Ground Game Soars

The Irish rushing attack led the Blue Offense to a 68-33 victory over the Gold Defense in Saturday's spring game. Armando Allen won the Offensive MVP award, but it could have gone to any of Notre Dame's running backs.

Anything positive that happens in a split-squad scrimmage will always evoke questions about whether it meant one side is good or the other is bad.

There is no way to avoid that scrutiny and definitive answers do not come until the team finally goes up against another opponent. So people can complain about the struggles of Notre Dame's passing game in Saturday's Blue-Gold Game or of the defense in stopping the run, but the success of the running game by the offense has to be viewed as encouraging.

The weakness of Notre Dame's offense last year was clearly the inability to get consistent yards on the ground and the fact that the running game was the obvious strength on Saturday at least shows that Charlie Weis and his staff are addressing it. That staff now contains running backs coach Tony Alford and offensive line coach Frank Verducci.

During the offseason, Weis reviewed the rushing statistics of all of the teams that reached BCS bowls last year and of the two teams that played in the Cotton Bowl and presented his findings to his team.

"Those teams were averaging over 4.6 a carry in their run game and we were averaging 3.3. I said, ‘Fellas, it all starts with the run game,'" said Weis. "Let's face it, if you can run the ball, everything else is easier. Protection is easier, throwing the ball is easier. Everything is easier if you can run the ball."

The Irish averaged 4.2 yards on Saturday, gaining 247 rushing yards, much of it between the tackles, without a fumble on 59 attempts.

Armando Allen earned offensive MVP honors, but the award could have gone to any of the Irish running backs. Allen had 70 yards on just 12 carries, but Robert Hughes led the backs with 93 yards and two touchdowns while Jonas Gray was right behind with 89 carries and a score.

Allen showed that he now possesses the strength to run between the tackles while still having the speed to bounce it to the outside.

"That was a big thing for me, just putting on some pounds and being able to go out there and be physical," he said. "I've worked on that this spring and will continue to work on that this summer."

Allen started the game with 33 yards on four rushes on the opening possession. He also had a nifty 29-yard punt return in the first half and was knocked out of bounds at the two-yard line before Hughes' second touchdown.

"I still say I got it in," Allen laughed.

That run was Allen's final attempt of the day as Weis wanted to get heavy action for the other two.

"I couldn't give (Hughes and Gray) enough carries today because in the grand scheme of things all three of those guys are different types of backs," said Weis. "Armando is the smaller, shifty fast guy. Robert is the pounder guy and then Jonas is the more inexperienced guy who has got a lot of both of them in him, but with the least amount of experience. Jonas probably benefited today as much as anyone just by the volume of carries."

Gray was the leading rusher in the second half with 65 yards on 13 carries, including three 12-yard gainers.

Hughes was solid, especially on the drive leading up to his first touchdown. He had runs of 12 and 11 yards before running it in from eight yards out. Weis said that he wanted to catch the Irish defensive staff off guard by running the ball inside the 10.

"You know that they're going bracket coverage because they're figuring there's no way Weis is calling a run here. That's why you walk it in," Weis said. "That's exactly what those defensive coaches were thinking, ‘There's no way he's calling a run.' The next thing you know, you just walk it in for a touchdown.

"The easiest way to score when you're in the red zone, to be honest with you, is to run it in so hopefully we'll be doing more of that."

Allen acknowledged that the MVP award could have gone to any of the backs and gave credit for it to the offensive line.

"Like I always say, we've got a real talented group. Whenever any of us is on the field, nothing changes," he said. "The offensive line is great, they compete everyday. To go out see them guys having fun means a lot to us."

But while Saturday's performance will motivate Allen and his teammates as they head into the summer, they are not convinced that their work is done.

"We're doing good right now, but I still feel like we've got a lot of work to do," he said. "We're never really satisfied as a group. The sky's the limit for us as long as we keep working hard."


IrishIllustrated.com Top Stories