Following a 31-24 win at Purdue, the questions about who should get the bulk of the touches at the running back position for the Fighting Irish have been answered.
Despite the speed and shiftiness in space of Amir Carlisle and George Atkinson III, this Irish offense should be pushing Cam McDaniel to the front.
McDaniel, who totaled 56 yards on 16 carries against Purdue, is the downhill running back that Brian Kelly's offense needs. Tommy Rees again proved he can serve as a capable quarterback, and the presence of McDaniel late helped the Irish grab and retain the lead.
Both Atkinson and Carlisle are dangerous weapons out of the backfield. But for Notre Dame, the offense must have a consistent run threat between the tackles. Here is where McDaniel steps in. The junior lacks game-breaking speed, but with his north-and-south running style he rarely makes a negative play and, more importantly, he brings a toughness to the offense.
Through creating a consistent push on the ground and eliminating negative plays, Notre Dame is able to work its run game to its advantage. For the Irish offense, that means getting the offensive line to move bodies at the point of attack. For quarterback Tommy Rees, that means reaping the benefits of play action.
When McDaniel, a more physical runner, enters the game, the Irish line gets moving downhill. The line does a better job of putting hat on hat in the blocking game, reaching the second level and knowing that McDaniel is going to get upfield in a hurry behind the blocks. Notre Dame becomes a grittier offense, much like the one that balled up its fist on Saturday night to secure the win.
That toughness does not come at the sacrifice of the passing game.
In fact, because of the more physical style, the downfield passing lanes open. Purdue was forced to dedicate defenders to stopping the power attack, leaving receivers open on the edge, as evidenced by DaVaris Daniels' 82-yard score, which came against an eight-man front.
McDaniel will not be the home run hitter that Atkinson has shown himself to be at times, and that is all right—because right now he is the best option for the Irish to stabilize the ground game. Running the ball is not about spikes that go the distance; it is about being a steady performer who keeps moving the ball forward.
In McDaniel, the Irish have that player, and Kelly will likely use this workhorse. Not just to keep picking up positive yards on the ground, but to force teams to crowd the box and allow Rees to find receivers over the top.
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