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Football: Aldridge, Hughes lead ground game

Michael Bryan | Monday, September 24, 2007

Running back Travis Thomas burst around left end and freshman Robert Hughes pounded the ball up the gut to score Notre Dame’s first offensive touchdowns of the year and give the Irish one bright spot in an otherwise lopsided 31-14 loss.

The Irish entered the game against the Spartans with a running game that was nonexistent, churning up a grand total of -14 yards in its first three games. While yardage lost on sacks was partially responsible for the grisly numbers, so was Notre Dame’s inability to run behind a porous offensive line.

“We went into this game saying regardless of what was going to happen in this game, we were going to try to run the ball and run the ball with some power,” Irish coach Charlie Weis said.

The power running game led the Irish offense into the end zone for the first time this season in the opening quarter, capitalizing on an early Michigan State fumble. Freshman Robert Hughes took the first carry eight yards on second and goal before being tackled just short of the goal line. One play later senior captain Travis Thomas bounced his only carry of the day around the left end to put six on the scoreboard early.

Sophomore James Aldridge received his first career start and piled up a career high 104 yards on 18 carries as his combination of speed and power tore though the Michigan State defense.

Aldridge said he knew he would see the ball more against Michigan State and capitalized on the situation.

“I tried my best to respond,” Aldridge said. “Coach calls my number, that’s when I go in. I got my number called today, and I did my best to take advantage of it.”

The running game also powered the second Irish touchdown, accounting for most of the yardage on the 5-play, 80-yard drive in the second quarter. After freshman Jimmy Clausen completed a 14-yard pass to sophomore George West, Aldridge broke through the Spartan secondary with a 43-yard run.

Hughes followed up the run with another big gain, rumbling 17 yards around the left side before being pushed out of bounds at the Michigan State six. Aldridge powered ahead once again with a three-yard carry on first and goal, and Hughes finished off the drive with his first career touchdown from three yards out.

After seeing playing time but not receiving any carries in the first three games, Hughes emerged as a tough inside runner against the Spartans. The freshman rushed six times for 33 yards.

“I wanted to get [Hughes] into the mix, he brings an even bigger body than [Aldridge],” Weis said. “If you’re going to try and play a slug-it-out mentality, you better have a couple of big bruising bodies who can handle that.”

Aldridge and the running game still provided a spark in the second half. Aldridge took toss plays for gains of 14 and 18 yards and first downs in the third quarter before a 17-point deficit forced Notre Dame to switch its focus to the passing game.

Weis said he was encouraged by the production of the running game behind an improved but still shaky offensive line.

“If I wanted to pick one bright spot, that definitely would have been the play of the running backs in the game,” he said.

Freshman Armando Allen also had a positive impact in his short stints of playing time, rushing three times for 14 yards and catching a pass for a five-yard gain.

While Notre Dame had its best game running the ball so far this season, Aldridge said there is still room for improvement.

“It’s good to have a good game, but it’s not good enough,” Aldridge said. “We’ve got to do more, so we’re going to go back to practice tomorrow and hopefully get better, plugging away.”