Charlie Weis understands that, offensively, he may have to do what this team does best rather than what he wants to do. After Notre Dame has struggled to earn an identity running the ball through the first three games, it seems apparent that the Irish will turn to the pass more in the future, but the running game will stay play a vital role.
In his first two seasons at Notre Dame, Weis was able to build prolific offenses around the talents of Brady Quinn and Jeff Samardzija, but Weis maintains that the team needs to be respectable on the ground.
"We've had more success throwing the ball than running the ball, but you can't make a living just being one-dimensional in football," he said.
Jimmy Clausen threw the ball 41 times against Michigan State, but don't expect Clausen to be putting it up much more than that.
"I'd prefer not to throw it 50 times and run it 25 times. I'd prefer not to do that. That being said, I've always been a guy who believed in balance," Weis said. "I always believe that it makes things a heck of a lot easier on the quarterback if you can run the ball."
The difficult part now for Notre Dame is finding a balance between doing what's best for the offense while continuing to dictate to the defense.
"If your identity all stems around passing first, OK, now you're exposing yourself to a lot of problems that you'd like to try to avoid," Weis said. "(If a defense can just) come after you, you're opening yourself up for pressures, sacks, quarterback hits, interceptions, strip sack fumbles, you know a lot of things that we revisited in the past. So the fewer times you have to put yourself in that position the safer the game is. That being said, you got to do whatever you've got to do to put you in the best position to win."
Offensive coordinator Michael Haywood echoed the head coach's comments.
"When you drop back and just sling it, your sack ratio goes up. You don't want to be in a situation where you throw it 50 times a game and run it 25 times a game," he said. "You want to be able to run the football to open up the pass."
Haywood talked about the transition the staff made at halftime of the Michigan State game to scrap the running game for the most part.
"(At halftime) as an offensive staff, we wrote up two sets of openers," he said. "One set of openers would be regular runs and passes and the other set of openers is the empty passing game. When I got up in the box I said, ‘Coach, let's go empty. Let's see what they're going to give us in empty.'"
The Irish offense had success throwing it all over the field, but Haywood made it clear that Notre Dame will not plan to scrap the running game in the future.
"We believe that we should run the football to set up the passing game," he said.
In order to do that, the Irish need to fix the ground attack by going back to the basics.
"It's a matter of fundamentally playing sound," said Weis. "It still comes down to moving the line of scrimmage. As you watch the game, if the line of scrimmage doesn't move in the defense's direction then usually something good is not going to end up happening and that happened too many times in this past game."
The styles of each running back can dictate what types of running plays are being called and there are differences between players like Darius Walker and guys like Robert Hughes, Armando Allen and James Aldridge.
"The difference is, when we first got here we had more of a draw runner than a inside zone/outside zone runner. (Walker) was more of a draw runner," said Weis. "I think that a lot of what you do offensively in the run game isn't just what your linemen can do, it's what the mentality of the guys that are going to be playing out there with you."
Weis admitted that in some sense it could be easier to have a true feature back rather than splitting carries between the three, but added that the game has changed.
"I think that it's easier to establish an identity when you have a mentality of backs that is either one person or very similar person from one guy to the next guy. I think it's easy to do that," he said. "But every team has now become more situational where they have different guys that can do different things."
The other problem that can come with using multiple backs is if the offense tips its hand based on which one is in the game.
"What's difficult is not giving away exactly what you are doing based on who you are putting in there," said Weis. "Like all of a sudden you are putting in this back, well then you are doing that. I mean, because what you don't want to sit there is tell the defensive coordinators hey, this is what you are doing based on which back is going in the game."
Notre Dame tries to guard against that by not changing too much based on personnel.
"We just call the same plays," Weis said.
Haywood is confident that this team is going to turn it around and he has seen it happen before.
"My first year at Texas when I went there (in 2003), Texas was fifth in the country in running the football. After the first two games, Cedric Benson did not have 100 yards in either game," Haywood said. "We go down the next game, probably the third or fourth game of the year and he breaks out and has a 100-yard game. If you believe in what you're doing and you keep doing it, you get better at it."
But in order for the Irish to accomplish that kind of improvement, they are going to need to get better in a bunch of areas.
"We need to become more fundamentally sound with the things in which we're asking the young men to do," Haywood said. "I believe that it's an everyday process. With the ultimate faith that we have that we can run the football we need to get better at fundamentally and technique at all positions everyday."
That message has already been delivered to the players.
"It really wasn't something that you could put on an individual, it was a collective unit really," Aldridge said. "All I can do now is just fundamentally do my job better and when everyone goes and does their job better together, hopefully we can get positive things out of it."
