The Notre Dame Fighting Irish will square off against the Oklahoma Sooners on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET on NBC) in a pivotal non-conference game for both teams.
Against the Sooners, Notre Dame must re-establish its rushing attack if it hopes to pull off the upset in front of what should be a raucous home crowd.
Bob Stoops' team is currently 3-0 but flying under-the-radar a bit after getting inconsistent quarterback play in the first few weeks of the season.
Notre Dame has had a bit of a topsy-turvy ride, having displayed the talent it takes to make it back to a BCS bowl at times while also playing mistake-prone football at some point in each of the team's first four games.
A loss to Michigan wasn't a back-breaker, but sluggish victories against Purdue and Michigan State haven't instilled much confidence since then.
We know that Tommy Rees can sling it around to his receivers and get big-yardage plays throughout the game, but in order to consistently move the ball, the run game will have to step it up.
The Irish are averaging just 113 yards per game on the ground. Against the Wolverines, Brian Kelly's team managed just 96 rushing yards, although the backs did average over five yards per attempt.
The coach acknowledged the issue in this preview by Jeff Bartl of the Associated Press, saying "I think in the run game, we need to continue to evolve. We're getting so many different looks where at times we have to be able to identify different backers, who to work to."
The problem with the lack of a run game is that it allows the defense to better predict what's going to happen, and consequently, Rees tossed his only two picks of the season against Brady Hoke's club.
It's not a matter of talent, either, because both Amir Carlisle and George Atkinson III have shown the ability to gain tough yards. Atkinson, in particular, is dangerous because of his ability to make plays as a receiver out of the backfield. Cam McDaniel has also shown flashes of talent.
But if the Irish are unable to run the ball, putting points on the board will be a tall order.
Oklahoma is allowing just nine points per game thus far, and has taken advantage of two teams who were unable to run the ball.
Tulsa gained just 95 yards on the ground, and Louisiana-Monroe had only 38.
West Virginia managed to rush for 169 yards, however, and the total came on 24 carries for an average of seven yards per rush.
So it's not that the Sooners have a stonewall front seven, it's that opponents who can run the ball must stick with it. Obviously, Notre Dame is going to butter its bread by throwing the ball, but without a consistent ground game, the Irish will fall into the same trap that the Sooners' first three opponents fell into.
Rees has faced great defenses and knows how to win tough games. But even the best quarterbacks become bogged down by the lack of a ground game.
In the win over Michigan State, Kelly's team gained 78 yards on the ground. Against Purdue the week before, that total was 91.
The only reason Notre Dame is even averaging 113 yards per game (which ranks 100th in the nation, by the way) is because of the 188 it had against Temple in Week 1.
Against Oklahoma, the threat of a run game will do wonders for an offense that struggled mightily last week.
Bartl's piece also quotes Stoops, who is well-aware of the strength of Notre Dame's offense.
"They're going to put it up in every game a good number of times," Stoops said. "(Rees) throws an excellent ball, and they have confidence in their receivers going up and getting it. That's definitely something we're aware of and something we need to be able to defend."
It will help Rees out because the defense will be forced to remain aware of the run game instead of just sitting back and forcing the quarterback to make throws into tight windows
Offensive balance may be overrated at times, but look at teams like Alabama and Oregon. The Crimson Tide have a bevy of receivers to go along with a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback in AJ McCarron, but they also run the ball well with T.J. Yeldon. The Ducks still like to run the ball a ton, but quarterback Marcus Mariota has the passing attack in high gear.
Even Baylor, who leads the nation in scoring at nearly 70 yards per game, ranks in the Top 10 in both passing and rushing yards per game. The competition they faced played a factor, but the point is that offensive balance is a must in order to be elite.
Lastly, a strong ground game will help control the clock and keep the ball out of Blake Bell's hands. It remains to be seen whether the junior will pick up where he left off against Tulsa, but anytime you can maintain possession and allow your defense to stay fresh, it works to your advantage.
If the Irish are unable to generate yards on the ground, Rees will have a much tougher time tossing the ball around and subsequently, the Sooners will generate turnovers and potentially pull away for the victory.
Atkinson, Carlisle and McDaniel must combine to have their best game of the season, because a strong rushing attack to go along with an already high-flying passing offense is the only way to a victory on Saturday.
All stats via ESPN
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