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Notre Dame downplays rushing troubles

Kate Gales | Friday, September 22, 2006

There’s more to a game than statistics.

Even so, the Notre Dame will have to generate a more potent rushing threat than the four yards they gained against Michigan last Saturday.

“Of course it was a hard time for us and a tough game that we went through,” Irish running back Darius Walker said. “I definitely think we can rally back and be good.”

After running for 138 yards against Georgia Tech and 110 against Penn State, the Irish could not establish any sort of a ground game against Michigan. Part of that may have been the Wolverines’ early lead, and part of it may have been the strong Michigan defense. Either way, Notre Dame doesn’t think it can afford a similar performance against Michigan State Saturday.

Toeing the company line, the Irish say they are worried about fundamentals – not what outsiders are saying about rushing yards last week.

“The opinions and the statistics I care about are the ones that are presented to me via Coach Weis, Coach Latina, and from the [players],” Notre Dame center Bob Morton said. “Outside of that … as far as statistics go, I could really care less.”

Walker, whose 25 yards made him the only player with positive net rushing yardage against Michigan, isn’t discouraged either. The junior has rushed for over 2,000 yards in his career with the Irish.

“I can speak for myself and say that my confidence definitely isn’t damaged,” he said. “I definitely want to go into this next game and play.”

His ability to block and catch passes out of the backfield has been a huge asset in Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis’ offensive scheme. He has 18 receptions for 125 yards this season to go with the yards he generates on the ground.

But the running game is where Walker is a leader, and he is prepared to return to a level he knows Notre Dame is capable of playing.

“We’ve got to stay focused,” he said. “We’ve got to work hard and understand blocking schemes and make sure we know who we’re blocking. That’s always something in the running game that can be difficult, because defenses like to jump around and juggle players in and out of fronts and whatnot.”

Basics have also been a focus of the offensive line, Morton said.

“It’s just a matter of practicing low pad level and working cohesively as a unit and that’s what you really strive to do every single day, make sure that the hips stay loose,” Morton said. “[We practice] helmet to helmet, what we call face-mask to face-mask, [to get] proper leverage.”

Protecting the quarterback and opening holes for the running backs are important jobs of the offensive line, Morton said. The two work together to create a balanced offense – usually a hallmark of Weis’ schemes.

“It’s important to have a balance,” Walker said. “A balanced offense always keeps a defense off-balance and you never really know what to expect whether you’re going to run the ball or pass the ball so it’s definitely something that we can do.”

As a veteran running back on a veteran offense, Walker understands that even if the Irish are trailing, every play doesn’t have to be an 80-yard dash. Although Notre Dame’s deficit in the Michigan game changed the scheme slightly, panic can set in, and Walker knows the danger of that.

“You can fall into trouble thinking that you have to have it all in one play, and I think that’s where experience and stuff comes in,” Walker said. “You understand that football is still played play by play and you still have to do the necessary things to try to get another yard on the ball.”

Walker, the line and the rest of the running backs want to work together to make the rushing game more successful against a Michigan State defense that may be more susceptible to the run.

But after the game, Walker won’t be checking the box scores. He’ll just be looking at the scoreboard.

“I don’t really get into the whole statistical thing too much,” Walker said. “We’re definitely just trying to focus on this next one that we’ve got to do.”