And the highlights of 2008 are admittedly enjoyable to watch: Golden Tate and/or Michael Floyd cutting up defenses; Kyle Rudolph offering a glimpse of his next three seasons running down the open seams of the defense; Clausen playing his best football as the season came to a close – and putting an official end to the program's odd and embarrassing bowl losing streak in the process.
The four-year project to upgrade the speed and talent-level of the secondary should yield the best DB unit since at least the 2002 group. There's also a comfortable mix of veterans and youth in a suddenly athletic linebacker corps. 2009 likewise marks a new era along the defensive front (just two graduating seniors among the defensive line's expected contributors) with two new starters and three-to-four new players in the rotation as well as the expected and continued evolution of promising sophomore DL Ethan Johnson.
The coverage units should rank anywhere from solid to (again) top tier nationally while Notre Dame's last kick-off return of the 2008 season marked the first that ended in an opponent's end zone since early 2002.
It's reasonable to assume the Notre Dame offense will have success attacking most teams on its schedule through the air. And it's understandable to approach each season, each week of practice, and each game day as a pass-first team when opposing defensive schemes and your own roster's offensive personnel dictate that approach. The 2009 Irish are a team (re)built for speed and 13 opponents will have to contend with an aerial assault from Weis, Clausen and Co. this fall.
But the absence of a consistent running game could again preclude the Irish from reaching their goals in 2009.
Paging Lee Becton
In 1993, Irish junior running back Lee Becton followed Lombardi Award-winning left tackle Aaron Taylor; second-team All-American center Tim Ruddy; honorable mention All-American right tackle Todd Norman; and future third-team All-American (1995) guard Ryan Leahy to a team record seven consecutive games with at least 100 rushing yards.
Since the beginning of the 2007 season, the Notre Dame offense has failed to reach 100 total rushing yards as a team in 15 of its 25 games.
The team's record in those 15 games stands at 2-13 with wins over Stanford (83 yards) and Hawaii (65 yards) last season. Conversely, the Irish have won 7 of the 10 contests over the last 25 games in which the team topped the 100-yard mark. The three exceptions:
- Michigan State (2007): The Irish established the run early behind James Aldridge (104 yards on 18 carries) but were nonetheless out-gained on the ground 219 yards to 117.
- Navy (2007): Out-gained 257 rushing yards to 253 in the triple-overtime loss.
- Pittsburgh (2008): The lone loss when the team ran for more than 100 yards in 2008 was this four-overtime frustration with the Panthers out-gaining the Irish 178 to 115 on the ground. The Irish surpassed the 100-yard mark after regulation had ended.
2008 Irish Rushing Advantages and a 5-0 W/L Record
Over the last two seasons, Notre Dame has out-rushed its opponent in just six of the team's 25 total contests. The Irish are 6-0 in that span including the 2007 home finale vs. Duke in which the Irish out-gained the Blue Devils 220 to 94 on the ground. 2008 rushing advantages were as follows:
- San Diego State: ND held a 105 (3.1 yards-per-carry) to 71 (4.7 yards-per-carry) advantage on the ground.
- Purdue: The Irish battered the Boilers with 201 rushing yards to Purdue's 103, though Purdue average more than six yards per carry on the day.
- Washington: The Irish ran wild and buried the Huskies, holding a 252 to 26 rushing advantage.
- Navy: A 230 vs. 178 advantage vs. the Midshipmen's option attack.
- Hawaii: Notre Dame put up a mere 65 yards rushing on 34 carries. Hawaii countered with 19 runs for 32 meaningless yards.
2008 Irish Rushing Disadvantages and a 2-6 W/L Record:
- Michigan: Outrushed 159 to 113. The Irish won the turnover battle 6-2.
- Michigan State: The game story can be found in the 201 to 16 rushing yards advantage by the Spartans.
- Stanford: The Cardinal were successful on the ground, rushing for 161 yards to Notre Dame's 83, but Jimmy Clausen put up 347 through the air in the 28-21 Irish win.
- North Carolina: Neither team established a consistent ground attack but the Tar Heels held a 121 to 89 edge.
- Pittsburgh: LeSean McCoy accounted for 169 of the Panthers 178 yards (vs. ND's 115-yard team tally).
- Boston College: 167 to 66 as the Golden Eagles began to bleed the clock midway through the third quarter.
- Syracuse: A head-shaking 170 to 41 advantage for the Orange and their 101st ranked rushing defense.
- USC: A predictable 175-yard to 50-yard advantage for the Trojans and the nation's top rushing defense.
The Passing Game as a Crutch
During this same 25-game period (2007-08), Notre Dame has passed for more yards than its opponent in 15 separate matchups, but holds just a 5-10 record in those contests.
2008 Irish Passing Yardage Advantages: MSU (L); Stanford (W); UNC (L); Pittsburgh (L); Boston College (L), Navy (W), Syracuse (L), Hawaii (W)
2007 Irish Passing Advantages: Georgia Tech (L); Penn State (L); Purdue (L); Navy (L); Air Force (L); Duke (W); Stanford (W)
In other words, 383 yards through the air vs. North Carolina was nice…but it came at a heavy price.
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