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Losing the rushing battle hurts Irish

Justin Schuver | Monday, December 8, 2003

SYRACUSE, N.Y. – In a college football world filled with five-receiver sets, play-action roll-outs and spread offenses, Notre Dame’s game against Syracuse Saturday came down to one simple fact.The Irish couldn’t run against the Orangemen, and they couldn’t stop Syracuse’s run, either.”[Syracuse running back Walter] Reyes is a very good back,” Irish coach Tyrone Willingham said. “We knew they run the ball well. If you don’t put a hat on him, he’s not going down.”The Irish would have needed a haberdashery worth of hats to stop Reyes Saturday, however. The speedy Syracuse back rushed for five touchdowns and 189 yards against an Irish defense that came into the Carrier Dome allowing an average of only 116.3 yards on the ground a game.Although Reyes has talent – he led the nation in rushing for several weeks earlier in the season – Syracuse’s success running the ball was just as much a product of poor execution by the Irish defense.”[Reyes is] pretty good,” senior linebacker Courtney Watson said. “He showed up today and we didn’t make it too hard on him. He had some big holes and nobody was there to get in his way.”We could have stepped up at key times and we didn’t. That’s a microcosm of our entire season.”Not only could Notre Dame not stop Reyes, but they couldn’t get their own talented rusher to punish the Syracuse defense, either. Running back Julius Jones, who came into Saturday with 600 yards rushing in Notre Dame’s previous three wins, was held to just 54 yards on 20 carries.”That’s not the way you want to go out,” Jones said. “It was just a bad day for us, didn’t come out the way we were capable of.”The Orangemen simply dominated in the trenches, routinely pushing Irish offensive linemen several yards into the backfield to leave Jones and the other Irish backs nowhere to run.”It really doesn’t surprise me that [Notre Dame] wasn’t able to run the ball consistently – not with the kids we’ve got on the front line,” Syracuse coach Paul Pasqualoni said.Syracuse defensive tackle Christian Ferrara was a thorn in Notre Dame’s side all day long, breaking into the backfield and blowing up running plays before they had a chance to develop. Ferrara alone had five tackles resulting in a loss, and the Orangemen collectively had 12 such tackles.Without a dominating ground game, the Irish offense returned to its anemic performances of earlier in the season, totaling only 261 yards of total offense and just 12 points. Notre Dame could only collect 62 yards on the ground, the fourth time this season the Irish failed to rush for 100 yards or more as a team.Those previous three times were all losses.”They were very aggressive on defense and just wouldn’t let us get a running game going,” Willingham said. “The fact that we couldn’t run the ball didn’t allow us to have much of a passing game and we couldn’t get anything going [offensively].”Even without a rushing game, the Irish could have still perhaps remained competitive had they been able to stop Syracuse’s Reyes, who keys an attack similar to the offense used by the Irish – run as much as you can and pass only when needed. Syracuse quarterback R.J. Anderson struggled when he had to throw, making three interceptions and missing several open receivers. Anderson’s miscues ultimately did not matter though, because of Reyes’ dominance. Nowhere was this more evident than in Reyes’ 71-yard run just 11 seconds after a Notre Dame touchdown. He squirted through the line, shifted past the linebackers, and then outran safety Quinton Burrell to the end zone.”He was probably the fastest back we’ve seen all year,” Irish cornerback Dwight Ellick said. “Not the strongest back and not a power back, just more of an out-run-you type of back. He sees the seam and hits it quick.”