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Running to success

Joe Hettler | Monday, September 8, 2003

Heading into the fourth quarter of Saturday’s game against Washington State, Notre Dame running backs Ryan Grant and Julius Jones had a combined 14 carries and all of 32 yards.

By the end of overtime, that total was up to 28 carries and 170 yards – and an Irish victory.

The difference? The offensive line blocked better, while Jones and Grant used determination and grit to break tackles and make key cutbacks in the open field.

And that formula is the only way Notre Dame will have success this season.

They can’t throw the ball 29 times through three quarters like they did Saturday. Or give the ball to Jones four times before the fourth quarter begins. They can’t rely on the pass and then establish the run.

But that’s what the Irish did through most of the Washington State game. By the time the final 15 minutes arrived, Notre Dame was facing a 19-6 deficit and an ugly opening loss.

That’s when offensive coordinator Bill Diedrick showed why he had such great success with Stanford’s offense during his tenure there. Instead of panicking and trying to throw deep passes to secure a quick score, Diedrick began running the ball more – and it kept working.

Early in the fourth quarter, the Irish were down two scores with the ball on their own three. After gaining four yards on first down, Grant took a handoff, bowled into the line and broke free, then cut back to race 32 yards down the Irish sidelines. The play set up a Nicolas Setta field goal that got the Irish within 10 points.

On the ensuing Notre Dame possession, Jones broke an 18 yard run to set up the first touchdown of the season.

Notre Dame ran on all six plays of their next possession, with the end result of a Jones touchdown to give Notre Dame the lead.

The contrast between the play calling in the first three quarters and the pivotal fourth is drastic. During one drive in the second quarter, quarterback Carlyle Holiday dropped back to pass 10 times out of 14 plays. It seemed like he was throwing the ball two times to every Grant and Jones rush attempt.

Notre Dame can’t move the ball doing that. The Irish must establish the running game if they’re going to score points this season. With all their talent on offense, that should be very realistic.

Look at the backs, for example. Grant isn’t the flashiest of runners, but he’s coming off a 1,000 yard season and gained 98 yards Saturday. The biggest key for him will be his ability to cutback when the defense allows it.

Jones, besides having arms bigger than my legs, showed glimpses of greatness by ripping through tackles and finding holes in the defense where no hole existed.

Coach Tyrone Willingham’s eyes must have lit up with excitement during that fourth quarter when those guys ran up and down the field.

“I really think that 1-2 combination Julius Jones and Ryan Grant really gives us something to be proud of,” Willingham said.

Holiday said after the game how important the two backs are to the success of the offense.

“In the second half it showed that if you can run the ball, everything else opens up,” Holiday said. “For us to continue to have a successful season, we’re going to have to continue running the ball.

While Notre Dame may have gotten through this game despite the offense struggles during the first three quarters, next week’s opponent, Michigan, won’t let that happen.

If they can’t run effectively, the offense could have a lot more quarters like the first three Saturday.

But if they can get the backs more touches and run like they did in the fourth, the West Coast offense may find a home in the Midwest.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. Contact Joe Hettler at [email protected]