Tommy Rees threw 34 passes in Notre Dame's 17-13 win over the Michigan State Spartans in South Bend. The 34 pass attempts were a symptom of the Fighting Irish's ground game, or more importantly, the lack thereof.
Notre Dame's four-headed committee at running back piled up just 84 yards on 29 carries, a whopping 2.9 yards per carry. More troubling than the yards per carry was the inability of the Irish to get reliable production out of the backs for the bulk of the game.
George Atkinson III again started the show for the Irish, getting six carries with mixed results. Amir Carlisle, the Irish's leading rusher entering the game, carried just three times for nine yards. Freshman Tarean Folston picked up another four carries; his role is starting to expand.
Yet again, Cam McDaniel did the heavy lifting for the Irish as Brian Kelly's club salted the game away with some tough running late.
The result, following the poor collective rushing effort, was Rees being tasked with carrying the load for the Irish. Rees responded by not throwing any interceptions but completing less than half of his passes. Yes, there were drops, but more important was the sheer volume of passing that the Irish had to do to win the game.
Notre Dame's running back woes, coming off a year where the run game was the focus, are troubling. Pinpointing the issue has not been easy as Kelly cycles running backs in and out of the game, looking for the spark to get the ground game going. Last week, it seemed that McDaniel might be the answer, but Kelly waited until late in the third to feed the junior the ball.
Instead of pounding McDaniel against a Michigan State team that was struggling moving the ball against the Irish defense, Kelly opted for the pass game. Notre Dame threw the ball long. It threw the ball short. It looked for intermediate passes and quick hitters.
Eight different players caught the football for the Irish on an off day for Rees, including two freshmen getting in on the action. It is clear that the Irish have weapons in the passing game; if Rees can hit his spots, his teammates have the ability to cause problems in the back end.
However, with no run game to balance the play-calling, the Irish are becoming quite one-dimensional: 51 passes against Michigan, 33 passes against Purdue and 34 passes against Michigan State. Too many tosses for Rees and the Fighting Irish.
Until the running game materializes in a consistent way for Notre Dame, Rees throwing 30 or more passes a game is going to be the norm.