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Football: Balanced offense finds identity

Bob Griffin | Monday, October 2, 2006

Notre Dame spent four weeks of the 2006 season searching for the balance on offense it left somewhere in Palo Alto, Calif. last year. Well, the Irish found it Saturday – and in doing so, reminded the country why they were considered such a juggernaut heading into the season.

For the second straight year, Notre Dame clicked on all cylinders against an overmatched Purdue team. This was the performance Irish fans have been waiting for after four weeks of searching for an identity.

The passing game was precise (Quinn was 29-of-38 for 316 yards and two touchdowns), the receivers were in sync with their quarterback (McKnight had 10 catches for 120 yards), and the offensive line got great push against the Boilermakers defensive line.

And then, of course, there was Darius Walker.

Walker might have had his best game in a Notre Dame uniform given the circumstances. The Irish needed to establish a consistent running game after a three-week stretch in which they gained a total of 161 yards on the ground – something Walker seemed to take personally given his first half performance.

Walker touched the ball on Notre Dame’s first six plays from scrimmage and finished with 31 carries for 146 yards and a touchdown. He also had nine catches for 73 yards, and was on pace for over 300 total yards at halftime.

When a team runs the ball, it controls the clock. And when it controls the clock, and subsequently the momentum, it’s easier to win the game. That’s why Notre Dame getting 40 carries for the first time this season was so meaningful.

With Walker dictating the pace, Quinn was able to settle into his most efficient performance of the season. Quinn looked comfortable right from the beginning, and the first-half communication problems that hampered the Irish quarterback and his receivers at Michigan State were absent.

Granted, Quinn was picking apart an inexperienced secondary that was overmatched by McKnight’s simultaneous strength in running hitch routes and going up for deep balls. But with the accuracy he was delivering the football, many polished secondaries would have encountered similar problems.

What’s more, Notre Dame’s offense compensated for defensive problems that plagued the team throughout the game. The Irish gave up 498 yards of total offense and allowed Purdue receiver Selwyn Lymon to go for 238 yards and two touchdowns.

Charlie Weis and Rick Minter will look at this tape knowing that 398 yards passing from an inexperienced quarterback (Saturday was Curtis Painter’s 10th career start) is a concern. Notre Dame needs to find a way to put more consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks so they have less time to run through their progressions.

The Irish will likely address this in practice this week before it begins a two-game stretch against the pass friendly Pac-10 conference.

But the most important thing to emerge from Saturday was this sense of offensive consistency and balance. Notre Dame’s defense is still a work in progress, but given the team’s upcoming schedule, it has plenty of time to work out its kinks.

And the offense will have ample time to build upon Saturday’s progress.

Over the next seven weeks, Notre Dame plays Stanford, UCLA, Navy, North Carolina, Air Force and Army – not exactly a murderers row of talent. The six teams are a combined 12-14.

What happens in these six games should make Notre Dame fans forget about its early season struggles.

Written off by many experts as the front-runner for the Heisman Trophy, Quinn will build on his 13 touchdowns quickly in this time. Thirty-five touchdowns in 11 games (an additional 22 in the following six) won’t be out of reach.

Jeff Samardzija – who has been limited to some extent this season – should get his reception totals up from the 27 he has so far this season.

And Walker, who looked slow and indecisive for three weeks leading up to Saturday, suddenly has put himself in position to have another 1,000-yard season. With weaker defenses than the Irish saw against Georgia Tech, Penn State and Michigan, Walker has the tough opponents behind him.

Why is all this important?

Because once this six-game stretch is over, Notre Dame will face its biggest challenge of the season – a trip to Southern California. The Trojans are getting better with each week, and using the momentum from their tight win at Washington State, they’ll likely roll through the rest of the Pac-10 season.

But Notre Dame, following its offensive execution against Purdue, could also enter the game with the same confidence that comes from eight straight victories. And if the Irish can muster the same type of balance it found Saturday, that game could get interesting.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Bob Griffin at rgriffi3@nd.edu