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Running game will be key

Pat Leonard | Thursday, October 7, 2004

Notre Dame had the ball on Michigan State’s three-yard line midway through the first quarter Sept. 18, and the Irish struggled to score.

On first and second down, Ryan Grant ran for one yard each. On third down, Rashon Powers-Neal made no gain. Brady Quinn faked a handoff on fourth down and ran – ball raised high – into the end zone for the touchdown.

But the message was clear: it took Notre Dame’s offense four tries to score from the three-yard line against a Spartan defense that surrenders 162.4 rushing yards per game.

“That’s something that we work on and we talk about and make a major focus for us. We have to complete drives,” Irish coach Tyrone Willingham said. “That is one of the big differences on good offensive teams, [and] that is not just about yardage.”

The Irish gained 536 total yards against Purdue on Saturday and finished with 16 points. But, more importantly, Notre Dame rushed for just 76 yards on 36 carries.

In its five games, Notre Dame has only won the three times it has rushed for over 100 yards. Establishing a solid running game is just as important as finishing drives, and on Saturday against the Boilermakers run defense, the offensive line never got a strong push.

“It’s that same old good and bad [on the offensive line],” Willingham said. “We’ve done some good things. To be able to throw the ball as many times as we did Saturday and produce the yardage that we produced, you have to have some good things in our protection. [But] you look at our run game, [and] we did not run the ball as well as we’d like to, [and] therefore, some things we did not finish and we didn’t complete.”

The line gave Quinn sufficient time on most of his passes, allowing the sophomore quarterback to complete 26-of-46 passes for 432 yards, a Notre Dame Stadium record. For most of the season, the offensive line has given Quinn time to throw in the pocket.

The offensive line lost only left tackle Jim Molinaro and oft-injured guard Sean Milligan to graduation after last season, when Notre Dame rushed for 4.0 yards per carry. This season, the starters – left tackle Ryan Harris, left guard Bob Morton, center John Sullivan, right guard Dan Stevenson and right tackle Mark LeVoir – entered the season more experienced and more familiar with one another. But a seven-sack, 76-rush yard performance against Purdue had coaches giving the Boilermaker’s defensive line credit for neutralizing the Irish at the line scrimmage.

“Some of it has to be the guy that you’re playing across from,” Willingham said. “Sometimes they do some good things that make it very difficult for you to do your best at certain areas.”

But Notre Dame has struggled rushing the ball against unlikely opponents. While the Irish gained 135 yards on the ground against a Michigan team that gives up 47.2 yards per game, Notre Dame rushed for a mere 11 yards facing a BYU defense that surrenders 113.2 yards per game.

When the Irish tried to rush the ball against Washington to run out clock in the second half of a blowout victory, the line could not get a push and Notre Dame had to punt. The Irish finished with 146 rush yards, while Washington has given up a much greater 227.2 yards per game over the course of the season.

Against Purdue, the Irish had no answer in the running game. Now, coaches must prepare the line to face a Stanford defensive front that gave up only 99 rush yards to USC in their last game. The front includes imposing 6-foot-2, 320-pound nose guard Babatunde Oshinowo, who has 11 tackles.

“Well, I don’t think it’s just him. I really think it’s their entire defense [that] is aggressive,” Willingham said. “They are doing a great job because the stat that you mentioned is quite impressive. I think they have had only one team in the four games that has had over 300 yards.”

The Irish know a solid running game is crucial to the team’s success.

“We think our chances are much better to have success if we have our ground game with us,” Willingham said. “But if not, if it’s not there, we have to find another way to be successful.”

There may not be another option. While Quinn picked apart Purdue’s secondary, Notre Dame is 0-7 in games which Quinn throws more than 40 passes.

“The only time that a team wins when it passes for a lot more than 300 yards is when two teams pass for 300 yards,” Willingham said. “Usually when you’re throwing the ball that much that many times, … it doesn’t mean that you win and we are aware of that. That’s why the run game – the addition of the run game – is so important to what we do.”