Take a look down the statistics sheet from Notre Dame's loss to Michigan State and a few numbers will jump off the page: 22, 16 and 0.7.
22 rush attempts for 16 yards and a 0.7 average.
There is no denying that the one facet of the game that Notre Dame failed in was the one area where the coaches thought they could find some success. Jimmy Clausen played well when he got his chance, the defense held the Spartans to just 16 points through 55 minutes and although they missed a pair of field goals, the Notre Dame special teams played well enough to win. The running game is what failed the Irish in East Lansing.
"It was very disappointing (Saturday), because going into each game you have a different mentality that you go in with," Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis said. "This week we wanted to establish the running game to get going early in the game. And because we weren't able to do that efficiently it forced us to spread them out and throw the ball more than we intended to going into the game."
Despite stating that they wanted to ‘pound it' in 2008, the Fighting Irish have struggled with their rushing attack in each of the first three games. The only difference between the first two games of the season and Saturday's loss at Michigan State is that the Irish struggled so much running the ball that they were unable to find a way to overcome it.
In the opener against San Diego State, the Irish ran for 105 yards on 34 carries (3.1 average) and needed two fourth-quarter touchdown passes from Clausen to earn a 21-13 victory. Notre Dame gained 113 rushing yards on 34 attempts (3.3 average) against Michigan with the Irish defense and special teams leading the Irish to victory along with Clausen and the receivers.
Through three games, Notre Dame is averaging 78 yards a game, 112th in the nation.
"I think that although each week is its own set of encyclopedias, I think either way you can't be satisfied with where you are at this point as far as how the running game is going," Weis said.
On Saturday, Irish running backs carried the ball just 15 times for 30 yards. Robert Hughes had runs of minus-1, minus-1, 0, 4 and 7 yards. James Aldridge had carries for 6, minus-2, 9 and no gain. Armando Allen had runs of 1, minus-1, 3, no gain, 5 and 0 yards.
The score never forced the Irish to abandon the ground game because, until the fourth quarter, time was not a major factor working against them. The fact that the running backs had only 15 carries was indicative of the Notre Dame coaching staff recognizing the complete ineffectiveness of the rushing attack.
Weis pointed out more than once that the problems with the running game cannot be blamed solely on the offensive line.
"I kind of laid it on everybody. And I always include the coaches when I lay it on everyone," he said. "The easiest ones to hit are the offensive linemen, but it's the offensive linemen and tight ends and running backs and wide receivers and running backs carrying the ball. Obviously we're not doing a good enough job blocking and we're not doing a good enough job running."
One of the frustrating things for the Notre Dame offensive coaching staff is that they are seeing progress at practice, just not on Saturdays.
"The problem is during the week I think that the running game has continued to look better and better each day in practice. And the practice has been physical, and that includes when we're running the ball 1's against the 1's. The 1's against the 1's, offense against defense," said Weis. "So there's been plenty of evidence of things moving in the right direction. Obviously, we have not carried that over to the game."
The good thing for Notre Dame is that as it works on getting its running game going, with guys like Clausen, Golden Tate and Michael Floyd, the Irish could have the luxury of being successful by leaning on the passing game.
Freshman tight end Kyle Rudolph was featured more against Michigan State, catching two passes for first downs, and even with David Grimes sitting out with a back injury and Duval Kamara having an up-and-down start to 2008, those are guys that can make plays.
Simply put, right now the best players on the Notre Dame offense are the guys that throw the ball and the guys that catch it while the offensive line has proven that it can protect the passer.
But even with the offense moving the ball effectively through the air and Weis saying that he would be fine with the passing game carrying things, he knows that this team cannot survive without the threat of the run.
"Yes, that would be OK," he said of the passing game carrying the offense. "The bottom line is, when you go into a game, you want to give your guys the opportunity to (run the ball), but they have to give you evidence that they can do it. What you can't do is you can't just throw things out and just give up on your players saying we're not capable of doing that."
If Notre Dame is going to enjoy success this year it will have to fix the running game and there will obviously need to be some improvements and changes in order for the Irish to do that.
"I think that, collectively, with everyone who is throwing a block and involved in the run game, there's some things we're going to have to do significantly better or we're just going to be a mediocre running team," Weis said.
Some of those adjustments will be schematic.
"We talked about a number of things as we're going forward into Sunday/Monday and directions we might want to go to give us the best chance to be successful," Weis said. "So if you're asking as you get ready for Purdue, will there be things that you'll do differently? The answer is yes."
Weis is confident that the Irish will come up with the solutions to the running game.
"I think that as an offense, we have to give you and everyone else, but more particularly, the team, confidence that when we call run something positive's going to happen," he said. "So I think collectively we'll pick it up."