He's shown intermittent bursts of speed (kick returns vs. Purdue and Hawaii) as well as the ability to hit the gap and run through arm tackles (Purdue, Stanford, and North Carolina). He's proven to be a reliable check down receiver and shown a willingness to fight for extra yards upon contact. And there are flashes of the quickness fans were promised when he arrived on campus. But there's a familiar element missing from the repertoire of junior running back Armando Allen: consistency.
Though the ebb and flow of sophomore quarterback Jimmy Clausen's 2008 season had a direct correlation to the team's 7-6 final mark, another hidden indicator of the squad's success and failure was the play of Allen, the team's leader in rushing attempts, yards, and yards-per-carry.
Allen scored six total touchdowns (rushing, receiving, return) in four separate games last season. The Irish were 4-0 in those contests. He led the Irish with 17 carries of 10 or more yards and was the only running back on the roster to hit the 20-yard mark on a run from scrimmage (Allen posted three separate 21-yard runs vs. Purdue).
But there are no weekly indicators of success for Allen – no magic formula that illustrates how his skills should be put to use in 2009. The season's first three contests yielded 30 rushes/receptions for 109 total yards and one more fumble than touchdown (0). The next three-game set? 52 touches from scrimmage for 349 yards and three touchdowns. And though that effort cemented Allen's workload over the next three games (52 more touches) it was a poor predictor of his success (just 209 yards on those 52 rushes/receptions).
His mixed results vs. peer athletes (not including games vs. Navy or USC) indicate the coaching staff might have a weekly adjustment to make regarding Allen and the offensive game plan:
- Workhorse? When Allen posted 15 rushing attempts in a single game the Irish won three (SD State, Purdue, Washington) and lost two (Pittsburgh, Syracuse).
- Change-of-pace receiver? Notre Dame won two games and lost three during games in which Allen caught five passes or more yet finished undefeated (4-0) when he caught two or fewer.
- Yards per carry? The Irish were 3-2 when Allen averaged more than four yards per carry; 4-4 when he finished below the measure.
Not surprisingly, that mixed bag of results led to seven wins in 13 opportunities...and more question's than answers for the Irish running game entering 2009.
Allen's Season Outlook:I'm surprised the Irish fan base has anointed Allen as the "feature back" with classmate Robert Hughes as his understudy and short-yardage workhorse (a tandem effort seems appropriate for '09). Their respective body types suggest Hughes pound between the tackles while Allen attack the perimeter, but Allen has proven the more effective inside runner, while the majority of Hughes best runs have been off tackle or through the B Gap (the hole between the tackle and guard).
In Allen's best career effort, a Week Four 38-21 victory over Purdue last September, the sophomore cut up the Boilers, hitting the hole or crease with authority. He consistently broke arm tackles on a variety of stretch running plays, draws, off-tackle sprints, and "A Gap" (between the center and guard) runs that resulted in a career-best 134 yards (on 17 carries) and a touchdown.
One pleasant aspect of Allen's game is his consistency hitting the hole at full speed...yet he's often tripped up by arm tackles once through the hole. He shows good quickness but questionable balance/shiftiness and good speed to the outside but has rarely received the "extra" block that allows an opportunity for more yardage.
He looked to be a quick back with excellent vision early in the second half at North Carolina, but was often stopped in one-on-one situations later in the season vs. Pittsburgh.
If you've followed the Irish over the last two seasons you know that objective analysis of the running backs probably isn't fair - there are simply too many factors (at least five, in fact) that have had an affect on the level of production of both Allen and Hughes as well as James Aldridge. Further clouding Allen's two-year assessment is a broken lower leg suffered prior to his senior season in high school (2006)...a bit of an issue for a 'back who built his game on speed and quickness.
Entering 2009 we can assume Allen is fully recovered. We can assume a new offensive line coach will find a way to consistently give the Irish running backs room to operate. And we can assume a young group of receivers has graduated from unwilling and/or ineffective downfield blockers to a veteran bunch who finally understand that assignment to be as important as any pass route.
Its safe to assume the 2009 season will show the best Armando Allen has to offer and more space in which to operate. What he does with that open space is up to him.
Allen's Best Moments of 2008:
- Purdue: After his first five rushing attempts resulted in 19 yards, Allen's next 12 carries yielded 115 yards and a touchdown. Allen was involved in seven of ND's first nine plays in 2nd half (the other two were incomplete passes). He gained 8, 21, 16 (a rushing TD), 21, 9 (reception), 6, and 21 yards in that span. The Irish scored 14 points in those two possessions to take a 28-7 lead. The right side (behind G Chris Stewart and T Sam Young, along with the best blocking effort of the season from TE Kyle Rudolph) proved to be Allen's chief mode of transport vs. the Boilermakers.
- Stanford: Though Allen received just 9 carries (for 33 yards) one week after the best performance of his career, he was nonetheless a key factor in the passing game, catching seven passes for 66 yards including a swing pass for 20 yards and a square-out (from the backfield) for a 21-yard TD in which he simply beat the MLB one-on-one. Allen added a three-yard score on 2nd and goal to give the Irish a 14-7 lead.
- UNC: Working out of a solo-backfield early in the 2nd Quarter, Allen touched the ball on five out of six plays resulting in gains of 4, 5, 16, 14, and 11 yards to set up a field goal. He later added a reception on an initially well-executed screen pass, gaining 14 yards on 2nd and 6, though as usual, there was no "extra block" to allow Allen a chance in the open field.
- Hawaii: Allen had three chances to showcase his open-field ability as the Irish put the game away in the third quarter. Allen hit Hawaii with consecutive receptions for 41 and 18 yards; the latter resulting in a touchdown and 35-7 lead. He then broke the program's six-season kick return scoring drought with a 96-yard return for a touchdown late in the third quarter.
Allen's Moments to Forget in 2008:
- Syracuse: Though the offensive line did him no favors, the nation's 101st ranked rush defense controlled Allen, holding him to 52 yards on 17 carries – the longest, a nine-yard gain midway through the third quarter, and three inconsequential receptions (the Irish punted after each) for 13 yards.
- Final Eight Games: After scoring three touchdowns vs. Purdue and Stanford, Allen scored just one touchdown in team's final eight regular season games, an 11-yard run vs. Navy.
Allen's 2008 Rushing Breakdown:
- 1st Down: 72 carries for 302 yards (and a touchdown)
- 2nd Down: 50 carries for 253 yards (and two touchdowns) - 14 of Allen's 16 carries on 2nd and short-yardage resulted in an Irish first down.
- 3rd Down: 10 carries for 27 yards (no first downs – though only four of those carries were 3rd and short-yardage opportunities) <.li>
- 4th Down: 2 carries for 3 yards (one first down)