Notre Dame needs better ground game to move forward

South Bend Tribune

NEW YORK - That the aligning and snapping of the Notre Dame team photo at Yankee Stadium Friday afternoon took longer than the head coaches’ press conference that preceded it spoke volumes about the perceived lingering intrigue.

Irish head football coach Brian Kelly and Rutgers counterpart Kyle Flood were prodded for all of 15 minutes to try one more time to extract a big-picture meaning attached to the fifth-ever clash between the two schools, this one coming at the New Era Pinstripe Bowl Saturday at Yankee Stadium (Noon EST; ESPN).

The subsequent filibuster-esque sound bites figure to fall far short on the Irish football interest version of the Richter Scale compared to, say, the rumblings Friday that Crete, Ill., linebacker Nyles Morgan, a plug-and-play caliber prospect at an urgent position of need, is trending toward picking ND in eight days when he officially announces his decision.

The flurry of photo ops — on Wall Street, at the top of the Rockefeller Center, at the 9/11 Memorial and opening the best of the bowl swag, PlayStation 4s — have kept the teams from sliding into irrelevance this week in the nation’s largest and most competitive media market.

Pinstripe Bowl executive director Mark Holtzman even puffed Friday that the game could approach, if not reach, a sell-out, coaxed by a forecast of high temperatures near 50.

Make no mistake, this bowl experience to this point has been way more pomp than circumstance.

The one X-and-O morsel, though, that does really matter in 25th-ranked Notre Dame’s 33rd bowl appearance and first north of Memphis, Tenn., is ND’s 81st-ranked rushing offense against the Rutgers’ rushing defense, ranked fourth nationally.

“They play like their hair’s on fire,” offered Irish interim offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock.

There’s some mirage potential to Rutgers’ seemingly one statistical trump card in this matchup. The Scarlet Knights (6-6) faced only one top 64 FBS rush offense all season (Arkansas at No. 24) and squared off against three in the bottom 10 of the 123-team FBS.

Notre Dame (8-4), comparatively, has faced eight top 64 rush offenses, including five ranked higher than Arkansas.

That teams so easily shredded the Scarlet Knights’ pass defense (120th in pass yards allowed, 103rd in pass-efficiency defense) didn’t exactly prompt Rutgers’ opponents to want to solve the Knights’ run defensive scheme either.

The running theme doesn’t exactly knit with the 100-year anniversary of Gus Dorais and Knute Rockne shocking the college football world by transforming the forward pass from obscure gimmick into a legitimate offensive weapon 47 miles up the Hudson River at West Point against Army.

But for Notre Dame, it’s the one thread that tethers significantly into 2014 and the one that was arguably the most significant underachievement for a team in 2013 with both BCS aspirations and, arguably, BCS personnel, given that the ND’s sluggish rushing numbers had really little or nothing to do with injuries.

Until, potentially, now.

Former offensive line starters Chris Watt, Christian Lombard and Nick Martin are all sidelined for this game, the potential upside being that Kelly is getting a look at some players there who can help or even star in 2014.

Notre Dame already has faced six of the top 32 run defenses, including No. 1 Michigan State and No. 3 Stanford.

The fact that Rutgers employs chaos and movement over bulk heightens the matchup against the Irish offensive line newcomers.

“They do a really great job of trying to take away running lanes, creating confusion in your offensive blocking schemes, getting on edges of people and penetrating up the field,” Denbrock said.

“Overload you on one side of the formation or the other and try to catch you in a bad look. So it’s going to be really important that we’re on top of that. And fortunately during this season, one of the strengths is Tommy Rees being able to see things really well from the quarterback position. It doesn’t happen on every play, but most of the plays we run are run into the most advantageous look as they can be.”

The lingering unknown are the Irish running backs themselves, which started as a committee of five that Kelly was convinced he could mix and match to become an asset. Only freshman Taraen Folston’s late-season rise and junior Cam McDaniel’s surprising consistency and toughness have kept it from being a disaster.

McDaniel, the player many figured as the most likely to get the short end in the numbers game, instead ended up leading the Irish in both carries (135) and yards (625) during the regular season, and had the ball in his hands when the game mattered more than anyone else in the crowded stable.

“I think Cam McDaniel has really been able to be utilized for what his talents are.” Kelly said. “And we think he is a very instinctive runner, who probably has as good of instincts as we have at the running back position. Very intuitive. Can see things, and that’s why he’s found his niche at that position.”

All four running backs in the overcrowded rotation that finished the year with freshman Folston moving from fifth to first on the depth chart potentially return in 2014 and add in redshirted phenom Greg Bryant.

Junior George Atkinson started the season as the No. 1 option, but may be no better than No. 3 now and was suspended from Saturday;s Pinstripe Bowl for a violation of team rules. That he asked Kelly to get an evaluation from the NFL Draft Advisory Board adds another enigmatic twist as to where he may be headed.

Amir Carlisle, a USC transfer and another favorite to top the depth chart early on, garnered just two carries over the final four games.

However that group moves forward starting Saturday and moving into 2014, there’s universal agreement that Notre Dame will be playing on a small stage next bowl season if the 2013 running numbers are repeated.

“We have to be able to run the football to have an effective offense,” Kelly said.

And that means imposing one’s will to run on occasion, even when statistically it doesn’t appear prudent, like Saturday.

“Playing a highly rated run defense is always fun for me,” McDaniel said. “I think it’s fun for us as running backs in general. We kind of take pride in that, and it’s time to bow up and get the job done.

“So you have to be ready to be physical. You have to be ready to fight for every inch, and that’s the type of game that I love.”


•When the Notre Dame football team visited the 9/11 Memorial on Friday morning, they left behind four flags to honor the four ND alumni killed in the attacks. They were: Stephen N. Hyland, Jr. (1977) — Pentagon; Dora Marie Menchaca (‘77) — Flight 77; Francis Edward Grogan (‘51) — Flight 175; and Robert John Ferris (‘62) — South Tower.

•The Hawaii and Poinsettia bowls tried in earnest to pull the Irish away from the Pinstripe Bowl, which was always the path of least resistance. Taking a look at the announced attendance figures at each bowl tells you why.

The Hawaii Bowl matchup Tuesday night between Oregon State and Boise State in Honolulu drew 29,106 to 50,000-seat Aloha Stadium, while Northern Illinois and Utah State Thursday night in San Diego pulled in 23,108 — the lowest attendance figure in the nine-year history of that game.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly says Cam McDaniel "has as good of instincts as we have at the running back position." SBT photo/JAMES BROSHER