranked second nationally in passing defense, the unit will need to improve on last year's 96th-ranked rush defense. Both of those rankings are at least due in part to the fact that Notre Dame was out of so many games so early that opposing teams were able to abandon the pass. Still, if the Irish want to be a consistent team, they will need to have more of a balanced defense.

Since the NCAA began keeping detailed statistics in 1946, Notre Dame has had 17 undefeated or one-loss seasons, including seven national championships. The Irish finished in the top 20 nationally in rushing yards in all but one of those years, the '77 National Championship season, when the Irish were 40th in the country with an average of 231.9 yards.

Notre Dame had top 10 rushing offenses in ten of those 17 seasons, and on six occasions placed in the top five.

Under head coach Frank Leahy, the Irish went a combined 35-0-2 from 1946-49 – finishing first, fourth, third and fourth in rushing over that span – and won the national title in each of those years except ‘48. Halfback Emil Sitko came directly out of World War II service and enrolled as a 23-year-old freshman at Notre Dame in 1946. Sitko rushed for 2,226 yards and 26 touchdowns on 362 carries over his four years in the Notre Dame backfield, placing him 11th on the school's all-time rushing leaderboard.

The 1966 National Championship season was Ara Parseghian's third in South Bend and featured the legendary Game of the Century, a 10-10 tie at Michigan State. The Irish dominated that year, leading the country in scoring with 36.2 points per game while their second-ranked scoring defense allowed just 3.8. Notre Dame averaged 210.6 rushing yards (13th in the nation), led by senior All-American halfback Nick Eddy.

Parseghian grabbed his second national title in 1973 with a perfect 10-0 season and another Game of the Century, a 24-23 win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. While that game may be best remembered for quarterback Tom Clements' heroics, it was the country's sixth-ranked rushing attack (350.2 yards per game) and halfbacks Art Best and Eric Penick that led the Irish for most of the season.

In 1977, Dan Devine won a national title in his third season. That season will be close to Irish fans' hearts because of the return of quarterback Joe Montana from a shoulder injury and for the "Green Jersey" game against Southern Cal. The Irish defense carried the team early, but the offense did manage to average 440.0 yards (5th nationally) thanks to Montana and the passing game. But 1977 was also the sophomore year for Vagas Ferguson, who was the school's all-time leading rusher when he graduated with 3,472 career yards.

More recently, Lou Holtz had four seasons that featured one or fewer defeats, 1988, 1989, 1992 and 1993. The '88 team averaged 258.0 yards per game on the ground, 11th in the country as Holtz won a national title in his third season. The balanced attack featured three runners that would end up on the school's top 20 rusher list –running backs Tony Brooks and Mark Green along with quarterback Tony Rice. That's not to mention running back Ricky Watters, who graduated with 1,814 career yards.

The following year, Notre Dame was eighth in the nation in rushing with 287.7 yards a game and came up one win shy of another title. Rice and Watters were back for the 1989 season, but Green had graduated and Brooks withdrew from school before returning in 1990. '89 was also the first of two first team All-American seasons for flanker Raghib "Rocket" Ismail, who was a threat as a runner, receiver and returner.

The '92 team finished 9-1-1 and third in the country on the ground with a 280.9 average. Rick Mirer was the quarterback of a backfield that featured Brooks' younger brother Reggie and fullback Jerome Bettis. Brooks finished fifth in the Heisman voting that year, averaging 8.0 yards a carry for 1,372 yards and 13 touchdowns. Bettis graduated with 1,912 career yards on 337 carries in three seasons at fullback.

The following season – 1993 – was one in which many Irish fans feel they were robbed of a national title that eventually went to Florida State. It was also the last year that Notre Dame finished a season with less than two losses. The Irish again had a superb running attack, averaging 260.7 yards (6th nationally), led by Lee Becton's 1,044.

Because of the run-first offenses that Notre Dame traditionally ran through the new millennium, the Irish faired relatively well nationally in rushing statistics. Still, of the 14 seasons since 1946 that the Irish failed to post a winning record, Notre Dame finished outside of the top 50 rushing squads in ten of those seasons.

As good of a success indicator as Notre Dame's rushing offense has been, its rush defense may be even better. During those same 17 unbeaten or one-loss seasons, Notre Dame never finished lower than 20th in the nation in rushing defense. The Irish placed in the top 10 in 13 of those seasons and seven times finished in the top five. Conversely, in the 14 seasons since 1946 without a winning record, the Irish failed to crack the nation's top 40 in run defense in ten of them.

Last year's rushing offense (115th nationally) was by far the school's worst in the last 60 years. The 75.3 yard average was the only time since 1946 that the Irish failed to average at least 100 yards. The defensive statistics were not much better as Notre Dame surrendered an average of 195.4 yards for a 96th overall ranking; both marks were the school's worst since 1956.

It is rare to have a squad that is among the nation's elite in both rush offense and defense, but both units need to be respectable. Of the last six BCS National Championship teams, last year's LSU squad was the most balanced with an 11th-ranked rushing offense and 12th-ranked rush defense. The other five ranked somewhere in the top 30 of one category while placing in the top five of the other.

As for this year's schedule, it should be no surprise that most of the seemingly difficult games come against teams with the potential to have solid running games.

Michigan is probably a year away from truly establishing a serious rushing attack, but expect Rich Rodriguez to find a way to run the ball. Michigan State returns Javon Ringer who has been labeled by some draft experts as the top senior running back in the country. North Carolina is in very much the same situation that the Irish are in as far youth and many are expecting the Tar Heels to go as far as sophomore tailback Greg Little can take them.

Washington's best runner is quarterback Jake Locker, but with Locker's athletic ability that is no knock on the Huskies. With the loss of ACC Player of the Year in quarterback Matt Ryan, look for Boston College to rededicate itself to the running game.

Few expect Navy to start a winning streak against the Irish, but the Midshipmen present the most unusual rushing attack on the schedule and it is effective as they have led the country in rushing in four of the last five seasons. Southern Cal has the athletes to run a balanced offense and the Trojans may feature the most talented offensive player that the Irish will face this year in sophomore running back Joe McKnight.

With Charlie Weis' pro-style offense in place in South Bend along with his proven ability to recruit quarterbacks, the Irish may never return to the days when they ranked in the top five of rushing teams. But Weis has always maintained that he wants to run the football and run play-action passes off of that.

If the Irish are going to turn things around in 2008, they will have to discover a way to contain their opponents' run games while finding a consistent ground game of their own. Turning 3-9 around is nothing compared to turning 115 and 96 around, but neither will be done without the other.


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