The problem is that mixed in with those performances, none of which were truly stellar, was a lot of mediocrity. There isn't enough room, and I don't have the time to discuss in detail, all the reasons for the lack of rushing success from what is an otherwise talented group of runners. We saw flashes of the talent from Allen against Purdue, North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Navy, and Hawaii. He showed that he's more than a speed guy, but also a player who can grind it out, break tackles, and eke out tough yards in between the tackles. Allen proved he's a threat out of the backfield as well. Hughes showed us glimpses of the talent we predicted from him against Michigan, Navy, and Hawaii. James Aldridge wasn't used much early in the season, but against Washington, Navy, and Southern Cal proved that he still has some juice left in the tank after two major knee injuries. The issue for the Irish is that those performances were few and far between. With the exception of Allen's game against Purdue those performances were usually moments of domination rather than an entire game of domination. I expected much more from this group.
The effort was never an issue. Allen and Aldridge ran the ball hard all season. Hughes went through a stretch where he wasn't healthy, but when he was healthy he showed that he can be a battering ram (Michigan and Hawaii). The backs stepped up most of the season in protection, they grinded all year, and never publically complained about their lack of playing time or lack of success. They never pointed fingers and never made excuses. But in order for Notre Dame to rise above being just a mediocre program who wins the occasional big game to a true national championship contender the legs of Armando Allen, Robert Hughes, and James Aldridge will have to carry the team. Under Charlie Weis the Irish will always be a pass first team, and I have no problem with that. There are many ways to win championships and you can win championships by throwing the football around all the time. Think Oklahoma and Southern Cal. But what those teams also have, mixed in with their deadly aerial assaults, is a dangerous rushing attack. Despite having a quarterback throw for over 4,400 yards Oklahoma had two 1,000-yard rushers. When Matt Leinart was winning the Heisman Trophy in 2004 he was supported by two backs who gained over 900 yards. The following year Leinart threw for 500 more yards than he did when he won the Heisman Trophy and had two backs with over 1,300 yards. Lack of skill is not the reason the Irish can't be more productive on the ground in compliment to their passing attack. During the 2008 season the Irish only had one back rush for 100 or more yards in a game, which was Allen's performance against Purdue. What's even more sad is that the Irish only had two other games (Allen against North Carolina and Navy) were a back even combined for 100 yards in total offense! That's not good at all.
There was no consistency with the Irish ground game. Not only were the individual performances inconsistent, but the manner in which the backs were used was inconsistent as well. For example Armando Allen carried the ball 17 times for 134 yards against Purdue. During the game leading up to and following the Purdue game (Michigan State and Stanford) Allen only carried the ball 15 times. Hughes kicked off the season carrying the ball 36 times for 133 yards in the first two games against San Diego State and Michigan. It wasn't until the Navy game that he touched the ball more than 9 times in a game.
Even within the games there was little continuity. It would seem that just as one back got going the Irish would either sub him out or starting throwing the football every down. I can think of the Pitt game where Armando Allen started the game off running well and then began the overtime period running very hard. During the 1st half the Irish carried the ball 13 times for 67 yards in jumping to a 17-3 half time lead. Armando Allen had seven rushes for 45 yards on his own. Then in the 2nd half the Irish matched the 13 rushes but it went for only 25 yards. Here's the catch, in the 2nd half six of the 13 rushes and 20 of the yards came on one drive. That drive happened to be the one touchdown drive the Irish put together in the 2nd half.
The lack of production from the backs isn't all their fault, in fact I would argue they weren't even the main culprit of the Irish woes on the ground. The struggles of the Irish rushing attack started up front. The Irish offensive line did not block well all season. There were moments that we saw good execution and physical play, and when those moments arrived the Irish offense was very good. Those games were against Michigan, Purdue, North Carolina, Washington, Navy, and Hawaii. Only the Washington and Purdue games would be considered games where the line dominated for 60 minutes. The other games were games where they played well but also left a lot of yards on the field thanks to mistakes. The wide receivers were improved this season as blockers but still left a lot to be desired in the run game. The effort was there from some of the players all the time, and from others some of the time, but as a unit they failed to consistently execute on the perimeter to spring long runs.
