Notre Dame is waiting for a run-game encore

Eric Hansen | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND

The conjecture that the Notre Dame running game’s best days are ahead of it pivots on the small window this season when its two most dynamic pieces were completely healthy and available.

If all goes right in practice this week, Saturday night could be the encore that last weekend’s 31-21 triumph at Northwestern didn’t have the chance to be. That’s when AP No. 3 Notre Dame (9-0) welcomes Florida State (4-5) to the artificial-turf version of frozen tundra.

Kickoff is 7:30 EST (NBC-TV) for the last game played at Notre Dame Stadium until — presumably — former coach Bob Davie brings his New Mexico Lobos to town next Sept. 14.

Current Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly revealed during his weekly Tuesday press conference that sophomore Jafar Armstrong’s benign four touches against the Wildcats were the byproduct of an ankle injury that the converted wide receiver suffered during ND’s 44-22 win over Navy on Oct. 27, then tweaked last week in practice.

“Never felt right,” Kelly said of the Northwestern game. “You could see it from his play. His play was not at the caliber of what it had been in the past. It hampered him in the game. He wasn’t as explosive. He knew it.”

Armstrong finished with 18 yards on four carries and zero receptions — the first time he’s had fewer than 10 touches in a game this season when he actually played. ND’s third-leading rusher (315 yards, 5.3 ypc, 6 TDs) and best power option missed a three-game stretch from late September to mid-October completely with a knee injury infection that required surgery.

“He’ll be better this week because of it,” Kelly said of the relative inactivity last Saturday night in Evanston, Ill.

With small doses of Armstrong in that game, leading rusher Dexter Williams (568 yards, 6.1 ypc, 8 TDs) — ND’s make-you-miss back — spent a lot more time than usual pounding between the tackles.

The bottom line was 121 yards on 40 carries as a team, with no sacks to skew the modest 3.0 average per carry. It’s the fourth game this season in which the Irish rushed for 3.0 yards a carry or less this season.

In two of them, the Irish were without Williams (Michigan and Ball State). The other (Pitt) Armstrong was out. The one game they were together this season, against Navy, ND ran for its second-highest total of the season (254) and second-highest average per carry (5.91).

“No doubt those two are great complements,” Kelly said of Williams/Armstrong.

The urgency in them showing it, and the offensive line shuffling to take hold as well, would be valuable in ND’s remaining three-game, regular-season stretch. But it’s an absolute necessity for the playoff if the Irish are going to be more than tourists if they get there.

Only one national champion since 2001 — 2016 Clemson — finished with a rush offense ranking nationally outside the top 40 (71st). and only two teams on the losing end of national championship games during that same time period did so.

The Irish are 53rd heading into the Florida State game.

Quarterback Ian Book’s nation’s-best completion percentage (.745) and sixth-best efficiency rating (170.0) have allowed the Irish to transcend some of the rushing woes two of the past three weeks when running was a problem, but the dynamic changes in the playoffs.

Here’s how ND’s three remaining regular-season opponents rank in rush defense and pass efficiency defense respectively:

• Florida State: 17 and 64.

• Syracuse: 71 and 51.

• USC: 59 and 56.

And here’s what the other three top playoff contenders look like:

• Alabama: 11 and 10.

• Clemson: 6 and 17.

• Michigan: 8 and 1.

The elite teams are good at stopping both the run and the pass. Very good. If Notre Dame is going to compete on that big stage, the Irish running game must take significant strides forward over the next three games and behind closed doors in December.

Notre Dame’s Jafar Armstrong (8) tries to get past Michigan’s Chase Winovich (15) during the Michigan at Notre Dame NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana.

WHO: No. 3 AP/No. 4 CFP Notre Dame (9-0) vs. Florida State (4-5)

WHEN: Saturday, 7:30 (EST)

WHERE: Notre Dame Stadium

TV: NBC

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), WNSN (101.5 FM)

LINE: Notre Dame by 17 1/2