Notre Dame blew its third double-digit lead of the season on Saturday when Syracuse came from 13 points down in the fourth quarter to beat the Irish 24-23. Charlie Weis' squad squandered a 17-9 advantage at North Carolina and a 17-3 lead against Pittsburgh earlier in the season.
Weis called his team's inability to close out games a product of a relatively young team, but without a doubt the biggest factor in the lack of strong finishes by the Irish corresponds with the absence of a respectable running game.
Notre Dame has been able to build early leads with a passing attack along with a stingy defense, but has struggled to grind out the clock on the ground when it mattered most.
Against the Tar Heels, the Irish took a 17-9 lead into the locker room but managed only 26 rushing yards in the second half. In the loss to Pittsburgh, Notre Dame led 17-3 at halftime, but registered just 48 rushing yards from the third quarter on and that total includes four overtime periods.
Notre Dame had just 41 total ground yards against Syracuse on Saturday and only 13 in the second half after grabbing a 13-10 lead just before the half.
In fact, in Notre Dame's five losses this season it has posted rushing totals of 16, 89, 115, 61 and 41. Meanwhile in the Irish top offensive performances of the season against Purdue, Washington and Navy they rushed for 201, 257 and 203 yards respectively. But although the Midshipmen are ranked 43rd in the country stopping the run, the Boilermakers are ranked 93rd nationally against the run and the Huskies 116th.
But the rankings did not matter against the Orange, who now sit 102nd in stopping the run. Weis said that the Orange gave the Irish a different look in the run game.
"This week you were going against a different defense that decided to make you go away from the tight end side by how they were slanting and overloading their linebackers and pushing them that way and making you run that direction," he said. "You end up starting to go in that other direction. When you're running to the open side, when you're running to the open side, there's only so many runs you could dial up to that open side because you've got a lot less versatility."
But Syracuse head coach Greg Robinson described the scheme changes as minimal.
"Really nothing special," he said. "We just went out and played. We really just played our game. We did very little blitzing or whatever until certain situations we did."
Weis said that the difficulties in the running game have been different from week to week, but whatever the reason, the Irish struggled again against Syracuse.
Notre Dame's 41 rushing yards include a pair of sacks on Jimmy Clausen that subtracted 23 yards from the final total. But five-yard runs by receivers Golden Tate and David Grimes are also accounted for in the final rushing stats.
Only two Notre Dame running backs had carries against the Orange. Armando Allen had 17 rushes for 52 yards and James Aldridge had six carries for 0 yards. Allen's longest run of the day was nine yards, while Aldridge had a five-yard carry and runs for minus-1, minus-2, minus-2, no gain and no gain.
Aldridge, who had enjoyed success in recent weeks as the short-yardage back, was stuffed on a 4th-and-2, a 3rd-and-1 and on 2nd-and-goal from the five.
But even after those missed opportunities, the Irish had a two-score lead heading into the fourth quarter. Notre Dame failed to gain a first down after Syracuse cut the score to 23-17 and Weis turned to the pass to try to close out the game, it did not work.
Clausen helped to move the ball into Syracuse territory for a long field goal attempt that would have pushed it back to a two-score game, but when the kick was short the Orange responded with the go-ahead score and the Irish had no time for another rushing attempt.
It is clear that this Irish team has plenty of holes, but a consistent rushing attack would have helped to mask the other deficiencies. A truly dominant run game is not needed to hold on to second-half leads, just a respectable one. Instead Notre Dame and Weis find themselves scrambling to put together a game plan against Southern Cal's second-ranked defense to salvage what can only now be deemed a lost season.