Finally the biggest issue with the Irish rushing attack was a lack of creativity and design. It wasn't until the Navy game that we began to see the Irish use some creativity out of the Irish rushing offense. Even then it wasn't overly imaginative. The Irish used very little misdirection runs this season. The times they did (Washington, Hawaii) we saw them rip off good runs. The Irish were basically a one-back inside-outside zone team who would run the occasional draw and when they had two backs in the game would run Iso.
It wasn't difficult to figure out what the Irish were going to do in the run game. Again it wasn't even until the Navy game that we saw the Irish began to attack both the strong side and weakside with the zone on a consistent basis. Within that system the Irish backs also weren't consistent enough making reads when they did have chances. It hurt them in two of their losses. Aldridge missed a chance to rip off a huge run on a toss play against Pittsburgh in the 2nd half, and Allen missed two big reads against Syracuse, one of which could have gone a long, long way.
The timing of the zone runs wasn't good either. It rarely seemed like the footwork of the backs and the blocking of the offensive line were timed up properly. The Irish also employed footwork on their zone that made it difficult for the backs to cut back if there was an opening. They were usually too close to the line of scrimmage in order to hit the open hole. In the zone the idea is that you don't block a specific hole but block zones and allow the backs to find the opening and exploit it. But when your backs aren't able to see or hit the opening because of their footwork and/or timing it seriously limits your chances to consistently make good runs.
Armando Allen was clearly the best all-around back for Notre Dame this season. He was also the only receiving threat for the Irish. Hughes and Aldridge finished the season with 17 receptions for 92 yards and no receiving touchdowns. Allen finished the season with 50 receptions for 355 yards and two receiving touchdowns. As mentioned previously, Allen had the only big rushing game of the season when he rushed for 134 yards against Purdue. Allen was productive at times as the check down receiver
Allen showed flashes of the big-play ability that I expect from him but his big plays were rare. I believe he proved that he's also a tough runner who can attack between the tackles, break tackles, and grind out the tough yards. The previously mentioned issues with the offensive line and wide receiver blocking were part of the reason Allen wasn't able to consistently rip off longer runs or get into the open field. But at times he also served as his own worst enemy. He wasn't consistent with his footwork and wasn't efficient with his footwork or cuts. Backs should take as few steps as possible when attacking the line of scrimmage, and their cuts through the hole should be as quick as possible. Extra steps slow you down and Allen was a victim of this at times this season. When there were creases, and they weren't frequent, Allen's footwork prevented him from hitting the hole at the right time and with the right speed. When he was right he was able to burst through the line for good gains.
Allen also needs to learn to use his speed better. Not only when attacking through the holes but also when attacking the perimeter. There are times when Allen had chances to just explode to the corner and outrun defenders but he never did it. He tried to be too perfect with his footwork, too perfect with his reads, and it prevented him from being aggressive and letting his natural ability and instincts take hold. Patience is a good thing, but being too patient is just as bad as being too aggressive and Allen is often too patient. These factors kept him from being the consistently dangerous playmaker that his talent says he should be.
I believe if you took a poll of Irish fans Robert Hughes would be the most popular player on the Irish offense. I also believe that outside of Jimmy Clausen there wasn't a player on the Irish offense who created more excitement heading into this season than Hughes after finishing the 2007 season with 110 rushing yards against Duke and 136 rushing yards against Stanford, both Irish wins. Hughes showed power and the ability to break big runs in both games. He ran the ball very well during the spring as well, but the 2008 season was a big disappointment for Hughes. He wasn't the same player during the 2008 season that he was during the 2007 season.
I believe Hughes struggles began against San Diego State when he fumbled the football after getting his knee twisted up near the goal line. He ran hard against Michigan the following week but didn't show any burst during that game or the remainder of the season. Hughes didn't show any explosiveness, didn't attack downhill, and was often far too tentative to rip off chunks of yards. Hughes also missed a number of reads during the season. After the Michigan game Hughes didn't show the kind of power he's capable of when he did get to the second level, like the 2007 season when Hughes finished the season off on a strong note. Although his bowl numbers don't appear very good (17 carries, 55 yards, 1 TD) he ran hard, made good reads, and showed better power. He also was more efficient, seemed a bit lighter on his feet, and showed a bit more power. I believe the knee injury affected Hughes, but I also think he was a tad too heavy and also wasn't used properly by the Irish coaches. Hughes is a guy who needs touches in order to really be effective. Hughes didn't get those consistent carries and didn't get enough downhill opportunities during the season.
