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Strong rushing attack highlights offense against Virginia

| Saturday, September 28, 2019

Last season, Dexter Williams ran for 995 yards and 12 touchdowns in nine games, providing a valuable dimension to the Notre Dame offense that opened up the passing game for then-junior quarterback Ian Book. This season, the Irish are feeling the loss of Williams to the NFL, seeing the rushing yards per game average drop from 183 to 153, due in part to a 46-yard rushing night at No. 3 Georgia.

However, things may be looking up in that department, as the Irish rushed for 178 yards and four scores against No. 18 Virginia. The Cavaliers feature a defense that came into the game giving up only 2.2 yards per carry (though that stat was skewed by their nation-leading 20 sacks prior to the matchup).

“We got off the ball, we were much more physical in the third and fourth quarter, what we want to be able to do is have that as part of our offense and it had been missing,” head coach Brian Kelly said. “So that has to be part of what we do.”

Part of the Irish struggles in the ground game are the injuries suffered by junior running back Jafar Armstrong and sophomore back Jahmir Smith, which limited Notre Dame’s rushing options to senior running back Tony Jones Jr. and a handful of less experienced players. As a result, the Irish passing attack has taken a hit.

Allison Thornton | The Observer
Irish junior running back Tony Jones Jr. stiff arms a defender during Notre Dame’s 35-17 home win over Virginia on Saturday.

The Irish are averaging 267 passing yards per game this season, up from 258 through the air per game in 2018. However, that increase is skewed by the fact that the Irish passing attack improved in 2018 once Book took over the reigns as starting quarterback, and over 100 yards passing this season came on touch passes against New Mexico that could just as easily have been handoffs.

After throwing for at least 200 yards in all but one game he started last season (160 vs Clemson), Book has failed to eclipse 200 yards passing against Louisville and Virginia this season.

Williams was far and away the team’s go-to rusher last season, with Jones Jr. second in yards with 392 and Armstrong second in touchdowns with seven. As a threat to rip off a big run, opposing defenses were forced to remain honest and respect the Irish run game, opening up opportunities for Book through the air. Without Williams or Armstrong, the defenses have focused on limiting Book and will likely continue to do so until shown they must adjust.

However, this could prove beneficial for the Irish in the long run. With Jones now forced into a more prominent role and younger players receiving more experience, their success would give defenses more to worry about once Armstrong returns. Kelly talked about the benefit of having more players run against Virginia.

“I’m not standing up here and telling you we have found ourselves offensively — we have not. We’re far from where we want to be. We have got a lot of things to sort out and figure out offensively, but what we did is we gave Tony Jones a break,” he said. “So he ran hard in the second half and in particular the third and fourth quarter. When we got [sophomore running back] C’Bo [Flemister and] Jahmir in there; it gave him a chance to run the way he can run. And he’s a hard runner.”

Jones rushed for a career-high 131 yards against Virginia, and a career-high three touchdowns. It marks the third game of Jones’ career and the second this season that he has recorded 100+ yards rushing. He said that he’s been preparing himself to handle this kind of responsibility.

“I feel on the top of the world, to be honest,” Jones said. “I feel good. I’ve been grinding hard, in the weight room hard, practicing hard, and it’s showing out on the field.”

On his final touchdown, which effectively sealed the win for the Irish by putting them up 35-17, Jones said he couldn’t help but take advantage of the opportunity when he saw a gap open for him.

“Coach wanted us to keep running the ball to slow down the game, but I saw the hole and thought, ‘This is the cherry on top,’” Jones said.

With Armstrong possibly returning against USC, Jones won’t have to bear as much of a burden for much longer. Still, now is the time where he and the other backs can assert themselves and force future opponents to expand their game plan. He says he realizes the importance of that aspect of the offense.

“All good teams have to lean on their run game once in a while, and it just showed today,” he said.

When the running game is at full strength, Jones said what he believes the team is capable of: “Anything.”

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About Hayden Adams

Hayden is the former sports editor of The Observer. When he's not working toward his four majors (physics and film, television & theatre) and three minors (journalism, ethics & democracy), you can probably find him hopelessly trying to save his beloved Zahm House from being wiped out. He plans to attend law school at a TBD location after graduation.

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