Throughout the first half of the 2009 season, Notre Dame Head coach Charlie Weis has marched an explosive and threatening offense onto the field each Saturday. While the Fighting Irish defense has been struggling all year long, the Domers offense, led by quarterback Jimmy Clausen, has been mostly cool and efficient.
But, there still is much room for improvement and the continued success of the Irish offense depends on the team getting back to its roots and running the ball.
It is true that Notre Dame was one of the first programs to utilize the forward pass and the school has produced numerous college legends at quarterback including: Frank Carideo, Angelo Bertelli, Johnny Lujack, Paul Hornung, Daryle Lamonica, John Huarte, Joe Theisman, Joe Montana, Steve Beurlein, Tony Rice and Brady Quinn.
However, for over a century of football in South Bend the running game was the most important weapon to the team's success on offense. And today, with a high flying aerial attack in place, Notre Dame would do well to also commit to running the ball as best as they can.
During Charlie Weis' first two seasons at Notre Dame, the team scored a school record shattering 843 points, posting nearly 34 points per game. While many will remember the arm of Brady Quinn as the force behind this offense, let us not forget that the 2005 and 2006 teams boasted a strong and versatile running game.
In 2005, tailback Darius Walker ran for 1,196 yards and nine touchdowns, while the following year he gained 1,267 yards and seven touchdowns. To go along with the very respectable 4.85 yards per carry average, Walker also caught 99 balls for 742 yards with another three touchdowns.
While many fans were never enamored with Walker at running back, myself included, it is clear now in hindsight that he was able to put up tremendous numbers, became an integral part of the offense, and will forever be one of the more underrated players in Irish history.
Which leads us to 2009 and the current state of the Irish running game. It is absolutely crucial that Charlie Weis develops the current talent at running back over the next six games, and into next season, in order to ensure long term success on offense.
Partly because of the previous regimes coaching and partly because of his heavy reliance on Darius Walker as the exclusive running back, Weis was left with a set of far too inexperienced tailbacks during the 2007 season at a time when he needed a strong ground game more than anything else.
During that disastrous 2007 season, Notre Dame started an inexperienced sophomore James Aldridge tailback while rotating true freshmen Armando Allen and Robert Hughes. This trio struggled mightily all year long and when you tally up the sack yardage, the team only rushed for 903 yards at 2.1 yards per carry.
To put that in perspective, Notre Dame has already rushed for that many yards through seven games this season.
Thanks to a strong recruiting effort by Charlie Weis, this lack of experience may never occur again anytime soon. But it is paramount that Weis quickly develops his growing stable of running backs so that Notre Dame can be even more dominant on offense in the future.
Clearly the go-to guy right now is junior Armando Allen who has rushed for 514 yards but has been banged up for the majority of the season. When he is healthy, Allen brings a Walker-like game to the Irish offense and is the team’s best weapon right now not named Golden.
The questions arise as to who will continue to back up Allen and which players will step up and assert themselves as the No. 1 runner in the future.
Junior power runner Robert Hughes has been filling in behind Allen and has gained 180 yards on only 40 carries to go along with three touchdowns. Bringing up the rear, sophomore Jonas Gray has picked up 98 yards on 26 carries and true freshman Theo Riddick has chipped in 43 yards on only seven attempts.
Everyone knows Charlie Weis is going to stay with a pass-first offense, but in order to reach the offensive output of the 2005 and 2006 teams, Notre Dame will need a healthy and effective Allen or one of the younger backs to provide excellent back-up carries.
Notice how I didn’t include the veteran Robert Hughes in that scenario? I hate to continue beating this drum, but I don’t think Hughes has much to offer in the form of a running back at Notre Dame. Yes, he’s got pretty good speed and agility for his size, but overall he doesn’t have anywhere near the speed of Allen, Gray, or Riddick.
What’s more, Hughes isn’t much of a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield and that is another slight that can’t be ignored. That’s not to say that Hughes can’t come in and run hard from time to time, because he certainly has this year against Purdue and Washington, but he’s clearly less talented than the other backs waiting to carry the ball for the Irish.
If I am Charlie Weis, I make it a priority over the next two games to give Jonas Gray and Theo Riddick significant amounts of carries whenever possible. This will give Notre Dame two more speedy running backs to utilize in their tough games to close out the season and perhaps more importantly, give the team a lot more confidence in the ground attack heading into 2010.
I don’t believe Weis is doing the team any favors if he continues to give the ball to Hughes whenever Allen is tired or banged up. Even worse, if Notre Dame is sporting healthy leads against Washington State and Navy, Gray and Riddick have to be given the ball.
Clearly, the strength of the Notre Dame offense is the passing game led by Jimmy Clausen, Golden Tate and Kyle Rudolph. However, running the ball is so obviously important to the game of football and it has to be something the Fighting Irish can do effectively against anyone if they want to compete with the best.
This means that even if Notre Dame is breezing through their next two games, Weis shouldn’t just run the ball continuously like he did against Navy last year. But instead, he should keep a balanced offense that mixes up the play calling so that the fresh running backs can gain some confidence without eight men stacked in the box.
It also wouldn’t be a bad idea to develop backup quarterback Dayne Crist as well.