I was very happy for James Aldridge this season. The only things I've heard about James off the field is that first and foremost he's a great kid, and second that he works incredibly hard. But this season proved to me that he will never regain the ability he had as a runner before his knee injuries. Aldridge is simply a straight line runner with little ability to make people miss in open field. As the season wore on he showed more explosiveness and burst towards to the line of scrimmage, but his overall speed isn't good. But Aldridge runs very hard and showed excellent toughness and a good leg drive this season. Early in the season it took Aldridge time to really get going. Against Washington, Navy, and Southern Cal he was faster to the line and the Irish's best between-the-tackles runner. Aldridge was also very effective in short yardage situations after Hughes struggled. Aldridge also missed several key reads this season that could have resulted in first downs, bigger gains, or potential long gainers (two left against Pittsburgh). In order to be as effective as he is capable of being he'll need to be more consistent with his reads.
The offensive coaches used the fullback much less than they have in previous seasons, but when they did play they were effective. Asaph Schwapp was a much improved player this season. Last season during the breakdowns I was constantly ripping on Schwapp for either missing a block or using poor technique and not sustaining blocks. This year those criticisms were much fewer and far between. Schwapp showed the same toughness and aggressiveness he always has, but this season he was a more fundamentally sound football player. When he was in the game the odds of the Irish running between the tackles was high so Schwapp had his hands full. Despite this Schwapp played strong, learned how to use his hands and feet in order to sustain blocks, played under control, and was an effective player. It was good to see the development from Schwapp in his final season. In the brief moments that Steve Paskorz was able to see the field he showed flashes of having a solid future at fullback for the Irish. Paskorz still has a lot of work to do with his technique and knowing his responsibilities, but he showed he's still a very good athlete, he showed toughness, and he definitely showed he's not afraid to get after linebackers and defensive linemen. A good spring could earn him a lot of playing time next season.
GETTING MORE FROM THE BACKS
I believe the Irish need to pick one back to be the weekly go-to guy. It might change in certain situations but I would like to see the Irish coaches begin to find some continuity for the backs so that each player can know his role each week and prepare to execute his responsibilities. When they commit to a back during the season or during the week they need to give that back chances to get into the flow of the game. Running backs need a lot of carries and touches in order to get into the flow of the game but also in order to really get a feel for the defense. The more touches a back gets the more he can see how the line and the linebackers are flowing. If backers are really starting to flow, a back will pick up on that and know to hit cut backs when they are available. If linebackers are slow in reacting, a back will know to really burst to the outside when the opportunities present themselves.
Each back on the roster is a player who needs consistent touches. Even Armando Allen, despite being labeled as a "speed player," is actually a good between-the-tackles player who really does need touches to get going. This is definitely true of Robert Hughes and James Aldridge. After the Irish coaches establish the main guy they then need to find roles for the next back and stick to it. If Allen is the starter and Hughes is the backup than it is definitely possible for the Irish to still get Hughes 12-15 carries throughout the game. I'd also like to see the coaches not change the system so drastically when they bring in the next back. They need to use the bigger backs as sort of a change of pace player, but it doesn't mean they have to line up in their Base personnel and let the whole world know they are running between the tackles.
The Irish coaches also need to be more creative with their running game. If they stick with the zone I'd love to see them mix up how they attack with the zone. There are many ways they can run both the inside and outside zone that will keep the responsibilities for their player's simple but show several looks to the defense. Also the Irish coaches need to find and use wrinkles with the zone.
