The Observer is a Student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame & Saint Mary's. Learn more about us.



Commentary: Time to make backfield adjustments

Bobby Griffin | Friday, September 29, 2006

When word got out freshman running back James Aldridge was preparing this week with the first-team offense – Notre Dame fans everywhere stopped, gathered their thoughts and breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Because on an offense where second and eights are more common than second and sixes – the difference of which can’t be emphasized enough – the highly touted, explosive freshman might be the solution.

He also might be the key to the rest of Notre Dame’s season.

This is not a knock on Darius Walker – his elusiveness, strength in pass protection and threat he poses on third down make him a highly valuable commodity for the 2006 Irish. But the secret on Brady Quinn is out. And so is the jury on Walker as an every down back for Notre Dame, when the opposition’s aim is to limit Quinn.

Charlie Weis will not admit that Walker is a concern. He has praised the junior throughout the short season. And it’s hard to argue against a guy with four Super Bowl rings and a 12-4 college record – especially when the player in question is third all time at Notre Dame in yards per game (81.8), behind Allen Pickett (89.9) and Autry Denson (89.8).

But let’s take a look at some first-quarter numbers in 2006.

So far this season, Weis has called a run on first down 11 times in the first quarter. For a team that stresses the need to create better second- and third-down opportunities, it’s difficult to ignore a glaring reality.

Of those 11 times, the Irish have gained just 25 yards (2.27 per carry). That means Notre Dame is pigeonholed on second down. On second and four, the play-calling possibilities are endless. On second and nine, there is added pressure to avoid a third and long – a situation the Irish have encountered on 6-of-10 first-quarter third downs this season.

These struggles gaining yards on the ground in the first quarter have yielded poor overall results. The Irish have scored only 10 first-quarter points this season – three against Penn State and seven against Michigan (on a 3-yard drive).

What’s more, Brady Quinn is 9-of-25 for 51 yards with one touchdown and one interception in the first quarter of the three games Notre Dame has trailed after 15 minutes. And how have Notre Dame’s opponents done in those situations? They are outscoring the Irish 47-0.

Notre Dame needs to find a way to gain more yards on first down – period. If the Irish can’t find a way to do this, they can forget about being a one-loss team heading into USC.

Without a balance between the run and pass, one that can only be achieved with a legitimate early down rushing threat, Notre Dame will continue to play from behind. And with the Irish offense one-dimensional, somebody will find a way to beat them – and it will be ugly.

Enter Aldridge.

It’s an undeniable fact the more explosive a running back is, the quicker he can hit the holes.

And while Walker excels on cutbacks, draws and screens, Notre Dame needs another option at running back that can be more reliable in creating better situations on second and third downs.

Sure, James Aldridge might not be the answer. He’s a true freshman with no college experience, and Weis would be putting a lot on his shoulders by expecting him to bear the responsibility of providing consistency in an offense that currently can’t spell the word.

But with Travis Thomas roaming the defensive side of the ball, Aldridge is the only current choice to relieve Walker in situations where the freshman’s size makes him a better fit.

The problem Notre Dame faces can’t be simply attributed to poor play from the offensive line. Yes, they have committed far too many penalties this season. But this is a group with four seniors and one highly regarded freshman. It’s tough to believe they totally forgot how to block.

Weis said in his press conference Tuesday he does not like coaching with a lack of balance on offense. He acknowledged the run-pass distribution can shift from game to game but also that it’s important to achieve a 50/50 breakdown over the course of the season.

Guess what? Through four games, Notre Dame has 269 plays from scrimmage – 159 pass plays compared to 110 run plays. Factor in the 25 carries from Quinn, most on scrambles, and the figure moves closer toward a 175-95 distribution.

Notre Dame has played from behind in three of its four games – that’s why it is passing more than it’s running. But this would be a moot point if the Irish had a rushing attack that allowed them to control the game from the beginning.

And if the Irish can’t get more than 2.7 yards on first downs running the football, it’s not going to happen.

So getting Aldridge involved Saturday against Purdue could be the best thing that happens to Notre Dame all season. Aldridge might be able to hit the holes Walker has danced behind and give Quinn and Weis a viable chance to get to second and four with a first-down run.

He could also allow Walker to be a bigger factor in sets where he does not have to pound the football. Imagine how dangerous Walker’s delays and screens could be when he and Aldridge are spelling each other.

And, if anything else, it will give Notre Dame a look at what it has for the next four years.

Weis said Tuesday he is not in the business of making friends if one player gives the team a better chance of winning. Well, if Aldridge has a breakout first game, the old ball coach will be forced to prove it.

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

Contact Bob Griffin at [email protected]