In news that has the potential to make a significant impact on the outcome of Notre Dame’s epic battle with the Oklahoma Sooners, sophomore Irish RB George Atkinson III won’t suit up in today’s game in Norman, Oklahoma.
Atkinson, who is suffering from the flu, didn’t even make the trip, meaning that his services will be completely void in the much-anticipated Week 9 clash.
The next obvious question regarding Atkinson and 7-0 Notre Dame is what will and can the Irish do without the talented young back in what is arguably the biggest game in recent program history.
Well, to answer this, it’s important first to get a clear picture of Atkinson’s place in the Irish offense. Before we delve into that, let’s set the stage by pointing out that Notre Dame’s offense is ranked No. 38 nationally in rushing yards vs. No. 98 in passing yards.
This is crucial because what we’re talking about here is a loss to an attack that wins games by running the ball more so that throwing it.
Coming into today, Atkinson is the Irish’s No. 3 rusher with 301 yards and four scores on 37 carries. Though the yardage or number of carries doesn’t touch that of the No. 1 back, Theo Riddick, Atkinson is the No. 2 scorer on Notre Dame’s roster in 2012.
Yes, the only guy who has scored more points for Notre Dame this season is kicker Kyle Brindza.
The other important component of Atkinson’s 2012 body of work comes via kickoff returns.
He leads the team with 155 yards on eight touches.
So now that we know who Atkinson is, who needs to step up in his place tonight versus Oklahoma?
The first obvious answer to this is the balance of Notre Dame’s backfield, which consists of No. 1 Theo Riddick (95 carries, 451 yards and three TDs), No. 2 Cierre Wood (65 carries, 393 yards and two TDs) and then the No. 4 rusher Cam McDaniel (20 carries, 114 yards and one score).
Each of these guys will need to step it up a couple of notches, especially in terms of finding the end zone, to cover for the ailing Atkinson.
Next, you’ve got the return duties to cover, a task that needs to be quantified by pointing out that the Irish rank No. 92 nationally in average kickoff return yardage.
This means that though the loss of Atkinson in this capacity isn’t a good thing, it’s unlikely that the game with Oklahoma will be won by virtue of long Irish kickoff returns.
As far as who will take over fielding kickoffs, the only other two guys who have served in the capacity in 2012 are Jarrett Grace (one return for 12 yards) and Cam McDaniel (one return for 25 yards).
If one of these two gentlemen can make good decisions and hold onto the ball, there should (barring any catastrophic mistakes) be no net effect due to Atkinson’s absence, at least as a returner.
At the end of the day, the Irish bid for a historic victory at Oklahoma will be adversely effected only if the Sooners defense manages to shut down all three of the other backs, and QB Everett Golson who is Notre Dame’s No. 5 rusher (81 yards and two scores on 42 carries).
And you could argue that if the Sooners completely squash Notre Dame’s rushing game tonight, given the remaining talent, it may not have mattered whether Atkinson made the trip or not.
The good news for the Irish is that Oklahoma’s defensive strengths and weaknesses actually match up favorably versus their offense.
It’s the Sooners’ No. 9-ranked pass defense verus the Irish’s No. 98-ranked passing offense, and then Oklahoma’s No. 46-ranked rushing defense versus a Notre Dame ground attack that ranks No. 38.