Within the zone they can mix up tossing the ball and handing the ball off in both the inside and zone packages. I'd like to see more shotgun runs as well. They can and should also use the tight end and wide receiver motions to attack the defense with the zone. On top of that I'd like to see more receiver reverses and fake reverses to attempt to slow the defense down. Also, rather than running a true reverse they should also have a look where if the backside of the defense is really flowing hard to the zone the Irish can simply call a reverse play that looks just like the previous zone runs but has the backside tackle peel back and the receiver comes around for the handoff. Changing the blocking scheme is okay but it's better in my opinion to also frequently (frequently in comparison to how often the play is used) use the same blocking scheme and just have a tag that tells the receiver to take the handoff and the OL knows they are to still block the zone look.
Misdirection runs would also be great. The Irish used a heavy dose of the counter play against Hawaii and it was very effective. They did it out of their Trey personnel which was very effective. That needs to be used more and it definitely needs to be ran out of the shotgun. The Irish coaches also need to get more creative with their trick plays. They tended to telegraph when they were going to run a reverse, hand the ball off to a different player, and the decision to show Navy a look with Tate as the single back before the end of the quarter was a missed opportunity. The fact is if the Irish are going to continue to be a three receiver/one tight end/one running back offense that is in the shotgun a lot they will need to add wrinkles to their offense to keep teams honest.
I also would like to see the coaches use the backs better in the pass game. First of all I'd love to see them get Robert Hughes more involved in the pass game. He has good hands and showed against Hawaii that he can make a play and a tough chance if called upon. I'd also like to see both backs, but especially Allen, used in more ways than just outside screens and over-the-middle checkdowns. The screen game needs to get a lot better. It timed up better against Hawaii and Hawaii didn't defend it well so the screens went for huge gains that game. That needs to happen more frequently. Better offensive line play on the perimeter will certainly help. But the Irish coaches can also help by being more diverse and creative with how they design the screen throws.
I'd like to see them design and run some middle screens to the backs. They can do the quick middle screen against pressuring teams that USC likes to use (see the Penn State game) or they can do a delayed middle screen play off the bubble action. I believe they should also look into a shovel pass type situation next season. I'm not talking about how Florida did it against Oklahoma, but a traditional shovel pass situation. Also I'd like to see the Irish coaches get the tailbacks on the perimeter more often as part of their checkdowns. I'd also love to see Allen and Hughes running downfield routes more often. They run enough trips out of the shotgun to really take advantage of the backs on the weakside in one-on-one situations. Sending Allen on a wheel route to the backside of a trips look could be a big play for the Irish next season. It will also open up the middle of the field for all types of pass plays.
Finally I'd like to see the Irish use their backs together more often. With Jimmy Clausen as the quarterback we won't see much option, but if they are going to be in the shotgun there is no reason they can't use a three receiver/two back set or a two receiver/one tight end/two back set with Rudolph widened out. The Irish could use Allen and Hughes together as pass catchers but could also design some really solid runs out of this look as well. They could also get creative motioning Allen out of the backfield to either throw him the ball or hit it inside with Hughes once the defense has been spread out. All of these wrinkles don't take a lot of new schemes, a ton of new things to learn for the backs, and aren't adding too much to an already full plate. Rather they are wrinkles off the existing offense that will make the Irish offense more diverse, more explosive, and better utilize the talent the Irish have in the backfield.
With Aldridge heading into his senior season, and both Allen and Hughes heading into their junior seasons, it's not too early to start peaking into the future. There is plenty of talent coming through the pipe for the Irish backfield. Jonas Gray showed toughness, vision, and some speed in his limited minutes this season. He was a high school All-American and a talented young player. I'm not sure if Gray is ready to beat out the upper-classmen, but he did show that he has a future for Notre Dame. If one of the upper class backs got hurt I'd be confident in Gray stepping in and filling their shoes more than admirably. Incoming freshmen Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick also have bright futures. Riddick is the more pure runner and has good speed, excellent vision, and should be a tremendous fit into the Irish offense. Wood is a dynamic playmaker who can excel on the perimeter, as a returner, and in time out of the backfield. Wood needs a lot of work as a between the tackles runner, and must get a lot stronger in order to be an every down back, but he has a lot of talent, ability, and potential. The future of the Irish backfield looks quite bright in regards to talent, now it's up to the coaches to find ways to utilize and maximize that ability.