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Rushing to form an identity

Pat Leonard | Monday, September 13, 2004

In the 32nd meeting of these two rivals, Notre Dame and Michigan played a game of decisions.Brady Quinn’s second decision was intercepted and led to three Wolverine points.Michigan freshman Chad Henne decided to throw passes short of the first down marker that ended otherwise strong drives.Notre Dame decided to go for fourth-and-goal and didn’t score.Michigan decided to run the ball on third-and-goal and settled for a field goal.And then Notre Dame – anchored by an inspired defense – decided how they would win. They would run the football, and Darius Walker would be their workhorse.”He has that ability to make a guy miss in the open field,” offensive coordinator Bill Diedrick said. Walker made the Michigan defense miss often on his 31 carries, and the axiom preached throughout this program’s history returned.Notre Dame football wins when Notre Dame football runs.Julius Jones put the Irish on his back last season, but a freshman quarterback and a team struggling for identity often could not capitalize. But somewhere late Saturday afternoon, Jerome Bettis, Reggie Brooks, Autry Denson and Jones were all smiling.Walker gained 115 yards of Notre Dame’s 135 rushing yards. Michigan had only 56 yards on the ground.In the three meetings between Michigan and Tyrone Willingham’s Irish, the team that has run the ball better has won the game. Willingham is 2-1.Walker’s 31 carries should remind every player, coach and fan of what happened last season. Cincinnati Bengals first-round pick Chris Perry carried 31 times for 133 yards and four touchdowns. Michigan finished with 188 total yards on 54 carries. Notre Dame ran the ball 25 times for 49 yards. The Michigan starting offensive line jogged off the field to a standing ovation towards the end of the third quarter. The game ended an embarrassing 38-0. But the season before, in perhaps the most important victory for Willingham at Notre Dame until the upset of No. 8 Michigan Saturday, the Irish beat a ranked 2002 Michigan team 25-23. Notre Dame ran for 157 yards, Michigan, 91 yards.The Irish achieved the same victory this Saturday.And it all came after a season-opening game in which neither the offensive line nor the running backs seemed to make forward progress. Coaches played tailbacks Travis Thomas, Marcus Wilson and Jeff Jenkins in Provo, Utah, only two of whom saw the field against Michigan. Walker traveled to BYU, but he did not play.Then the Michigan game began and the initial game plan did not seem to call for 40 carries. Coaches took Walker out of the game for the denied fourth-and-goal attempt, though he scored a Georgia record 46 touchdowns as a high school senior.But then the carries began to increase. The defense held Michigan to field goals, and a solid defensive effort combined with a dominant running game to instill the key ingredients of Notre Dame football.The much-scrutinized offensive line decided it was time. Darius Walker decided being a freshman meant nothing. And Notre Dame won the rushing battle, with Walker acting as Willingham’s “spark”.Michigan coach Lloyd Carr fixed his comments on the most important reason for his team’s struggles.”We didn’t run the ball well last week, we certainly did not run it very well today, and until you can run the football, you’re going to have a hard time,” Carr said.Twenty-two carries for 11 yards against BYU in their first game? The Irish would call that a hard time.Forty carries for 135 yards? Notre Dame may call that the beginning of a new identity.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. Contact Pat Leonard at pleonard@nd.edu.