"The challenge for us is just to get fundamentally better," said Allen. "Everyone needs to go out there and work on what they need to work on and eventually everything will get going."
TATE'S TOUCHES: Weis said that Notre Dame would like to get the ball in Golden Tate's hands as much as possible, but that the Irish would not force it and his early success should give others more opportunities.
"We'd love to have the ball in his hands because he's shown to be a playmaker every week. On the flip side of that, the other thing is if everyone wants to roll their coverage to him and roll everything up over here and it'll let all these other guys be one-on-one on the other side, that isn't a bad thing either," said Weis. "We have confidence in Michael Floyd and David Grimes, who is back, and that's before you even get into (Duval) Kamara and Robby (Parris) and George (West) and all the other guys. There's positives even when they're rolling into him so that you can only get him a limited number of touches because now you are getting all the other guys with really soft coverage on the other side."
Haywood said that getting Tate the ball is a priority for the staff.
"We have a list of guys of which we call playmakers and we try to make sure that they're in a position to make big plays for us. There isn't a certain number (of touches), but when he's touching the ball six to eight times a game, that's pretty good numbers for one guy," he said. "(Tate) is at the top of the playmakers list."
Obviously Tate loves to hear that.
"Anytime I get the chance to get the ball, I want it in my hands," Tate said. "If you can get me the ball get it to me."
COMPETITION AT KICKER: Sophomore Brandon Walker was the clear number one kicker coming out of preseason camp, but after missing his first three field goals of 2008, Weis is giving junior Ryan Burkhart another chance at winning the job.
"We're going to kick field goals at the end of practice (Tuesday) and we're going to have two guys out there kicking and we'll see how that works out," Weis said.
While Walker has struggled in the placekicking department, Burkhart has been inconsistent with his kickoffs. Fans often wonder why the Irish cannot just find a kicker among a student body of 4,000 males, but Weis said that the staff has tried.
"We've exhausted a lot of alternatives on this one. We've had Gong Show after Gong Show just so you know. It isn't like we haven't given people the opportunity to do exactly this," Weis said. "But you want to know something? When it comes time to do it in front of eyes, it's amazing how much different those kicks look. They might be the greatest backyard kicker in the entire free world, but when all of a sudden it comes to actually having to do it in front of other people, just somehow it doesn't play out the same way."
FRESHMEN AS FACTORS: Through three games, eight members of Notre Dame's 2008 recruiting class have seen the field. Linebacker Steven Filer was the most recent to make his debut, playing on special teams against Michigan State, and Weis mentioned that another freshman is on the verge of doing the same.
"I'll give you the other guy who hasn't played yet, Jonas Gray," Weis said. "(Filer and Gray) are the two we're watching on a weekly basis that at practice on special teams keep on showing up and keep on showing up. So those two guys are guys that you have to make those decisions, well do you force feed them and just go ahead and put them in there? And we did that with Steven last week."
PICK PROBLEMS: Weis said that turnovers are always a problem, but especially the ones that he views as avoidable. Clausen has thrown six interceptions in three games and, according to Weis, some of them should have never happened.
"Most of our interceptions have been in one-on-one situations where either a play by the receiver or better throw by the quarterback, a combination of one of those two, would prevent a lot of those situations," he said. "When you have a one-on-one opportunity and you have a chance of hitting a home run and scoring touchdowns, a lot of times you are going to throw that ball. And between the quarterback and the receiver their job is to make sure either we catch it or nobody catches it."
Four of Clausen's six interceptions have come on passes intended for sophomore receiver Duval Kamara.
"He's had about everything, every factor happen to him all in a three-game sequence," said Weis. "Bouncing off your chest, jump ball situations, making a play on an underthrown ball. You name it, he's had about all of it exposed to him in a short amount of time."
Kamara caught a touchdown from Clausen in the win over Michigan and Weis believes that the sophomore duo needs more plays like that.
"I think that would help him and Jimmy. Because it isn't just Duval, you want to have chemistry between the two guys right there," he said. "Jimmy likes to throw it to him, we need to do a better job of making sure that if we're not catching the ball, no one's catching the ball."
HAYWOOD OPENS UP: Haywood has seemed to enjoy his dealings with the media more this year and that is by design. At the end of last season Haywood heard from a former media advisor, who told him that he had a shield that was preventing the media from seeing his true side. Haywood flew down to Texas during the summer for additional media training.
"So I just talk a little bit more freely instead of having that wall of lack of trust. I just answer your questions," said Haywood, who gave reporters a sample of the advice he received. "They say, ‘Hey, you have to be careful of your facial expressions sometimes.' Because my facial expressions tell exactly what I think."